Participatory Design of Playgrounds and urban playing – part one


Eduplaying’s factory is situated in Zutphen, the Netherlands. You might not be aware of it, but the Netherlands has a long tradition of participatory design of playgrounds. When designing new interactive installations Eduplaying also uses participatory design methodology.

In this series of blogs we will look at the importance of participatory design and offer you some practical guidelines in case you like to use participatory design with the development of your own playgrounds. This blog consists of four parts, this is part one. You’re welcome to comment and to provide your own experiences and good and bad practices.

First, let’s define participatory design. Participatory design is an approach to design attempting to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g. employees, partners, customers, citizens, end users) in the design process to help ensure the result meets their needs and is usable. Participatory design is an approach which is focused on processes and procedures of design and is not a design style.

The theory of participatory design is to combine interdisciplinary theory and practice, and involve children in the planning and design phases of their own surroundings. In addition to the benefits of children having the chance to actively take part instead of passively accept what they are given, this process plays the important role of giving children that feeling of having been listened to. Thus, the joint activity itself becomes a learning process for both the
designers and the inhabitants.

Secondly, let’s have a look at the history of participatory design of playgrounds, especially in the Netherlands. After the end of the second World War, there were few places in Amsterdam to play. The archive of the city of Amsterdam contain over 190 post-war letters from citizens requesting a playground. The municipality decided to respond to the demand and to use techniques of democratic participation. What made the post-war Amsterdam playground unique was that they were not conceived as isolated, one-off individual playgrounds. On the contrary, the Amsterdam playgrounds were part of a bottom-up, integrated urban planning process. Each of the thousand (!) playgrounds built in Amsterdam in the period 1947 – 1968 was the result of a personal written request by citizens.

What makes the post-war Amsterdam playground unique – even today – are three characteristics: they were not imposed from above by the municipal government but initiated by the citizens themselves; they were not located on isolated playground areas but rather inserted in in interstices within the neighbourhoods; they were not planned as individual playground units but as part of an network of playgrounds. This approach owed its emergence to two important people within the post-war urban design of the city of Amsterdam: the architect Aldo van Eyck and the city development director Cornelis van Eesteren. Thus, this new way of designing playgrounds was based on three principles: participatory, interstitial and polycentric, what has been called by Lefaivre ‘PIP’. In this serie of blogs we will focus mainly on the first aspect: the participatory design.

As said, children can have a central decision-making role in changing their playground design, an assumption based in the theory of participatory design. But how does that work in practice? The challenge of the participatory process is that children have cognitive, social, cultural and physical limitations that impede a process of genuine participation in playground design. Therefore, we need to combine education theory with participatory design to provide a fruitful approach. In the next blogs of this serie we will present a practical model and guidelines which can be used in the participatory design of playgrounds.

About the author 

Naftalie Hershler

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