In Play Structure: Design of Play Environments for Children, Senda details the main characteristics of a playspace, identifies certain elements that are quintessential in the making and understanding of playspaces. Even though the essay has been written from a Japanese perspective, with a focus on what is lacking in the playspaces of Japanese children in the late 90s, it serves as a credible basis for students like us trying to design and construct a playspace.
The essay lays out some basic information that we are supposed to know and respect when it comes to creating playspaces. For instance, it clearly states that a playspace has four basic elements – the time for playing, the space/location for playing, friends to play with, and different methods of playing. Of course, when children play, they don’t actually take a scientific approach to see whether or not these elements are all present and only then proceed to play. Instead, they have a more unconscious approach which nevertheless incorporates them seeking out these elements in ways that they don’t realize.
So, in a way, it is the prerogative of the playspace designer(s) to ensure the children have ample access to these elements so that they have a good experience while playing. The essay when written in 1998, relates to the phenomena of children staying indoors more than they should. And its no secret that the situation has only grown worse 10 years from then until today.
The essay then goes on to detail the different types of playspaces. Such a characterization enables us to understand the positives and negatives of each type of playspace, especially when it comes to aspects such as safety, fun, age-groups it caters to etc. Senda also suggests that the act of designing good playspaces can spill over to the city as a whole, affecting multiple urban spaces that are connected to the playspace.
One of the more interesting things that the essay noted was the different ‘stages’ of play. Starting with introducing a new playspace to children, how do they interact with the environment, and immerse themselves in the experience? Functional Play stage is the first, where the children first try to identify the functions and purpose of the playspace and equipment involved. It is then followed by Technical Play stage where they proceed to perform some ‘moves’, and that is followed by the paramount stage of Social Play where the initial function of the equipment has less focus, and social actions take centerstage in the same setting. Clearly not all playspaces and accompanying equipment take children through these multiple stages in the best way possible. When it doesn’t cater to a certain stage enough, the playspace fails to provide a complete play experience to the children.
The paper also describes Play Systems where the innate nature of the game(s) is discussed. Some games that children play might have a defined start and end point, while some could be ‘circulatory’ in nature, with the game being continuous even though different goals are achieved regularly. Play Spaces are also detailed in this context, with an architectural flavor to the description. The open or closed nature of a building/space can make a world of difference to what is played, and how much fun is derived from the game that is played.