Intimate vs. Formal

I have a list of about ten blogs about play that I follow on a regular basis.  I’ll list those with comments in a future post.  I am humbled by these author’s insights and commitments.  Their good reporting and writing causes me to ask what can I say that will add to this pool of knowledge.  What I think I can offer you is my experience in environmental design and creation.  I have had the unique opportunity to make spaces and apparatus that I thought would appeal to children and then observe how children actually play on my assumptions.  In addition I have also been able to see how these systems have been used by the playground industry and play space designers.  I have been largely disappointed that the play that is potential in these designs goes largely unrealized.  What good this long life I have been blessed with if not to be able to ferret out at least some of the reasons that the play systems that are now universally produced fail to realize all of their benefits?

In my last post I highlighted the wonderful photo collection of Niki Buchan of the traces of play and their simple poignant statement about the intimate nature of the play that they bear witness to.  Following that notion further I have been considering the contrast between the typical clean and tidy playground with the joy found on the faces of kids doing something like Mud Day.

Annual+Mud+Day+Celebration+Lets+Kids+Get+Dirty+rOS7KBcnzkelPhoto – Alyssa Braun

In the design world we often set up the polarity of “formal” vs “informal.”  But if you look at what designers mean, and create, when they say their space is “informal” its just another regimented vocabulary of shapes, colors and spaces.  As I think back on the many examples that Paige Johnson as so throughly documented on her Playscapes blog, the playgrounds created by designers that are generally categorize as informal, may be beautiful and creative but they lack the quality that we see in Niki’s photos.

What I want to propose to you is that we, who advocate for children’s play, should adopt the language of “intimate” vs “formal” when talking about the provision of play spaces.  This change will establish a different meme from the current mindset that looks at every aspect of the play space as being created and controlled by adults.  The closest I have seen to this sort of approach is the inclusion of “pickable” landscape materials. On the last post Jerry Cooper commented that landscape architects use the notion of “defensible space” when talking about the sheltered places within a landscape.  I like the term “sense of enclosure” which means that supervision is still possible but the space still feels defined and protected.

What I am suggesting is that it would be very useful to have something akin to Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language at our disposal that provides a resource of design solutions that supports truly intimate play.  My afore mentioned list of blogs can be a start on that so I will make assembling that list a priority.  If you have suggestions please send them along.

One thought on “Intimate vs. Formal

  1. I think the term “intimate” is a true gift to all of us who are involved in inviting play. Every space I can think of that has proven conducive to real play has allowed me to play intimately, to be intimately in touch with my environment, with the people I chose to engage. To invite someone to play is in itself a profoundly intimate act, an act of deep and genuine trust. To provide an environment that in turn provides for that kind of intimacy, that is the art that I think we should all be aspiring to master.


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