Good design at play

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Kids’ playgrounds have come a long way from the days of the humble swing and slippery slide in a park. Today’s modern playgrounds feature sand diggers, water slides and giant climbing nets and landscape architects and designers are leading the way in using design features to stimulate young minds and bodies and to revitalise urban landscapes.

Playgrounds such as Darling Quarter, Blaxland Riverside Park in Sydney Olympic Park and Plough and Harrow at Western Sydney Parklands are examples of how kids’ playground designs have changed urban landscapes.

Darling Quarter, a 4000 square metre playground is the biggest free playground in Sydney and the only one of its kind in Australia. It has won numerous awards including an award for excellence in design at the AILA NSW Chapter Awards in 2011 which recognised the project’s outstanding technical and design features.

The playground, designed by Aspect Studios is part of the major urban renewal of Darling Quarter and water is a central part of the design with references to the original palm-lined valley of Darling Harbour and it’s industrial past. The design features an abstract river environment which is created out of concrete in intricate forms including man-made river boulders that are decorated with industrial motifs which kids can fill with sand or water. The design encourages kids to interact by controlling the pumping and routing of water at the water section and includes lighting features, a flying fox, spinning wheel and eleven separate areas.

Sacha Coles, landscape architect and director of Aspect Studios says that the starting point for designing Darling Quarter was looking at the surrounding landscape and finding a way to link Darling Harbour back to the City of Sydney.

“Darling Harbour sits in an innovative design landscape with UTS and the Powerhouse Museum both of which promote design excellence. We wanted to find a way of stitching it back into the fabric of the city and giving something back to the people of Sydney through the shared experience of play.

“We looked at how we could use the water setting of Darling Harbour and incorporate that into the design which encourages kids to play together in a series of streams. Some of the key design pieces – the Nautilus Wheel and the Archimedes Screw are quite beautiful design pieces in their own right. It’s about using design features to teach kids through play so that they don’t even know that they are learning.

“Our whole philosophy is centred on integrating play spaces into the city fabric through clever design. It’s about considering the landscape that the playground is to fit into and using elements of that landscape so that the whole thing ties together seamlessly.

“It really is a way that design can promote great social interaction amongst groups of people who don’t even know each other. One of the chief ways of doing this is to blur the boundaries between the playground and the environment through using the same materials across the space.

“The best part of designing Darling Quarter was that it gave us an opportunity to use landscape design to provide an integrated playground that provides so much for so many. Play is a great leveller. It thrills us to see kids and parents of all cultural, social and economic backgrounds engaging together in this amazing, free play experience,” said Sacha.

The concept of using design to encourage kids to play is not new. Forty years ago, a young Danish artist named Tom Lindhardt Wills noticed that kids in a drab housing estate were more interested in playing with one of his large, brightly coloured sculptures rather than admiring it. Tom decided to start his own play equipment company, KOMPAN, which today is one of the world’s most well respected playground equipment companies.

KOMPAN’s philosophy is that all children have a right to play and great design can facilitate positive physical and social interaction amongst kids.

Last year one of KOMPAN’s latest designs, the ICON range won the top prize at the Australian International Design Awards. Described as “the future of playgrounds”, an interactive range with the attraction of electronic gaming to draw kids outside, ICON is symbolic of how technology and good design can go together in an outdoor setting. Judges were impressed by ICON’s layout, design quality and the innovative concept of combining electronic gaming with outdoor equipment.

Christian Schwerdtfeger from KOMPAN said “this design means that you have the beauty of outdoor play – in which kids can run around and be motivated to move – and you have the digital world.”

So it seems that it’s never too early to introduce kids to good design in their everyday world while at the same time improving community landscapes – and as landscape architect, Michael Armati from Play by Design says “good playground design can affect kids socially, emotionally and physically and help their development.”