Return to Royal Park: the risk-reward equation of play

We don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing.

George Bernard Shaw

As a society, we have become increasingly focused on the needs of the youngest members of our society. This hasn’t always been the case. It is startling to note that the history of the children’s recreational playground only goes back a 150 years, whereas adult recreational spaces such as spas/hammams/gymnasiums go back hundreds of years.

Play has also been elevated past its original recreational purpose to an educational one. The national curriculum for children between the ages of 0-5, the Early Years Learning Framework, has a strong emphasis on play-based learning. This educational bent towards play has taken some fun out of the exercise, pun intended. The increased scrutiny of playground environments and helicopter parenting has meant that modern playgrounds can often be sterile expanses of rubberized play-surfaces and a sea of brightly coloured plastic play equipment.

Return to Royal Park. Image supplied

Enter the recent project by the City of Melbourne’s design team – Return to Royal park. This might seem like a big call, but this project single-handedly rewrites the rulebook on playgrounds and their design in so many ways. It is also an utter delight to experience.

I recently road-tested the playground with my 4 year-old daughter and her best friend. As anyone will tell you, young children don’t know how to be diplomatic. If they don’t find something engaging, you can expect them to immediately stop in their tracks and declare ‘I’m bored’. Such a scene did not occur for nearly 2 hours at Return to Royal Park. That in itself speaks volumes.

The genesis of the project and the details of its landscaping are well covered in this review of the project when it was launched early in the year.

Return to Royal Park. Image supplied

In particular I wanted to share one key observation. In direct opposition to the many playgrounds that attempt to manage-out danger in any form, Return to Royal Park embraces the ideology that risk-taking and play are closely related. Partaking in the former can actually enrich the latter.

For instance the large ‘amphitheater’ of carved sandstone blocks (near the super-sized slides) is a gradually-stepped surface with nearly a 5 m difference from the top-most ledge to the lowest. These ledge-surfaces are not smoothly carved or paved, they are uneven with dimples and edges.

Moreover they do not act like typical steps as their staggered heights are often uneven. As a parent, my first instinct was to encourage my daughter to give this element a wide berth. I was surprised to see instead that its uneven-ness was a great source of delight to her.

The lack of a clear hierarchy or ‘marked’ pathway made it all the more fun for her as she carved her own way up and down, often taking the longest, most difficult route. A central water-play area featuring levers to create a creek or dam has been a much talked-about element of the design.

Water is often excluded from most modern playgrounds as there is the perceived risk of slipping and falling. However this is cleverly managed through the introduction of sand around this area, which soaks up the water and creates a mini-beach effect.

The play equipment too embraces the aspect of risk in its very design: tall rope bridges, flying foxes, oversized climbing spider-webs and even rusted-steel to form a ‘birds-nest’ and elevated ‘cubbyhouse’. And importantly, there is hardly any rubber or plastic surface to be seen. Nature, and more importantly texture, stretches as far as the eye can see – whole timber logs, sandstone boulders, rope, sand, corten etc.

Return to Royal Park. Image supplied

The park as a whole will continue to evolve as the landscaping matures and provides avenues for shade and the occasional game of hide-and-seek. And I for one cannot wait to return and experience it in its new avatar.

As a parent, instead of being horrified by the vague presence of risk, I was delighted that its presence was encouraging my little one to unleash her inner explorer. And more importantly, once I noticed its effect on her I became an active participant in her play.

Therein lies the crux of the problem with many modern playgrounds.

By becoming almost risk-free and passive, they have inadvertently assigned parents to the fringes of the playground – safe in the knowledge that no harm can possibly come to their child in such a ‘cushioned’ environment. But what modern children often desire most from their time-poor parents… is that their parents would actually play with them.

And that is where Return to Royal Park is streets ahead of its competition. Almost every parent I witnessed that afternoon, was not a passive latte-sipping observer but an active participant in their child’s play. And for that, the designers deserve a lot of credit and goodwill.

Design is a funny word. Some people think design mean how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, its really how it works.

Steve Jobs

Sonia Sarangi is an architect and co-founder of Atelier Red + Black, this article original appeared on The Red and Black Architect's blog. Follow Sonia on Instagram: @thesarangi

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