A history of creative playgroups

“Play, I think, is related to creativity – the opposite to a heavy theoretical approach to things. Otherwise people are so keen to define their position and exclude others. It doesn’t work for me…. It started with play. Through play, it was possible to a new approach for self-expression.”                                    – Mary Turner, Action Space Lab

As part of Futuremakers, an exhibition of creative playgrounds and design projects has been curated to occupy the Arena Gallery.

The exhibition presents a number of historical and contemporary examples where play is centered as a key method of designing, representing a shift towards more collaborative and user-generated creative processes. The display is divided under three sections:

  • Early Play Sites – a number of mid-20th century planned or ad-hoc playgrounds and festivals emerged from the pressures of post-war developments,
  • Contemporary Play Practices – play structures in the UK, Europe and Middle East including those created in response to mass refugee migration, and finally
  • New Creative Playgrounds – where play activities are fabricated into collective assemblages of structures or images.



turck_62472 72dpi© Sven Türck / VISDA

The importance of play has long been established in terms of allowing for it in a designated space – particularly for children in a safe environment. American President, Theodore Roosevelt, claimed “play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools”. Back in Europe, Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen first proposed the design of a Skrammellegepladsen – a junk playground in the 1930s after seeing children play with random on-site materials on a construction site. He was inspired by the manner in which it captivated their imagination and enhanced their ability to create stories and transform their physical environment by manipulating simple materials of mud, timber, and other readymade objects. The playgrounds were first built in the Danish city of Emdrup during the Nazi occupation in 1943 before more are established in Copenhagen.

Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited the junk playground on an improvised visit across Scandanavia. Inspired by what she saw, Lady Allen published her thoughts on the facility in Picture Post before gaining support to establish the first Junk Playground in the UK in Camberwell, London. Many more playgrounds emerged across the city with informal sites set up immediately after the many ruins created by the Blitz bombing during World War II.

Much of the ideas behind junk playgrounds are rooted in new understandings of developmental psychology and childhood theory. During the 1970’s a group of Italian avant-garde collective called Global Tools wanted to “de-intellectualise” the use of theories in art and design in a desire to relearn craft technique and “ancestral know-how” through a purer act of construction. Riccardo Dalisi, an artist loosely connected to the group, carried out studies of creative spontaneous experiments with the residents of Rione Traiano, a poor neighbourhood in Naples under a conceptual framework of Tecnica Povera (poor technique). The ability in self-expression appealed to both children and adults as evidences in the photographs of the events.

Open-ended exploration in malleable matter emphasized the natural characteristics of materials in a deconstructed process. Deconstruction is not just in the material but in the technique as well. For both Dalisi and Sørenson a deconstructive urge should be considered as a form of constructive play.

Back in the UK, play sites were turned into performance spaces with early pioneers such as Action Space Lab (Sheffield/London) and Birmingham Arts Lab (Birmingham) in the 1970’s. Action Space were an arts and theatre company exploring a “common ground between play, the arts and education”. Their work used structures and performers to create exciting and enjoyable events for the wider public. The defining aspect to their work was definitely their large inflatables creating fluid, alien-like spaces to immerse yourself in. They were brought to life with face painting and costumed actors, engaging the children in contributing to new fables.

At a more local level, the Birmingham Arts Lab originally consisted of 5 artists who had previously worked at mac before setting up their own avant-garde group. With an exhibition space on Tower Street, their catalogue of work was more radical in its media – film, projection combined with performance. Whilst many of their events engaged the public and young audiences to contribute to their ever-changing environment of their gallery, their uniqueness came from the individuality of the member’s own interests. The image on show here by Toby Jones depicts Mike Westbrook’s marching band, parading across the constructed landscape of the Newtown, enticing the young residents to imagine their home turf as something beyond what is visible.

These early play sites and organisations developed a legacy to diversify the reach of traditional arts programmes – often combining a multitude of disciplines and mediums to generate a rich, cultural and hyperlocal experience for young audiences to remember. These traits can be found in many contemporary play practices where community participation is a tool for idea generation by designers of different scales and agendas.



EcoOfColour by Jim Stephenson-14 copy 72dpi Ecology of Colour, Studio Weave. © Jim Stephenson

Many of the ideas generated from early pioneers in play work feature heavily in the contemporary practice of art, design and architecture. Whilst most designers do play with ideas or materials, the artists and designers here showcase projects where play is an intrinsic part of their everyday way of making and doing with a strong focus towards a younger audience.

The processes involved go beyond just a token gesture…workshops, events, collaborative builds… they are implemented early on in the design thinking before any formal idea is decided upon. Design is democratised amongst all the local and participating users – not just to the established designers. This helps with a community to feel a sense of ownership in their environment and to allow the public to learn how design is a force for change – even if you haven’t studies it!

Many of these (mainly) young artists, designers and architects, emerged during the early 2010’s. The economic downturn in 2008 forced many graduates in the creative arts to generate their own projects through activism and collectivism – exemplified by Turner prize-winning architecture collective Assemble.

