Abstract, sensory structures without function inspire kids to use their imaginations
Playgrounds enable children to run wild, free from the rules that they usually have to follow indoors. But while they encourage physical freedom, the prescribed ways of using standard equipment like swings and slides means that they do little to fuel the imagination. Free Play, a studio that creates interactive learning environments, has designed a set of abstract structures that encourage children to be creative in the way that they play in these spaces.
“Most playground equipment is functional, e.g., you climb up a ladder, you walk across a platform and you slide down a slide. By offering a wide array of sensory experiences – with no prescribed functionality – Free Play promotes imaginative, child-directed play – which is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development,” Free Play Founder Dan Schreibman told PSFK.
As a new father, Dan became frustrated by the limitations of typical playground equipment and decided to create an environment that fosters, rather than inhibits, creativity.
“When my first child was one, I wanted to purchase a backyard play set. Everything available was exactly the same – and not very attractive. While my kids enjoyed playing on the standard set I ultimately purchased, after 20-30 minutes they gravitated to our pond – where they spent hours on end playing to their heart’s content. Over the years, I had numerous experiences like this where my children were captivated by magical spaces, e.g., Richard Serra’s soaring, steel sculptures at the MoMA, a fallen tree in the backyard – and decided to create my own,” Dan told to us.
After conducting research with an advisory board of educators, architects, child development experts and safety consultants, Dan held a design competition for a sensory play experience informed by the research findings. The winning agency, New York-based LTL Architects, has produced four structures that encourage child-directed play.
The Ant Farm is an impressive structure that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery. Giant red tubes appear to be floating inside the frame, but these are actually held in place by transparent polycarbonate. Children can climb up the walls, through the tubes and explore the spaces in-between.
“The Ant Farm, like all Free Play structures, does not define how it is to be used: climb into the piece and find infinite trajectories to explore; crawl into the padded, floating tubes; scale the sheer exterior walls; and on and on. The materials are tactile and diverse. The structure doesn’t resemble anything to interfere with a child’s imagination. Many spaces in the Ant Farm have been designed to foster social interaction,” Dan explained.
The Corn Field looks like a field of vertical corn stalks that sway slightly when touched and that can be positioned in all sorts of ways to create clusters and clearings. Children can use these LED lit structures to demarcate all of the spaces in their imaginary worlds.
The Maze is a stack of cubes with round cut-outs of different sizes which resemble the holes in a block of Swiss cheese. These can work as windows for children climbing through the labyrinthine space or scaling the exterior.
The Weeping Willow is a beautiful 10 foot high steel structure which can hang either fluorescent yellow ropes or wind chimes. Depending on the design, children can use the ropes to climb, swing and twirl around or make music with the chimes.
We often hear about how social networks and coding can fuel creativity, but we’re also seeing the rise of a new type of playground where children can learn through physical play. Examples include an interactive hopscotch board, tech-infused playgrounds in public spaces and a floating playground that lets children play 60 feet up in the air. The first ‘Free Play’ playground, the centerpiece of a FIFA stadium in the United Arab Emirates, opened in February.
The Free Play structures represent a new type of playground in which children, rather than adults, decide how they play. These will inspire curiosity, creativity and give kids the chance to be in world of their own.