Corvus Design Blog

November 8, 2015

DOKK1 – Aarhus’ New Library for All

Titled as the library of tomorrow, this structure is a visually spectacular addition to the Aarhus waterfront. Walking up to it you realize that there is a train station under it, and perhaps someone will tell you that the parking below it is fully automated for 1000 cars. Fully automated. You put your car in a slot, get out, and away it goes!

One of the visually striking features for the building is how the roof extends out and over the building’s base. When you climb the outside stairs, you see that this overhang shelters a number of different play areas. These are developed by Monstrum. They are known for visually striking play structures that they custom design and build for their projects. They’re also known for very popular playscapes that can be crawling with children.

From a child’s perspective, I imagine that these play elements are bombastic! From Monstrum’s website:

“Globe” is a great playground with the library as the center. The playground is divided into five main play areas, each representing a specific compass direction.

Each play area is a story about the specific area. There areas offers different play opportunities, so that users get different play experiences depending on where you choose to play.

The playground contains small fragments and stories about nature, animals, landscapes, geology, culture and much more. The aim is to inspire, arouse children’s and adults’ knowledge desire while creating space and opportunity for play and exercise.

In the design of play areas, the emphasis is on the integration of play opportunities for children with different disabilities. At the same time we have focused on the availability on the playground with level access and a sitting area in the playground equipment.

The five areas are connected with a world tour around the house, which is marked in the floor and with stories and fun facts.

As an adult (and play designer) from North America, I look at this and I’m blown away with the beauty and that this kind of playground isn’t a rarity in Europe. I look at items and assess their potential “liability” implications, and feel a certain visual freedom that these items CAN be made and that they exist somewhere!

But… I’m also quite mixed for some things. Are they incredibly expensive one-hit wonders where the large bear is really just a slide? The eagle just a super cool climber, next to the pyramidal wooden structure that is another climber (and fort)? They are iconic, and provide an amazing place for creative play. But… what if creative play or climbing isn’t your thing.

I can’t really assess the playground (or any playground) fully without understanding the design criteria that the designers sought to fulfill. With where my brain is currently… I look at these and I wish I could speak with the designers about how they approach inclusive play and play for all. What is the Danish culture toward accessibility and inclusiveness?

Like good art… I have more questions in my brain right now than I do have responses. I need to educate myself.

Here are some photos. It’s pretty awesome.


November 8, 2015

It’s 2015. Play is for All.

In Anchorage, there’s a roller rink that recently forbade a child with a disability from being out on the rink.

I don’t have children. I don’t have a disability. My family doesn’t have anyone with a disability. For some reason or another I passionately believe that it is a human right for children to have access to play. More importantly, that children have access to being with their friends. Even more importantly perhaps, that children have a right to the opportunities to make new friends.

When I was a kid, I moved at the age of 9 and 12. In retrospect, I feel that those two times were perhaps poor times to move, because you land in a place where the other kids already had their groups of friends. Whether for my own sensitivity or not, I felt a bit out of place and like I was always missing out on what the others were doing. The reality is likely that everyone felt the same, but it’s left me with a desire to ensure that kids always have a place and that they have the support to fit in.

So, I believe that kids have a human right to be able to make friends.

As children, we make countless relationships (long and short) on the playground. Play is natural to children, and until we learn otherwise, play is open to others to join in (and to invite us in). Discrimination or the concept of “not like me” is a learned trait.

As a play designer, I subscribe to the “smorgasbord approach” to designing play environments. Every child learns differently and has different things they’d like to experience in a playground. This changes as they get older and move through their phases of development. Playground design should start with trying to accommodate a variety of play needs and desires.

The average person likely doesn’t know the full extent of disabilities that might influence a child’s ability to engage with play. Physical disabilities are the obvious ones, but account for only around 1% of disabilities. Good play design takes this “smorgasbord” of features and assembles them in a way that they begin to have order and cohesiveness. Order is an important way to begin to design for disabilities like autism spectrum disorders.

