Not your ordinary playgrounds

August 24, 2013

“…. children’s playgrounds are the city’s most important form of public plantation.”

C. Th. Sørensen, from ‘Parkpolitik i Sogn og Købstad‘ (1931)1

The Danish landscape architect, C. Th. Sørensen (1893-1979), was one of the great figures of modernist landscape design. Sørensen espoused a humanist approach to design, and aspired towards enhancing social wellbeing through his work. This philosophical position is undoubtedly a product of his Scandinavian heritage, and is perhaps also related to the fact that his life spanned both World Wars (as the horror of those events promoted a greater social conscience in individuals and societies).

One of Sørensen’s most interesting contributions was the concept of skrammellegepladser; a term that literally translates as ‘junk playgrounds’, but is now commonly described as ‘adventure playgrounds’. The photographs shown here are from Berlin, where I viewed good examples of these chaotic environments.

Built gradually by children themselves, they are the antithesis of prescribed play, and a council inspector’s worst nightmare. They are realms for the imagination, in which children learn about risk in a controlled manner, as well as real skills.

On another occasion, I visited a playground of a completely different nature in South Africa. At a school for blind children that is run by nuns, a playground was being constructed at the time of our visit (with the support of a local Rotary group).

There is no molly-coddling with these children, and that is just the way that the children like it. It’s hard to imagine a flying fox like the one above being installed in a playground for blind children in New Zealand, but it is refreshing to see children enabled as capable people, rather than disabling them further with assumptions of being ‘disabled’.

One of the most intriguing features of the playground was the construction of the paths. The nuns informed us that the angled profiles on the side are to let the children know if they are veering off the path, so that they can orient themselves.

This is especially important considering that the children burst into the playground on their tricycles, going like the clappers. I’m sure that accidents do occur, but as in the case of the ‘junk playgrounds’, learning to handle a degree of risk is important when the outside world contains uncertainties and obstacles.


  1. As reproduced in Sven-Ingvar Andersson and Steen Hoyer’s excellent monograph on C. Th. Sørensen (p. 18).