FORM on Design: Shaking up the Playground

Free Play’s innovative new structures offer a new, child-directed and imaginative approach to play equipment. Image courtesy Free Play.

Anyone who has visited an American playground in the last few decades knows exactly what to expect. A slide, some swings, monkey bars, maybe a teeter-totter. And any child who has been to the same playgrounds will know exactly how to play on them. It means they’re safe and functional but also a little dull.

Dan Schreibman had that revelation about a decade ago when his first child was born. Searching for a backyard play set, he found them to be basically the same—pretty boring. As his children got older, “they played on it for 20 minutes, but they’d play with the fallen tree there for six hours,” says Schreibman, a management consultant by profession and now a playground evangelist by calling.

Seeing how his children played and learned led him down set him down a new path, as did a conversation with a cousin, who happened to be an architectural historian. Her book on American playgrounds prompted him to look even deeper into the subject, introducing him to experts also exploring the subject. 

Putting thought into action, Schreibman set up a competition, asking a group of architects to create new types of play structures that would be unique, offer limitless options for play; facilitate experiential learning; foster social interaction; enhance the setting no matter where it happened to be.

When all was said and done, designs by the firm LTL Architects won the day. “It hit on all cylinders,” says Schreibman.  “It was dramatically different and so incredibly thoughtful—living true to what we’re trying to accomplish.” The pieces in the new Free Play collection include the Ant Farm, a climbing structure; the Weeping Willow, a structure composed of long strands of rope (with added chimes, it creates an even more compelling experience); the Corn Field, consisting of flexible of vertical tubes; and the Maze, a series of cubes that can be configured in multiple ways.

The pieces are modular, scalable and customizable, meaning that no matter the needs of the space, the equipment can be tailored to match. Their design also ensures that small people will rarely tire of them and will find new and unexpected ways to explore and experience the structures. His own children, for example, continue to build elaborate houses out of the Weeping Willow’s ropes—something that delights Schreibman, who now finds himself experimenting with configurations on his own.

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