Friday, 23 March 2007

City as Playground

A generation of children are growing up totally disconnected from their environment. A great article at BoingBoing highlights some new initiatives to "reclaim the idea of outdoor play for kids".

The article links to a piece by Richard Louv called "No Child Left Inside", an evocative clarion call to greater engagement with outdoor activity.

"To some extent, the movement is fueled by organizational or economic self-interest. But something deeper is going on here. With its nearly universal appeal, this issue seems to hint at a more atavistic motivation. It may have something to do with what Harvard professor E. O. Wilson calls the biophilia hypothesis, which is that human beings are innately attracted to nature: biologically, we are all still hunters and gatherers, and there is something in us, which we do not fully understand, that needs an occasional immersion in nature. We do know that when people talk about the disconnect between children and nature—if they are old enough to remember a time when outdoor play was the norm—they almost always tell stories about their own childhoods: this tree house or fort, that special woods or ditch or creek or meadow. They recall those “places of initiation,” in the words of naturalist Bob Pyle, where they may have first sensed with awe and wonder the largeness of the world seen and unseen. When people share these stories, their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down."

As the BoingBoing piece continues, in Germany there are 'Waldkindergarten,' kindergartens based in the woods where the kids spend all day.

At a slightly more prosaic level Pott Row First School, in Norfolk, England, is giving every child waterproof clothing and aims to have half it's lessons outside.

The facts are that children play far less outside than ever before, despite evidence that there is no greater 'stranger danger' now than ever before, though dangers from road traffic are certainly a valid factor. Will children disconnected from their external environment grow up to be adults with no sense of place and belonging?

"Yes, there are risks outside our homes. But there are also risks in raising children under virtual protective house arrest: threats to their independent judgment and value of place, to their ability to feel awe and wonder, to their sense of stewardship for the Earth—and, most immediately, threats to their psychological and physical health."

But the concept of city as playground can be extended beyond children and into adulthood. Skateboarders and free runners ('parkour' - examples here and here), for example, view and engage with the city in a totally different way than that devised by architects and urbanists.

We can overlay opportunities for fun and exploration over the urban and natural fabric of the city. PacManhattan for instance, treats city blocks as part of a grid for a virtual reality game, using Wi-Fi and cellphones to spatialise the video game. Other augmented reality games, or so called alternate reality games such as Perplexcity overlap and combine fictional narratives with real world places. Nokia have dabbled in the ARG market with the imaginativly titled Nokia Game

The brief for the Greater Helsinki Vision is very concerned with environemntal issues, and makes great claims to Helsinki's natural beauty. Any visions we have for Helsinki must balance landscape with townscape. We should explore new typologies of both the urban fabric and built form that seek to break down these artificial distinctions.

Let us break the artificial, temerous divide between rural and urban, real and virtual, and regard it all as landscape, a playground.


lewism said...

Hmm Kosmograd you may have hit on our meta-narrative or at any rate a strong contender. Finnish love of nature is really shown in their nursery system. Kids here play alot more outside and are allowed to play in an unstructured way e.g. less organised by adults. Anyway looking at the City as a playground on all sorts of levels may strike a chord for the competition, and allow us as a team from just framing the questions in more practical ways which may easily lead up dead ends.

Kosmograd said...

Thanks Lewis,

I was going to mention the Finn's love of nature but then wasn't sure if this was just pandering to a stereotype.

The lightbulb in my head went off when I read the bit in the Richard Louv article which talked about children being more engaged in the creation of play opportunites, not just consumers of the 'play' schemes presented to them:

"Incorporate nature trails and natural waterways; throw out the conventional covenants and restrictions that discourage or prohibit natural play and rewrite the rules to encourage it; allow kids to build forts and tree houses or plant gardens; and create small, on-site nature centers.

“Kids could become guides, using cell phones, along nature trails that lead to schools at the edge of the development,” someone suggested.'

Utilising the advanced state of mobile telecommunications in Finland would make this a feasible reality.

Here in the UK, with our obsession with Health and Safety, our media-fuelled fear of child abduction and the abundance of cars and fast moving traffic on our streets, I think our children are growing up environmentally impoverished.

I have a 7 year old daughter and she has never played outside by herself, or gone to the park by herself, or ridden a bike by herself in the road - I think people would be shocked if I let here. Yet when I was her age I would spend hours outside, playing football, riding bikes and exploring by myself or with my brother.

There's an opportunity for Finland to be a beacon of hope in this issue.

lewism said...

The Richard Louv article is inspiring its a good link and very pertinent. I have a 3 year old son who goes to nursery here. They are out twice a day for at least an hour each time. Many visits to the parks etc. They only stop going outside when the temperature reaches -15!

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