Wild Kingdom by London architecture and urbanism practice We Made That, adopts a “strategy of ‘opportunism’ in proposing play provision for Lea Valley making the most of the play possibilities of the newly created landforms”. Natural and reclaimed timbers, rope work and standard playground items create a sustainable construction space, whilst providing local young people with an opportunity to access nature in play. Ecology of Colour by Studio Weave offers a joyful and imaginative structure as a ‘custodian’ for a reimagined park in Dartford, Kent. A colour pattern and fabric dyeing workshop defined the distinctive decoration for the structure based on the ecological cycles of plants and insects. Test Unit is an architecture summer school of making and building in Glasgow. Their aim is to create change in cities from “activism in public space. Doing, not just talking.” Four standalone structures are constructed over the course of a week, headed by four separate designers. This project differs in its design as a temporary structure – changing its priority as a catalytic act rather than creating a permanent sense of place the Wild Kingdom and Ecology of Colour provides.

Catalytic Action provides temporary and semi-permanent structures under very different circumstances. The organisation is a charity that works to promote human rights through community-led spatial interventions. Ibtasem is playground and community space in a Lebanese refugee camp especially designed through a series of workshops with young refugees to help define the activities they want to use it for. The video on display documents the whole working process and captures the powerful impact play and design can bring to a group of people. Ibtasem demonstrates similarities with the early junk playground in Europe but channeled through an applied project brief. Open-ended inquiry and play are still used, combined with more contemporary methods in community engagement that directs the thinking towards a specific outcome.

The architecturally-focused projects include art-based works by Brazilian-born artist Renata Bandeira and Austrian siblings Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler. Both their work are formed and housed in a gallery setting but activated during interactive free-form play with children. Bandeira’s Form Perform Transform Go! is a series of acrylic sheets and timber blocks cut and bent to shape, then assembled in a number of configurations by children as they play. Hohenbüchler’s bau-Stelle is a timber meccano-like element that can be formed into an ever changing complex latticework as shown here in the Craftivism exhibition at Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery.

These art-based examples use simple material and geometric elements as the ‘vehicle’ to channel the children’s imagination into realizing what is possible. The artistic practice is carried through these readymade elements and offer an alternative approach than an iteration of design sessions that the architectural projects highlighted.

Whereas the early pioneers in junk playgrounds focused on the deconstruction or de-politicisation of play as a relief to the major traumas of the early 20th Centruy, these contemporary practitioners have actively embraced ideas of public boundaries, contested space, appropriation and democratising knowledge as sub-conscious political gestures in the act of designing. It is a display of current concerns of the designers regardless of how playful the final outcomes may be.



LittleArchitect_Collage_A4-300ppp-jpg10 copy 72 © Little Architect

“They can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality, any rate a reality, which the child’s mind is completely satisfied with…It is so obvious that the children thrive here and feel well, they unfold and they live.”        – CT Sørensen

A number of emerging organisations or that have used creative playmaking as a key activity for bringing communities together. They are mainly child-centred activities on improvised making and building, and fits in with Lady Allen of Hurtwood’s idea of “a creative playground with tools and waste material.”

Some of the projects have employed the use of designers or architects but are all instigated by local groups that believe in the transformative effect of play.

Orleton School Canopy and Arquitectura para niños (Architecture for Children) are  initiatives devised as learning activities in a school environment, offering a taste of a design process as part of their early curriculum. These activities are known under different pedagogic terms; active learning, learning-by-doing, situation based learning… This format is a prominent method of teaching in design schools where concrete experience developed more specific content to learn from with a deeper understanding of the impact their designs generates.

Little Architect is an education and learning platform for teaching architecture and sustainability across schools in London – developed by academics at the Architectural Association. The scale and approach to visioning the future city differs drastically from the previous examples. The cut and paste method allows for creative thinking and a better understanding of what our buildings could look and work like through the eyes of young children. Paper and scissors becomes the tools for communicating these visions…they are presented as large vibrant collages assembled together from existing and found items just a complex city is over several hundred years. Their participation “prepares them to play an active role as citizens of a sustainable future.“

Timmerdorp and Play:ground NYC are two ambitious building programmes that happen every summer in the Netherlands and New York City respectively. Expectations of health and safety are thrown out the window as children build their own towns, homes and shelters in what can be recognized as traditional junk playgrounds from the 1930.

Timmerdorp Groningen is located in an industrial wasteland that is currently in a phase of redevelopment. Just using timber pallets, hammers and nails, the children build an entire village where they ask what is the future of the city? Can it be expressed using the basic tools given? Play:ground provides a physical environment that encourages experimentation through self directed play. Their mission statement declares their belief in children’s right and providing a sanctuary for children of all backgrounds – “young people can take control, construct, create and establish their own agendas.” Both projects have visible similarities in the format and appearance to the original junk playgrounds whilst adding a political dimension that is representative of the organisation’s spatial concerns for their respective locations.

These new creative playground extends beyond the common form first established in the 1930’s, testing the early intentions of adventure play to something more studious and reflective. However, the playground environments still provide risk taking – whilst still being risk free. Risk, applied in a controlled space, encourages a greater spatial, social and technical awareness of our constructed world.


Brutalist Playground, The Guardian 
London Play
Jack Thorne, Junkyard the musical
Adventure Play

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