The point of this? Play design seeks to remove the barriers that might get in the way of a child experiencing play on their terms. Taking this “smorgasbord” and assembling it to accommodate a wide variety of children may require some minimal extra cost, intellectual consultation or perhaps adding a few play elements to maximize impact… but the results provide a high return on investment.

So… a roller rink forbade a child with a disability from being out on the rink.

Designing for physical disabilities can certainly result in extra costs, but I quoteJustin Trudeau … it’s 2015! But, for the roller rink… actual access is not the issue. Their concern is liability and potential danger to other skaters.

I’m not writing this to discuss the specifics of this incident; it has been very well covered by others who are closer to it directly or from similar experiences.

The world is not an accessible place. It’s not naturally flat, and surfaces are not naturally hard. Access advocates are clever people, and they realize this. They know that there will be challenges, and some of them will be true obstacles. But, their request is that we let people choose what their obstacles will be. They are 1000% correct that sometimes we will be amazed with the ingenuity and initiative that drive the amazing. If we just say no, then we close the door to that opportunity.

Our built environment will have many places that are not easily accessible. Advocates are not asking that all places be made accessible. They just request that they be given the chance on their own volition to do things if they can achieve them similarly to others, without danger to others, and without danger to themselves that would create liability for others. It’s a fact that every person who is “able” is free to endanger everyone around them (and they frequently do). But, I won’t go into our freedom to do dumb things… although I’m finding it ironic that we limit people with disabilities when the abled are more often those who inflict true costs on our culture.

It’s so easy to retreat back to a place of liability. The United States certainly suffers from a very high level of fear of litigation. There is reality to this, but there is a cultural fear of the possibility that one might be sued. This means that society has trained itself to start from a place of “no”, and then slowly (if ever) move toward yes in an extremely ‘safe’ fashion. This is significantly different than beginning with the possible and crafting it in a careful and justified way.

I’ll go back to playground design. We have a responsibility to allow someone with a physical disability to get to the playground. Whether on a bus, or through an accessible parking space… they deserve to get to the same place as everyone else. That’s a legal fact of our society. We don’t necessarily make it as easy as it should be… but this is where we are. In 2015 everyone should be able to get to a parking lot or sidewalk that is reasonably close to a playground. We also have a responsibility that there is a reasonably direct way to get to the playground itself.

This is where things start to get amorphous. There are requirements for playgrounds to have a certain proportion of equipment that is accessible. (This accessible equipment could consist of the most boring pieces. Good play design isn’t a part of it.) So, your child should be able to get to the equipment to play with at least some of it, and interact with other children. But, they will likely get to a point where their friends move into a play experience that is not accessible. They are now disassociated from their friends.

Now… also realize this applies to parents. There will be parts of our playgrounds that might not allow you to interact with your children if you have a physical impairment. Just imagine that your child gets hurt (perhaps badly) and that you can’t get to them. Even though I don’t have children, I certainly empathize that this level of powerlessness could be devastating.

While it would be difficult to design all playgrounds to be fully accessible, we can make decisions that maximize the potential for interaction. There’s a reality that children love slides and climbing up high. Ramps can be provided, but they can be cost prohibitive. If you exclude those two playground needs, building a very highly inclusive playground based on ground level play elements is feasible for every community.

Play needs to be a community-level discussion. Every playground does not need to do all things for every child. For the same of this discussion, every child should have access to the play that they want/need within a reasonable distance of their house. This doesn’t mean that all playgrounds need to be fully inclusive, but it needs to mean that all playgrounds are designed intentionally to maximize their impact. Sometimes decisions will be made to provide that tall slide that provides children with an amazing sense of accomplishment for conquering their nervousness. When you provide that slide, you also need to ask yourself… how do we provide that same feeling for the kid that might never climb up there?

Inclusivity isn’t about providing access to every piece of play equipment, it’s about trying to provide different opportunities to experience the same benefit… and trying to maximize the opportunities for interaction. Can’t get to the top of the slide? Well, let me be waiting at the bottom to see my friend come down.

