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Richard Cottrell, Cottrell & Vermulen Architects

How do you feel about the view that if, because of technologychildren don’t want to play as much?

I’m not sure about that…

You strongly disagree?

Well I suppose I’d agree and disagree, because obviously that sort of “gaming” on a screen, as you get older, is most probably more and more what happens, but, certainly from direct experience of littler children, that’s not what happens.They might be easily led into only doing computer things but as soon as you change that focus they wont….You know its just ‘easy play’… and easy parenting - stick them in front of the tv because that will keep them addicted, whereas a playground, they will enjoy it more, and have more fun doing other things.

What sort of research you do when your thinking about designing spaces for children, specifically playgrounds? How doesthe process work? It’s probably a long process?

It’s a level of experience, as I’ve been designing playgrounds for twenty years, therefore there’s a level of knowing. Not of knowing what they need but knowing the issues. We always try to consult with the people who are going to use the playground, talk to them and the children about activities and ideas and aspirations, so its lead by their idea. And then it’s trying to make things that are… I think the worst thing for anybody to do as an adult is to try to be a child… that is the point of failure, because you can remember being a child but your memory isn’t actually being a child - you don’t want to put yourself in his or her shoes.You want for them to be as childlike as they can be.You’re making potential things for them to do rather than saying ‘ok lets do that’. Children, they will happily make something out of cushions and a blanket, so they need that potential in a playground.

So it’s like providing the materials?

Yeah so their imagination can discover and make things of a place, rather than… you know.

I’m looking at that an idea that playgrounds which provide thosekind of materials, or work around the idea of not necessarily givingthe children everything ‘ready made’, do you think there are a lot ofplaygrounds that don’t necessarily do this?

Well one of the first playgrounds we did was for a school in South End where we extended some classrooms around a courtyard to make a playground. It was very low budget, all that we could afford to start with was plain tarmac, so it was like a typical school playground that became dominated by football – boy’s games. About 6 months after it was in use we got a little bit of money and were able to paint the wall that was in the playground yellow and to paint some spots on the floor. Immediately after we did that the activity of play changed – the wall became a real attraction to just stand around and be on, because it was colour and the games started to revolve around the dots on the floor, rather than only being a place to run through. That in a way is the bleakest type of playground, but it shows how just very small creative interventions can allow the play to be very, very different.

How do you feel about the more conventional playgrounds that wesee around London, like a simple metal modular slide, orroundabout?

In a way… I think they’re good… yes I think they’re fine… on the whole most children still want to go to them, so having a place that you climb up and something you can discover is good, its fun. Having a slide to go down – its fun. Some of those spaces can be much better than others, but even the ones that you might not think are that good are still enjoyed by the children. There’s a danger to be too intellectual… there is a danger of being adult about it and trying to rationalise an adult agenda to play,

Its interesting to get a completely opposite view, most of thereading I’ve been doing is really one sided in that it is against thosemodular metal climbing frames and also in disarray about the waythat children don’t want to go out and play any more. There are acouple of books which basically say that childhood is disappearingcompletely, which is a really strong point to be putting across!

Well it’s the problem of academia really, its that they are setting themselves a thesis, and they want to prove their thesis so they pick the arguments that will say ‘this is obviously true’, rather than…. Its my frustration with all academia, here’s common sense involved, that to prove these things… you don’t need to prove them, you just need to go to a park and look and see what’s happening!

I went to a few parks yesterday, they didn’t have many children in itat all, they were sort of deserted…

Well the little park next to our studio here, we have two little parks here. At the end of the school day in the summer (and its not a really lovely little park), it’s full. That’s where you go after school, the kids go in there and play. It’s a place the kids and the parents to meet and they stay because its light evenings and its warm and they play in it. And there’s even a nastier little playground in the estate there that’s the same. It’s a place to meet, and to play, it’s safe and enclosed, and it’s not the one bedroom flat.

Do you think the safety thing is quite an important aspect of playgrounds?

Yeah I think obviously you want for younger children when they’re in your care for them toBe safe.They can have dangerous toys, but you don’t want them running away. So it’s the enclosure and how you deal with that so that you can be confident that you can just let them go and it’s hard for them to get away.

A few of the people I have been looking at have tried to get rid of the idea of it being an enclosed space or boundary?

Well I think that’s sort of right and wrong, with younger children it’s very important because you have to be aware of things, but obviously as they get older that boundary becomes less necessary. Different ages have different needs.

Are there any specific elements of a playground that would besuccessful or unsuccessful?

I can more easily point to playgrounds that are more successful. For example the Princess Diana Playground seems to be a really successful environment for play, it does all the things: It has safety, it has challenge and all ages can use it. Those sorts of playgrounds are really, really good. But there’s also just the idea of going to the beach… just a breakwater, and the water itself, and the sand, is most probably all you might need in a playground. That certainly would be my place to go, but that’s the beach, you don’t think ‘I’m going to the playground’ when you go there. Playgrounds can be subtler.

As a parent what sorts of placesdo your children prefer?

The perfect playground for my boys would be a football field, then around the football field would be lots of bushes with routes you can go through, places to play war. Then there would be equipment, and things to climb, and on the other side of that some breakwaters, a beach and some water!

In the city, they love the fountains, and that playground they did at the Southbank with the walls of water that came up and down to make rooms that you could run through… that’s sort of ideal, those sort of places that aren’t trying to make you play too obviously, they are just playful spaces. I think it’s just anything really… those kind of places will always be better than any computer game.

Do you think its bad that we have intellectualised the whole idea ofplay? There are so many studies about play, and how to make theright space or the right environment for play?

Yeah, I think so, my feeling is that its common sense really: you need to play, you learn by playing and on the whole children naturally will play in any environment.

But then I suppose in terms of your job… how do you justify it?

As I say, I think our job is to make the ground to enable that to happen. We’ve just done this thing for the Olympic Park, which is a competition, maybe we’ll win it, maybe we wont, but that’s all about a play park. At one end there’s a building that’s for younger kids to play in and it is more protected. Then we have an open, facsimile of the Olympic stadium, which is a big climbing frame. Then we have a valley that is water and beach. Then either side of the valley we have grown willow structures and towers that you can walk around and through. So you know I don’t think we are saying… I mean there are some formal play elements, but the point of it is that you find how to play, we are not telling you.

When we did our first primary school, we did a toilet, and we designed the basins, one for the 4 year old, one for the 8 year old andone for the 10 year old, thinking that the little ones will be able to wash their hands easily, the middle ones will be able to wash their hands easily and the tallest ones will be able to wash their hands easily. Everybody went to the biggest basin. We were trying to ‘be’ a 4 year old, an 8 year old and a 10 year old, and failing dismally because they all wanted to be the big boy or girl. They didn’t, any of them, ever want to be perceived as the ‘little one’. If you start to say ‘you will do this here’, most likely they wont.

The good thing about play and playgrounds is that in education, they are being told what to do in their learning and the play element of it should be the point where they are not ‘told’ anymore, you are not prescribing something.

On the whole you’re not really ‘designing’ spaces for children specifically at all, it’s subtle.