The Timeless Way of Designing for Play

Buga Playground, Munich

“The more living patterns there are in a place—a room, a building, or a town—the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.

“This quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated by the seed.”

(The Timeless Way of Building, 1979)

Because websites are places, lots of website makers find inspiration in the work of architects like Christopher Alexander.

But the websites we’re building are less akin to houses and parking lots than playgrounds. We want people to stick around, have fun, socialize, create, and find new and novel uses for the structures we’ve put in place.

When people are spending a lot of time on your site connecting with one another, essentially engaged in play, your site can begin to attain that “quality without a name” Alexander wrote about. It starts to feel alive.

So I’ve been spending more time reading about playground design. Not just Isamu Noguchi’s playground work, which is a life’s study in itself (and a great drama, Noguchi v. Robert Moses), but contemporary playground design theory which appears to have been flourishing in continental Europe for some time.

Great playgrounds and great web apps are rich with opportunities for play and inspire creative approaches. They’re open-ended enough for you to make them your own and reveal new possibilities as you become more engaged with them. And they’re accessible: a beautiful playground or website that no one uses is pointless. Kids are discriminating about where they play, and people don’t use websites just because they’re there.

Villiers High School, London

In Play England’s Design for Play: A Guide to Creating Successful Play Spaces, a set of design principles for playgrounds are enumerated which could as easily be applied to web apps. Successful play spaces provide a range of play opportunities, meet community needs by engaging everyone in its design, build in opportunities for risk and challenge, and allow for change and evolution based on usage.

Maritime Youth House, Copenhagen

It’s important to leave the door open to new usage, similar to the way classic skateboarding spots like the Southbank Centre Undercroft in London (and hopefully someday the Brooklyn Banks) have embraced their designation as places to skate.

In the United States, we happen to be living in a golden age of poured-concrete skatepark construction. A half-dozen have opened in New York City within the last year. And after a period of sticking to various conventions and tropes, skatepark designers are pushing themselves to create public spaces packed with possibilities. See: Skateable Art and this park by Jeff Paprocki in Middlefield, CT.

Fundamental to great skateparks and play spaces are non-prescriptive features. Design for Play highlights Trefusis Playing Field in Kerrier, England, which contains elements with no defined function such as this curved concrete structure. It can be used for skateboarding, seating or for children to run along, or something else we haven’t thought of.

Trefusis Playing Field, Kerrier

Facebook the lobster trap and Twitter the blue-ball machine both contain non-prescriptive features put to creative use daily. Twitter occasionally builds in support for some of these uses, like retweeting.

Playscapes is a playground blog I encourage spending time on (most of the playground pics here are from there), and Susan Solomon’s American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space is a playground book I encourage owning.

In A Pattern Language, Alexander recommends adventure playgrounds for children: “a place with raw materials of all kinds—nets, boxes, barrels, trees, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass and water—where children can create and recreate playgrounds of their own.”

I like to think of the internet as one big adventure playground where we’re creating our own playgrounds.




on this website.