One of the best things for inclusivity on a playground is accessible play surfacing. But wow! It’s expensive and its cost could certainly be put into more play activities. But when properly done, it becomes a play activity in itself and these costs can be balanced. Play surfacing is a huge discussion of its own (that I’m always happy to have), but for the sake of this note… realize that it truly begins to eliminate obstacles for interaction.

Let’s get back to the roller rink. I remember going to the roller rink in my hometown for a birthday party. I was terrible at skating and I fell down. I risked wiping someone out and having them break an arm. I remember getting better (or I’d like to think I did), but also that I spent time off to the side with my friends. There were no obstacles for me other than my initiative and my learning curve. If I was TRULY bad and dangerous, I’m hoping that some adult would have assisted me to reduce my danger to others. There’s also a fact that on a roller rink, people skate in the same direction for a reason… you can watch everyone around you to minimize their (literal) impact on your life.

Liability can be controlled with paperwork. It can also be controlled by engaging with others. It can be controlled by supervision. It can be controlled by ten minutes of playing a slower song and calling it “beginners time” on the rink where everyone is asked to look out for one another, be encouraging, and support a love of cooperation and play for everyone.

It’s 2015. We’re all smart enough that we can control and minimize risk. More importantly, we should all be aware enough that inclusivity makes our community better. Let’s start with trying to figure something out and make it a “win win”.

It’s 2015. Let’s explain our concerns and see if the world is ready for new solutions.

Postscript#1: My frustration makes me add: Come on! We’re better than this! It’s freaking 2015!)

Postscript #2: I scanned through the comments on the ADN article (never a fully wise decision to do). I think that they reiterate that we should all just stop for a second and think about what being inclusive means. Also… inform ourselves. That might be asking too much.


August 20, 2014

The Play Charter?

As we’ve mentioned, we’re working with the Municipality of Anchorage on the development of a Strategic Plan for Inclusive Playgrounds. Our current blog goal is to target our posts specific to our thoughts and findings as they relate to the development of playgrounds where play is open to all, and barriers to universal access are reduced as much as possible (with a desire to be eliminated).

When we first started working actively with play design, we created a Playspace Design Guide to act as a primer for our clients. As we put this together, we came across a Play Charter that summarized quite well what we consider to be a solid general philosophy for the importance of play.

So… since a charter can be a very important place to start. Let’s start with “The Play Charter”.

Children need to play

Children have a natural inclination to play. It is essential to the healthy mental, physical, emotional and social development of every child. While the needs of older children and teenagers are different from those of young children, they are no less important.

Children need freedom to play

Play takes place when children and young people get to decide what to do and who to do it with, when they negotiate their own rules and boundaries, and their imaginations are allowed free rein. It is not performed for any external goal or reward. In supervised provision, trained playworkers have an important role in supporting children to help them create and explore their own play experiences.

Children need space to play

While children can and do play indoors, it is essential that children have easy access to outdoor space for spontaneous physical activity. Every child should have places to play close to home. General community spaces, such as streets or the spaces between buildings, are important as dedicated play provision.

Children need time to play

Children should have the chance to play every day, when they are not being told what to do, who to do it with or where to go.

Children must feel safe and welcome where they play

Communities must make safe, welcoming, accessible provision for all children to play, no matter what their age, physical or mental abilities, personal circumstances or cultural background. Children and young people who are different from the majority have a right to play in the same places as other children, should they want to.

Children are the best authorities on play

Children know what they enjoy and what makes them happy. Playgrounds or other spaces and facilities that will be used for play, including school grounds, will be more successful if children and young people are meaningfully involved in their design and in decisions affecting them.

Play is everyone’s responsibility

The ability for children to play freely outside is a sign of a healthy, vibrant community. While children do not need adults to tell them how to play, parents, communities and government do have a duty to ensure that children have the chance to play every day.

(Note: We provided a link to the original, but the original has disappeared from online and we can’t find any reference to it with an active link. Original credit is either attributed to www.playengland.uk and/or www.adventureplayground.org. If someone reading it knows where the home for this charter now lies, please let us know.)