Risk-Taking Architecture for the Playground Set

The Land, an “adventure playground” in Wrexham, North Wales, is freeform, junk-strewn and rife with risk. Lacking designated play structures and anything remotely primary-colored, The Land instead presents children with possibilities in the form of old tires, fishing nets, tools and fire pits, allowing them to explore, build and even destroy in whatever way strikes their fancy.

The unusual site is one of 40 pioneering play spaces highlighted in the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibition in Boston. Curated by Design Museum Foundation, the show opened June 8 at BSA Space, a design exhibition center and home of the Boston Society of Architects/AIA and the BSA Foundation.

Boston is a fitting site for the launch of this traveling exhibition, as the hometown of Joseph Lee, father of the playground movement whose life of play advocacyspanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The show, which will move on to Portland, San Francisco and Chicago, highlights some innovative Boston play spaces, including a play sculpture designed for this show and installed temporarily at City Hall Plaza.

For Design Museum Foundation Executive Director Sam Aquillano, the grittiness of The Land recaptures something of the independence, with its risks, that he experienced growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“I grew up playing in the woods, playing with hatchets and lighting fires,” he says. “I know the focus on play and being free in my childhood influenced my creativity and risk-taking.”

Part of the reason to explore playscapes now, Aquillano says, is that a growing body ofresearch links lack of play to problems such as increased mental disorders, low self-esteem, low confidence and risk aversion. At the same time, surveys of top CEOs reveal that the qualities they want to see in their future workers include creativity, risk-taking and overcoming adversity.

“So the more play — and the more challenging play — the better,” he says. “Swing sets are great, but we’re trying to show opportunities for unstructured play, where you build something.”

The featured playgrounds are displayed in large poster format with photographs and a description of each site’s history, unique elements and size. The scale ranges widely, from the compact 650-square-foot indoor “Infinity Climber” at Jersey City, New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center, to downtown Chicago’s “curvilinear, topographically dramatic” Maggie Daley Park, whose 27.7 acres would cover 20 football fields. Most are outdoors, with varying degrees of wildness from rustic nature parks to urban lots with colorful PlayCubes. The ever-evolving set of found objects at the 15-year-old St. Louis City Museum spans the inside and outside of a former shoe factory.

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