Saturday, 9 May 2009

Places Children Love 2/3

A remarkable research project carried out in Freiburg, Germany, some years ago, addressed some of the ills of modern childhood in a novel way. Instead of examining social changes that might be affecting children sociologist Baldo Blinkert looked at the spaces children inhabited. In particular, he questioned several thousand children about their neighbourhood and asked them how they spent their free time, and made some interesting discoveries.

He found, for example, that there was a direct correlation between the amount and quality of play space in the area and the amount of TV children watched in the afternoon. Put simply, children with a good park nearby didn’t stay at home watching telly. This seems rather obvious, but what made the research have a dramatic effect in Freiburg was the fact that people could show the results to local politicians and demand action.

But what constitutes a good park? Blinkert has some fairly strong opinions about traditional playgrounds, with their climbing frames and swings. He writes, “It is very common to observe no children at all on playgrounds of this type... If there are children, what are they doing? They use the equipment for a very short time and generally only in the pre-established manner... I have the impression that the producers of equipment for playgrounds and the planners of such places have monkeys in mind rather than children.”

His aim was to, “Establish an entirely new type of place—a place that does not look like a playground but rather like an empty site which is somewhat neglected and a little bit unkempt.

“First, all of the devices would have to be removed. Then an excavator—under the supervision of four or five children—should shape an interesting surface—a ground with little hills and dips which can collect rainwater and change to mud. The vegetation should not be too complex … willow bushes, blackberries, or bushes of elder or raspberries. If possible, such a place should have a supply point for water. It is also necessary to equip such places with materials which would be useful for construction, such as stones, bricks, boards and beams of different sizes.”

And this is exactly what has happened. Across Freiburg, a city of 200,000 people, forty parks have now been renovated in this way, and the model has spread around northern Europe. Older people might think that these playgrounds sound like wartime bombsites; certainly they suggest the vacant lots that have traditionally been unofficial playgrounds, and this is no accident. When you think about it, one of the reasons why children’s access to semi-wild places has been reduced is that, since the end of the war, cities have filled up and the odd little spaces close to home have been gradually filled in, a process that continues today.

A crucial component in Blinkert’s model is the idea that a playground should allow children to exercise not only their muscles but also their imagination. Children learn about storytelling partly by doing things to their environment, building structures and knocking them down, digging holes and so on.

Tim Gill visited Freiburg recently and was astonished by what he saw. “These places don’t look anything like what passes for playgrounds in the UK,” he says. “They look like the places where many of us spent the most enjoyable, the most profound times of our childhood.”

Across Europe now a new breed of landscape designer is at work, among them the fabulous Danish architect Helle Nebelong, creating safe but interesting places to replace the semi-wild spaces we have lost. Here in Britain things are beginning to change, as the government responds to concerns about obesity.

Learning Through Landscapes (LTL), a charity set up to help children make the most of their school grounds, works with corporate sponsors like the Royal Bank of Scotland and Unilever to improve playgrounds and promote outdoor play. An example of this kind of work can be seen at Eveline Lowe Primary in the London Borough of Southwark, where a derelict site was converted into a garden with a grassy amphitheatre, a pond, winding brick paths and, around the edges, wilder, bushier areas for those all-important explorations.

The results of such reforms can be startling. According to LTL’s own 2003 survey of 700 schools the organisation had worked with, children don’t just play more. Of the schools concerned three quarters had seen improved pupil behaviour, while two thirds had found bullying reduced and attitudes to learning improved. An amazing 84% responded that better school grounds improved children’s social interaction.

One thing that has changed dramatically in the last ten years is the role children themselves are allowed in creating their own play spaces. The work done by people like Roger Hart demonstrated that children know what they want when it comes to play, and it is gradually becoming more common for children to be consulted.


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