The Healing Power of Playing

Gabriela Burkhalter

What significance do we give to playing? What significance do we give to playing in public spaces? And to the playing of children? We as adults have a lot to learn from playing children: immersing ourselves with no distractions, forgetting space and time, entering imaginary worlds, moments of full intensity, with no fear of missing out on anything.

We live in an increasingly disembodied world where everything is reduced to fit a screen, and where body, spirit and creativity are given far too little room. Playing is one of the most perfect and successful tools for empowering, educating and connecting people. Playing enables empathy; it encourages us to take risks, teaches us to resolve conflicts and invites us to actively and collectively shape our surroundings and provide them with meaning. 

In the beginning – from 1860 – the playground was a “moral” project of socially minded people, educators and designers. In Scandinavia, these experts began to integrate it into a context of nature-oriented aesthetics, connecting playgrounds with a call for more creativity. It was the start of a fruitful era of experimentation and combination: Everything was possible – from art and landscaping to sculpture and craftsmanship. From the 1980s on, this wealth of thinking and ideas was increasingly watered down by off-the-peg playground design –today more so than ever.   

Playing as a moral concept
The playground movement emerged from 1860 as a part of social reform movements in the US. These reformers, mainly well-educated, socially committed women and men, responded to the abysmal working and living conditions in industrial cities. Far prior to any welfare state, they founded various social institutions, including playgrounds, in order to look after, educate and – yes – also discipline the large numbers of unsupervised children of workers and migrants. 

Playing as a public health mission
Towards the end of the 19th century, German scientists and hygiene specialists (pioneers of better public health) particularly propagated playing in sand in the open air, mainly with the aim of “physical training”. The progressive educational movement of “Reformpädagogik” from the early 20th century, on the other hand, demanded child-oriented education. The emerging field of child psychology proved that childhood as a phase in life is of vital significance for a person’s entire development. In this context, playing was discovered to be an original activity of children – and that is has great developmental value instead of being a worthless diversion.

Playing as creative activity
Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen already outlined naturally designed playing spaces for housing co-operatives as early as the 1920s. In 1931, he formulated the concept of the “skrammellegeplads”, a “junk”- or construction playground with no specific playing equipment. In 1943, this concept was first implemented in Emdrup near Copenhagen. This may be considered to be revolutionary because the design of the playground was entirely entrusted to the children. The English children’s-rights advocate Marjory Allen transferred the idea of the skrammelegeplads to Great Britain, to the US and even to Japan in 1945, making it socially acceptable as “adventure playgrounds”. Thanks to her, the first adventure or “educationally supervised” playground was created in Berlin in 1967. It would be hard to name another person whose influence was as wide-reaching as Marjory Allen’s, who tirelessly advocated for children’s rights and needs. 

Campaigning for a city oriented towards children and playing
After the Second World War, Europe was characterized by destruction and reconstruction. The post-war “economic miracle”, home construction and the triumph of the car all led to rapid urbanization. Playing in the streets was no longer possible. Playgrounds became standard features of large-scale estates but their design was often lacking in care and imagination. Residents, students, parents and children were no longer willing to accept either these desolate places or the dominance of motor traffic. The ecological crises of the 1970s raised people’s awareness and they began to fight for their surroundings, their neighbourhoods or their block of flats: It was the time of spontaneous campaigns and residents forming initiatives and taking action. 

The “Spielwagen”-movement in the GDR: mobile animation to play
While a neo-liberal ideology became more and more dominant in the Western world during the 1980s and a consumerist society increasingly encroached on all areas of life, the citizens of the GDR began to fight for more freedom, creativity and public spaces. One example was the “Spielwagen”-movement which first emerged in Berlin in 1979 and then found emulators in other cities throughout the GDR who would open up temporary open spaces for creative and free playing in parks and on estates. The “Spielwagen”-movement remained active after Germany’s reunification and created new networks to make sure that their achievements were preserved. 

Healing play
Over the course of the 1980s, the issue of playgrounds lost some of its significance for a variety of reasons. For the past ten years or so, universities, collectives, architects and landscape architects have rediscovered playgrounds as areas of creative freedom. They understand the playground as a part of both the public sphere and the urban jungle. It is regarded as a catalyst that can, for instance, generate a new dynamic in a quarter or support children in crisis situations, as the following examples will illustrate. 

In 2006, six students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design founded the Kounkey Design Initiative (KDI) with three locations: Copenhagen, Los Angeles and Nairobi. In the informal settlement of Kibera / Nairobi, KDI joined local organisations to construct eleven “productive public spaces”. These improve flood prevention and development, offering various kinds of infrastructure from meeting points and micro markets to playgrounds including sanitation facilities. This makes them first-rate public spaces.  

A different example comes from Japan. As after the 1995 earthquake near Kobe, so-called “play workers” organised temporary spaces for playing in the regions affected by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011. These spaces were initiated by Hideaki Amano, play worker and co-founder of Tokyo’s first adventure playground. He noticed that playing helps children to process trauma. He observed that the children re-enacted the earthquake or the tsunami countless times and realised that playing had a healing effect and helped them to laugh again.   

Crises challenge societies to take action, to leave their comfort zone and look for solutions – playing is fun and it brings new perspectives and priorities.