What role does play and playfulness have in how the spaces around us are formed?
Spaces designed for play suggest a certain freedom of use, but can sometimes be highly controlled. The children’s playground has a historical lineage that includes both ‘adventure’ play alongside an extreme regimentation of behaviour. In contemporary times, playgrounds are shaped by safety requirements and council sign-off, and even access to these spaces is unequally distributed between different neighbourhoods. We started this lecture with a brief overview of the history of playgrounds. The printed version of that overview can be read here.
Simon Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts (1971) played (and continues to play) a role in shaping how 'play' is conceived of in learning environments and playgrounds, This idea is core to the 'adventure playground' philosophy, where children are allowed to gather materials, objects, and tools and work with them in their own way.
From Alexandra Lange's article:
"Dattner’s Play Panels fall into the category of “loose parts,” a term invented in 1971 by architect Simon Nicholson in an essay called “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” Inspired by the junk playgrounds of London, Nicholson writes that “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.” Children’s environments, he goes on to say, “are clean, static, and impossible to play around with. What has happened is that adults in the form of professional artists, architects, landscape architecture, and planners have had all the fun playing with their own materials, concepts, and planning alternatives, and then builders have had all the fun building the environments out of real materials; and thus has all the fun and creativity been stolen.”
Think of a playground around where you live. Does it have a regimented structure? Do you know exactly what you are 'supposed to do' with each piece of equipment (e.g slide down the slide, swing from the bars, etc). Nicholson's contention is that this instructional play is limiting to the imagination, sense of discovery, and learning of children in play environments. Not only this, but that 'loose parts' theory has applications for lots of other types of spaces, like galleries, museums, and libraries.
"Finally there are groups of people experimenting with the theory of loose parts in art galleries and the science museums. (A simple example leading to this interest was the discovery that the most worn tiles on the floor of museums were usually adjacent those exhibits involving the maximum amount of variables and human interaction). In 1970 the first comprehensive exhibition of interaction-works entitled 'Play Orbit' was held at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. This was recently followed by an exhibition of work (parts) by Robert Morris at the Tate Gallery: to quote a critic's review of the exhibition, "the public got into the party spirit - a somewhat over-zealous participation. They were jumping and screaming, swinging the weights around wildly - the middle aged in particular. The children were the most sensible of all the visitors" (!) We are beginning to realise that there are more ways to interact with art than to be solely contemplative (i.e.: there exists the possibility of more loose parts and 'variables' than via visual perception alone) and that although it is fine to allow scientists and artists to invent things, how about allowing everybody else to be creative and inventive also?"