"The whole point of play is that you can fail"
- Richard Dattner
This quote was taken from an essay written by Yannick Lejacq for the blog Kill Screen. The essay Grounds For Play: Why are playgrounds still so important in the digital age? discusses in further detail than I’ll get into on why physical playgrounds are so important in child development. I’m instead going to use this post to explore the idea that playgrounds teach us about curiosity and fear. Specifically playgrounds with dangerous obstacles.
This is not meant to be another indictment of our continued pampering of children or anything like that, it’s just my exposition on this idea I had a few nights ago. I was reminiscing about a playground that I use to play on all the time when visiting my Grandparents in St. Louis. Queeny Park Playground is a beautiful collection of climbers, pyramid structures, and tunnels.
From the picture it might not come across as dangerous, but when I was tiny, it seemed like it. It’s that danger that made it exciting to visit. It was unlike any park we had back in Springfield, VA. Thinking about it now I can remember all sorts of dangerous things on playgrounds as a kid that seem to be missing in newer playgrounds. Things like geodesic dome climbers and other metal structures that create semi-dangerous situations for children.
I loved these kinds of playground climbers as a kid because they seemed more interesting then the newer structures being built at playgrounds. Towers built out of plastic with padding and walls seemed boring and too contrived for imaginative play. The older metal structures still left at the playground were fun and seemed like relics that only the daredevil kids would mess with. That’s not to say that playgrounds aren’t being built that push the bounds of danger in play. Check out this mobius playground climber.
It’s these kinds of structures that I think help build curiosity and bravery at a young age. One of the coolest examples of this kind of free range play is the City Museum of St. Louis. The playground complex is a collection of concrete art installations, structures of rebar and netting, and a repurposed airplane. If you read reviews of people who have visited you’ll see plenty of examples of close calls and accidents. Everyone will agree that they love the danger that the City Museum presents, it’s just more fun that way.
You can find that kind of mentality true here in Richmond, VA. Last year I worked with a group of people for GOOD magazine to explore an idea on how to bring people and small businesses to the James River. While we were brainstorming on the James River Park System a common theme became present, people love how “wild” the park system is. There’s parts of the park with old metal ladders and abandoned water pump stations. It’s an urban explorers dream.
People want this kind of adventure in their lives, they don’t always want what’s safe. More design in our lives needs to accommodate this kind of opportunity for failure and consequences. Remember PainStation, the Pong Game that shocked you when you lost? That’s an extreme example but our digital experiences need as many real world consequences as they do virtual ones. When you fail you learn, that’s pretty much agreed upon. But if that failure doesn’t have a consequence that creates some level of fear, then the lesson may not stick. Through conquering that fear and succeeding we become stronger and more likely to take bigger chances. So introduce a little fear into your life and set up some real world consequences for failure, it’ll help you succeed more often than not.
Anyways, that’s just my take, what do you think?