There is something about the blinding whiteness of Nubo, an indoor play space in Sydney, that feels transgressive. The curved white walls. The white metal hot air balloon suspended above the miniature circular amphitheatre of a library. The light wood stairs winding around to a white climbing frame above a slide to an all-blue ball pit. This is nothing like the playgrounds of my childhood.
“When I was growing up I would be playing on the street with the neighbourhood kids,” says Nubo founder Mollie Li. “We didn’t have fancy facilities to play with. We played with what we had on hand.
“Play has shifted quite a bit in the last 20 or 30 years.”
Li opened Nubo just under four years ago. She had taken a career break from banking three years earlier, after having her daughter, and wanted to create “a little whimsical escape pocket” for both children and parents. Since then, thousands of children and adults have torn through the climbing frame, foam building rooms, fallen into the blue ball pit and hung around for a coffee at the base of the small centre.
Nubo is a private enterprise, costing $20 for half a day in the space (including organised classes). It reflects, however, a broader movement in the world of play.
While the old plastic slide-and-swings playgrounds still abound in suburbs and towns across the country, there has slowly been a shift in the way that playgrounds are designed and considered. At the National Arboretum in Canberra, giant banksia cubbies house toddlers while older children traverse a network of ropes between suspended giant acorns.
In Victoria, a sweeping tubular solar-powered playground is lit by a bespoke system that recalls the Aurora Australis at night. In Darling Harbour, children work together along a water play park to dam and redirect rivulets across their play space.
Playgrounds, some of them, aren’t what they used to be. In Australia and around the wealthy world, the design of public play has become quite serious.
“The design of play has changed dramatically from the old primary coloured, off-the-shelf, typical plastic playground,” says Sacha Coles, director of design firm Aspect Studios. “You put it up, put a fence around it and you might come back in 10 years to maintain it – that’s not the thinking of most local and state governments, public authorities and schools now.”
For the new guard of playground design, the boundary between play equipment and public sculpture is blurring. For studios such as Aspect, Coles says, playgrounds are increasingly seen as “some of the top projects to get” – public projects which are on full display and allow landscape architects and designers to test their craft. They also reflect the growing academic understanding of the value of play on children’s intellectual, emotional and physical development.
“Playgrounds have really been the subject of research and investment in a way that perhaps they weren’t when we were growing up,” Coles says.
He recalls growing up in the 70s free-range, going to the park and playing – like Li – unsupervised until it was time to come home for dinner. But a growing concern for child safety over the latter decades of the 20th century meant that children were not so much left to their own devices and safety, above all, came to claim prominence in play.
“We went through this cotton wool period from the 70s until about five or 10 years ago when it started to evolve into better designed play spaces,” he says.
Associate Professor Debra Flanders Cushing of the Queensland University of Technology says safety remains a predominant concern in play design, and that we still err a little too much on the side of caution. But she notes that a shift is underway in some quarters.
“Now it is increasingly recognised that we need to introduce things like risk so that kids can work on their developmental skills,” she says. “Nature play was obviously predominant in the past, and then we went the other way when everything was manufactured. Now we are going back, in a way, in terms of bringing back the natural element.”
During the Covid-19 crisis, as playgrounds were wrapped in hazard tape over successive waves of lockdown, and private spaces like Nubo were subject to additional cleaning and hygiene rigour, nature play and parklands were even more important, says Coles, whose firm was behind the design of the Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden in Centennial Park in Sydney.
“Councils are taping up and blocking off object-based playgrounds – climbing frames and swings and the sort of things that parents and kids will touch,” he says. But other parkland, particularly larger regional parks, which visitors can ideally get to without a car or via “green links”, will become more important.
“Parks are being so heavily used now and are so important when we’re all holed up at home. But I think object-based play spaces will need to rest and nature play, experiential play in big or local parks, will go through the roof in terms of usability and popularity.”
Even beyond the current crisis, Coles believes engineering open-ended and nature play facilities make those spaces more relevant and rewarding for a wider range of age groups.
While Cushing notes that play now is “not all the plastic, very engineered play spaces anymore”, she believes more evolution is needed, particularly in suburban areas.
Adults needs and priorities, too, have become a critical consideration in these new design-led playgrounds. “If you think about playgrounds, it’s often caregivers who are taking children to them, so it’s important to be attractive to both,” says Flanders Cushing.
Li says her space was designed “half and half” for adults and for children. It was in recognition that adults also need to enjoy the environments that they are taking their children to, and a belief that children as well as their caregivers value good design.
“There’s such a heightened level of sophistication around design in general in society,” Coles says. “People are much more discerning about where they spend their time.”
“Design is a huge part … and it’s not just the preserve of adults.”
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