Do kids want chips with everything?

Anne Konopelski looks at the Science Museum’s plans to introduce technology into children’s playgrounds

Once upon a time, playgrounds held a special place in children’s hearts. They thronged to them, happily spending hours on the slides and swings, and moulding damp sand into elaborate structures.

But today’s children are apparently not so easily impressed. Most boys and girls think playgrounds are ‘boring’, according to a recent national survey by the Children’s Play Council. Play areas do not have the equipment they want, those questioned said, and often prevent them playing games they enjoy. Half of those surveyed said they could only be bothered to visit local playgrounds ‘occasionally’.

What’s gone wrong? One argument suggests the overprotective culture of the past decade has made playgrounds boring. Parents, afraid of children getting hurt, and schools and local authorities, fearful of litigation, may have inadvertently reduced playgrounds to safe – but also bland and joyless – areas.

But children are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Playgrounds didn’t get a mention in a June 2003 Mintel report on UK children’s leisure activities, but video games and computers did. Among seven- to 10-year-olds, nearly all boys – and three-quarters of girls – now play video games. And some 75 per cent of seven- to 14-year-olds have regular access to computers at home.

So, what – if anything – can be done to lure children back outside to play areas? Does playground equipment need to be redesigned to compete with the video- and computer-based entertainment that so many children have at home?

The Science Museum thinks so. Last week, its consultancy arm Science Museum Solutions announced it is seeking product designers and manufacturers to help it bring a range of interactive and technology-driven playground equipment to market in the UK and abroad (DW 9 October).

Many of its concepts – including Snake Chaser, Interactive Arena and the Outdoor Common Area – emerged from the Science Museum’s ‘classrooms of the future’ project. The initiative, which also involved the Department for Education and Skills and Bedfordshire Local Education Authority, employed modern technology at three schools to create more stimulating learning environments, both in the classroom and on the playground.

SMS’s concepts build on the successes of traditional playground equipment, but, by bringing in new ideas, make it more ‘useable’, ‘attractive’ and ‘engaging’ for kids, says head of marketing and communications Andrew Williamson.

The concepts were developed in close collaboration with children and so directly reflect their wants and needs, he says. And they incorporate the technology that drives children’s lives, adds SMS head of creative services Peter Trevitt.

David Birch, head teacher at Burgoyne middle school, where the Interactive Arena is installed, agrees the consultancy’s interactive equipment could be the way forward for playgrounds.

‘We have certainly discovered that children are looking for a different form of engagement than [they would find] in a traditional playground environment,’ Birch explains. Children are technologically more savvy than ever – thanks to early exposure to TVs, computers and video games – he adds, and ‘the style of play ultimately has to change’ to reflect that.

To work, the technology has to be simple, says Daljit Singh, Digit creative director. ‘[SMS] is taking something quite mundane and giving it intelligence and flexibility.’ As long as it keeps the technology relatively basic, Singh says, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t succeed in introducing some ‘magic and an element of surprise’ into playgrounds – something he believes has been successfully done in video games for years.

Nik Roope, co-creative director at Poke, agrees. ‘I’m cautious about assuming that because kids love technology, anything you do with it will attract them. Play and playgrounds are all about helping children understand social interaction and their physical world,’ he says. ‘As long as the technology doesn’t take over, it could potentially increase the complexity of these relationships and make them more engaging [for children].’

The most successful playground equipment could be that which emulates video games and Internet sites, but doesn’t actually incorporate much of their whiz-bang technology, says Priestman Goode director Paul Priestman. He says he’d like to see more playground equipment that, like websites, has different layers and is ‘all about finding, exploring and discovering’. The technology doesn’t need to be blatant, he says, as long as it ‘brings children enjoyment’ and ‘encourages their imaginations’.

Sebastian Conran, creative director of Conran & Partners, agrees playground equipment should be enhanced, not dominated, by technology. ‘Locks and waterways, where children can move the locks around,’ or ‘swings that make different sounds as children go higher and higher’ would work well, he says. The best playground equipment stimulates ‘activity’, ‘interaction between children’ and ‘imagination’, he adds. ‘It has to be safe, but appear dangerous, so children perceive it as risky. A bit of vertigo is always helpful.’

One way or another, SMS’s call for help in developing interactive equipment could result in some ‘good collaborations between people with prowess in the technological world and those with prowess in the physical world’, says Roope. ‘Technical experts probably aren’t the best people to make the physical aspects of [interactive playground equipment] work, and vice versa. It’s hard for [one consultancy] to cover all ground,’ he says.

So that just leaves the funding issue. As Birch points out, the biggest problem schools and communities face if they hope to introduce more cutting-edge playground equipment is finding the money to pay for research and development.

‘The most expensive thing is the cost of people’s time,’ he says. SMS’s development plans, which are expected to be well under way by the new year, could go some way in addressing this problem.

The playground of tomorrow?

Interactive Arena (top) A series of large-scale pads and runways that employs sensory technology and can be spread out over an open space. Children can choose from a selection of games requiring them to run between – and jump up and down on – the pads.

Snake Chaser (above) A chain of lights that trails from one side of a fence to the other, horizontally and vertically. Young children divide and multiply the sequence of lights by pressing buttons on the fence.

Outdoor Common Room (right) A private, sheltered area with a solar-powered jukebox. Teenagers gather here with their friends for a chat, and listen to pre-loaded music

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