Play is a hugely important aspect of childhood. It facilitates the development of social and psychological skills; it feeds the imagination, creativity and confidence; it allows children to test boundaries and learn to assess risks in a safe way; and, not to mention, it’s fun. The ubiquitous public playground is intended to be a space dedicated to such activity. Yet how playful do many of these run-of-the-mill swing-slide-and-roundabout affairs really allow children to be? Indeed, in an age of public liability, some play specialists have even warned that playgrounds are becoming ‘too safe’, and that they stifle children’s natural curiosity.
Between 1947 and 1978, the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck created hundreds of public playgrounds in Amsterdam centred around a non-prescriptive, minimalist design that allowed for countless ‘action possibilities’ (ways of interacting with). This approach was intended to stimulate the creativity of the user (though later schools of thought have argued that messy structures and environments appeal more to the majority of playing children than the neat, aesthetically appealing nature of Eyck’s structuralist approach). Today, the majority of these playgrounds have been removed or are have become defunct or forgotten, yet they live on in architectural history as urban interventions that marked a shift from the top-down organisation of space by modern functionalist architects, towards a bottom-up architecture that literally aimed to give space for imagination.
Artist and educator Albert Potrony sets out to explore van Eyck’s ideas in a major exhibition that will transform one of the vast galleries at BALTIC in Gateshead through play. Titled EQUAL PLAY, the show engages with principles of non-hierarchical play environments and themes of non-gendered and non-prescriptive play, giving particular consideration to the role of men and childcare in relation to feminism. But of course, play isn’t something that is only important for children. Step into this playful environment and consider the importance of play in each of our lives.