What OFFSET learnt at “A Playful City” conference

A few weeks ago our lovely interns Kristen Harvey and Brake Finson headed to the Design Meets Play conference hosted by A Playful City.

The Design meets Play Conference was looking at how we can make cities more open to children and communities through design.

A Playful City wishes to make Dublin a more child friendly city, while more playful and inclusive for all. They want to create playful, uplifting moments in the spaces between the spaces in the city – the lane-ways, the paths, the streets – through small scale, low-fi but high impact playful interventions. Their vision is to re-imagine these spaces into purposeful unique spaces for the communities that inhabit them and provide scenes of adventure and exploration in nooks and crannies that form our streets.

Kristen and Brake were really excited to interact, participate and be exposed to new ideas, and each wrote their own personal account of the day.

Here is Kristen’s Review

The A Playful City: Design Meets Play conference, tackled many important issues pertaining to a child’s right to play, as well as the importance of play, creativity and imagination in the lives of all people. As the first inaugural conference of Design Meets Play, it invited speakers from different cities and design capabilities to come out and speak on the issues revolving around safe spaces for play for children, why play is important, and how we can begin to change the government’s, council’s and the public’s ideals of play.

During the workshop segment of the conference, I was actually able to converse on a particular issue. I sat in on a group conversation about a mobile station that could be transported anywhere, set up, and used to bring the community together, especially children, to be creative and imaginative and interact with others. Together, we brainstormed new ideas for making it more efficient for all ages, especially teenagers. Teenagers were a large focus of this conference because there is a lot of stigma associated with them playing or hanging out in the community. Local citizens are hesitant upon bringing in play areas and parks, or streets with benches, because they are afraid it is going to attract anti-social behavior from older teens. But, what A Playful City stressed was that these teens have rights to free space and time to play, as well. They need areas to hang out and embrace their environments and their community in just as much as the younger children do, if not more. They are being segregated from the community due to a societal fear that many teenagers, who hang out in a public space, such as a park or a playground, at a time, are going to promote risky and deviant behavior.

When I was a teenager, this was a common problem in my town, as well. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do that was designated by our community as a playful area for teenagers, so we were forced to just hang out in each others’ houses doing nothing or being engrossed in our phones, rather than with each other. Unless we already had that creative gene instilled in us from an early age and enjoyed being creative on our own, there was nowhere for us to go to uncover a dormant creativity. There was nowhere to just hang out and have a good time and enjoy life, because we weren’t young enough to be considered children and hang out at a playground, but not old enough to be considered adults and go out on the town. For me, it was great to see the members of A Playful City advocating for children’s rights to play, including the rights of teenagers. From experience, I have seen that if there is a lack in community and a lack in that community’s ability to provide play and entertainment for their teens, those teens will turn to anti-social and deviant behaviors just because there is nothing better to do.

There was another very important factor of this conference: the right to safe spaces to play in cities. City play was a crucial driving factor of this conference, hence A Playful City’s given name. Cities are the areas that are lacking in providing children with the open spaces and the rights to play; therefore they are the areas that need our most focused attention. Growing up as a child in a suburban area, I didn’t have to worry about there not being enough adequate space for parks and playgrounds or the city being too populated and cluttered that some locals might speak out against a park or playground being too close to their homes. For me, having a park and a playground every couple of kilometers was normal. Unfortunately, those who live in cities are the ones who really have to stand up and make a difference so that these areas of play become a normal part of their communities.

Philip Halton, one of the speakers at the conference, was one of those people. He spoke of the fight he and his community put up to have access to a safe public space for play. He and his community pushed for a skate and public park in their city, after the government went around skate-stopping many other parks that were huge to the skate communities in Dublin and Ireland. The local government took away a safe space for these kids to hang out and enjoy an outdoor activity that they loved. After much pressure from the community, the government gave them a skate friendly space on Cork Street, where they are now building a public skate park. This conference opened my eyes to see just how much we take for granted in this life. Things like parks and playing, which have always seemed like simplicities we should just have, are things that have to be fought for in many other communities in the world. It was a definite eye opener that I wasn’t expecting when walking into this conference, yet one that I greatly appreciated.

Throughout the talks of the conference there were various questions being asked, such as ‘how do we inspire play?’ and ‘why does play matter?’ One of the very first speakers, Jos de Krieger touched on the question of inspiration. He talked about his company’s primary design tactics: using waste and landfills to build playgrounds. He called the tactic, “saving the environment whilst saving imagination.” It was a fascinating approach to safe space for children to play, because the recycling of this waste into playgrounds provided the children with a space that wasn’t dictated by the designers. The pieces of the playground could be anything they wanted them to be. They were fixtures to inspire every child’s creative needs, in so providing the children with a broader scope of imagination. It was a pleasant surprise to see all that we are capable of doing when it comes to being imaginative and creative for our environment, our children and ourselves.

More than just talking about creative spaces for children to play and be imaginative, came the issue of why play is important, and how the attitude towards play must change. Many speakers touched on the criticalness of play to a child’s mental, physical, and emotional health. Play teaches children resilience and risk-taking so they can learn to understand themselves. It is more than just a silly, childish pass-time, which many adults might deem it to be, but is an outlet of imagination and a process of growth that all children must be able to experience. Amica Dall, from the architectural studio & past OFFSET speakers Assemble, touched on this importance saying, “play is how [children] make a connection from their mind to their body and other people’s bodies and how they develop their power to act in the world. The relationship between how we understand ourselves and what is possible in the world comes from playing.” Amica and Assemble build permanent infrastructures, as well as temporary venues for events. They are all about providing safe spaces for creativity and play. In her talk, she was most passionate about the use of play to figure out childhood issues, specifically urban childhood issues.

Amica Dall | Assemble

“We need to give children a voice, but that’s more than about letting them speak. It’s about us being willing to listen to what it is they have to say,” said Dall. Her words resonated with me. As a child, I lived in a suburban area, and I never had to worry about there being enough safe spaces to play. I always had a backyard or a playground to play in and the playgrounds at school weren’t boxed in, depressing or isolated, they were large and colorful and out in the open. Knowing that I had access to this without even knowing that it was more of a luxury, rather than normality, made what Dall said one of the most important statements I heard at the conference. Children have rights and voices that need to be heard. Children naturally want to play and be imaginative and have fun, and they should never be denied that, or a space to experience that play, because of an adult’s perceptions of the concept or an area’s misfortune. It made me incredibly appreciative of the amount of creative freedom I was given to play and just be a kid. I want A Playful City to succeed in giving that opportunity to many more children around the world.

To create playful cities, communities must come together to plan and communicate, and to enlist their local, as well as national governments into accepting the seriousness and essentialness of these issues, so that children’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing isn’t put in jeopardy. This conference did an outstanding job in touching on the serious and important issues regarding children’s rights to play and the ideals of play, but it did so in a way that was colorful, fun and humorous. It provided poetic, musical and comedic performances to remind us just how fun creativity and imagination can be, succeeding in the conference’s goal to stray away from the normal conference ideals, and to get the audience to do so along with them. It educated us on fighting for more imagination and creativity in our lives and the lives of our children, by providing us with a safe space to be creative and imaginative in discussion with these issues. The A Playful City: Design Meets Play conference provided us with a numerous amount of ideas and strategies to have our voices heard in regards to our children’s rights to play, as well as showing us a good time. It was excellently executed and provided its audience, especially me, with moments of clarity, familiarity and hope for the play, imagination and creativity of the children of the future.

Credit: Kristen Harvey