The design plays with scale. A giant flower climbing structure produces a range of sounds as its different parts are moved, turning a physical exploring experience into a story, where the child is a bee in the flower. A tree house structure is a mouse nest, made from oversized blades of grass.
As well as the surreal allure of this world, the play area offers a non-prescribed sequence of experience, unlike a standard exhibition, says Phillips. ‘Children are very able to see these surreal transitions of scale and the reality that is behind them. Actually moving away from being overtly educational has perhaps been more effective in teaching children. It turns out that the playground and exhibition environments fit together incredibly well.’
The comfort of parents and carers is another important consideration for designers. A light drizzle may not deter children from happily clambering around, but it is not much fun for adults to sit around in, notes Cohen. Walters & Cohen’s child centre designs attempt to address this.
‘We want to design a space that appeals to many different ages,’ says Cohen. ‘What do mothers do while they’re there? If they could work on a garden or have coffee they would appreciate the areas more and spend more time there. There should be covered spaces as it very often rains.’
The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts last month awarded artist and design organisation Snug and Outdoor £200 000 to develop its Experimental Playground Kit. The company will work with graduates from the Design Laboratory at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, as well as teachers from the Institute of Education.
‘Playgrounds are a fantastically important part of schools throughout the country, but they can be bleak and boring. There’s too little for children to do,’ says Snug and Outdoor director Hattie Coppard. The company will use the Nesta grant to develop its award-winning playground design for Daubeney School in London’s Hackney.
The Government’s desire to direct more money into the development of play areas follows a review of play provision by former Health Secretary Frank Dobson and former director of the Children’s Play Council Tim Gill.
The funds will be allocated by a range of distributors, led by the Big Lottery Fund. Other awarding bodies may include the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sport England and Awards for All. These organisations will assess each application on merit, meaning the money will be distributed to different sectors – community-based projects, as well as school playgrounds.
Julia Thrift, director of Cabe Space, a body campaigning for improved public spaces, hopes the money will be spent imaginatively. ‘There is lots of room for a more creative approach; one that is less risk averse,’ she says. ‘And there is a very big role to play by designers.’