Thrusting Structures or Secret Spaces? Male and Female perspectives on playground design


Thrusting structures or secret spaces? – Female and Male Perspectives on Playground design.
The original version of this is available on the PATH website in the newsletter archives

The following is a playful and lighthearted dialogue between Penny Wilson of PATH and Ian Macintyre formerly of Glamis Adventure Playground. It started off as a running joke, and ended up with an email exchange that was published in the PATH Newsletter. We wanted to mess around with the issues of why traditional Adventure Playgrounds continue to build big high structures and de-prioritise less macho playing…. Enjoy reading, we had great fun writing!

Dear Ian,

Remember last week when I did that coaching session with you and your staff team?

Well, we were talking bout the work that Blu had done with the very tiny children and some of the Kids with Disabilities, who had never played with fire before. She had brought in a load of string cut into lengths and she and the kids huddled round your fire-pit and dangled the string into the flames until they ‘caught’ apparently they did this for hours and were totally absorbed and captivated by what they called ‘Catching Fire’ –like catching fishes or butterflies, fireflies?. I thought that this was a stunning piece of playwork and a beautiful way to be with fire.

Then what did you say?

Something like. ‘I personally can’t wait til we can have massive huge fires’. I remember coming back with some remark which I regretted. sort of knee-jerk 80s feminist response to this comment like ‘UGGG. Man make Fire.’ Then I tempered the comment and gave a more thoughtful response “that sometimes a birthday cake candle can be the most exciting flame in the world.”

Anyhow. This got me thinking. I remember Chelsea Adventure Playground as being a place designed by women, with no budget, for kids to play inclusively. It had no structures for most of the time I worked there, but it was certainly an Adventure Playground. I recall another senior worker saying that he didn’t go in for all the infantilist stuff that we did on our site… from his perspective then the stuff that we did was Childish? Did he mean that? Did he really? I think that he was more concerned by our lack of thrusting towers and poles.

I always wanted to create a circular, enclosing structure based on a delicate conical shape of a shell.

In the spaces enclosed by the layers, underneath each one, small pockets of space would nestle. Where soft coloured light can filter, dark can be created and soft mats can be used for chatting and thinking. With gentle swings, like verandah couches, swaying. Wafts of material billow. The place would be only one part of my Adventure Playground created by an aging feminist.. there would be other things too. But this has always seemed a very attractive plan to me.

Yours in sisterhood,


Hi Penny

I’ve been scouring my brain cells and trying to work out what you are on about.I think the problem is that you don’t understand, and are not able to listen objectively to what I said. (many male colleagues have told me of how they are wilfully misunderstood)

What I said was “I like big fires” I do. And I’m happy to facilitate more than a few tinkabells playing with candles. I’m happy with the “arr” And the “woosh!” AND sometimes a bit of a ” WARRRGH!!” And what’s wrong with that!?

Yes candles. Yes secret places. But where I work without some pretty serious playwork the candles would be snuffed out and all the secret places trashed. Our adventure playground exists in the reality of a hard, grey urban environment not far from traffic and potential violence.

Part of our strategy for creating a compensatory play environment is that we have to have a wow factor.

So we have some big stuff to make a bright colourful statement: “this is an exciting place for children to play.” .

So we have all the usual stuff ,that adventure playgrounds used to be able to build themselves, because it is based on tried and trusted basic “poles in holes” technology. Offering a place where children can swing, slide and climb as well as play nicely as you described. Sometimes some of our children don’t want to cooperate with the nice, artistic, ecological activities of playworkers more concerned with playing out their own fantasies of what is ‘good’ play.

If the role of the playworker is to create and maintain environments for children’s play we need to do more than talk about our emotions. We need some engineering. Yes conical shell structures – lovely. But in an inner city, open access environment you’re gonna need some pretty serious engineering if we going to facilitate a quality play environment and not just a few wimim playing with willow.

Yours UGGG

Ian Macintyre, Glamis Adventure Playground.

(A response from Kelda Lyonns who Ian brought into the debate…)

“Penny’s right! I remember a structure at my old school made purely from carved and wild wood, nothing milled or straight. Very Steiner and completely fantastical, I still remember the smell of the wet untreated wood and moss growing on it, buds growing out and bark and peels of wood coming off. That is something different.

Space, what about SPACE? Nothing there?!! That can be the best thing in the world, for imagination to run riot and amble about, to feel the world is yours, to feel the world at all in fact. To understand what it is you are part of, living on, how vast the earth is, wonder how far you can go. Shouldn’t we pause and see what the space asks for, rather than building a pre-designed structure on it that suits our idea of ‘something FUN’? For how do we know what is needed in the space if we haven’t been in and felt the space yet?..”Think of Barcelona with the old and new combined., The only reason it’s amazing and not an ugly ‘fusion’ mess is because it was considered. How much do we consider space?

Penny’s shell like thing is the same as your enforced ‘no wars here’. A peaceful space. Enforced peacefulness, yes, entirely necessary here. Shadwell is grim, walking down the street makes you feel miserable, like life ends here.

Do you think there’s a difference between a female playworker, and a mother playworker, and a grandmother playworker? There is a necessity for different kinds of gentleness, like there is a necessity for different types of loco motor movements. Two of our elder boys picking up the drunk in the street is a kind of gentleness.”


From Penny again…
Dear Ian,

I am aware of the fact that you are trying to create a compensatory environment to combat the harsh world of Shadwell where people have disconnected their environment from their emotional lives I have also watched children who live in tower blocks being able to experience height in a different way through your site. It is lovely for the children to have this experience to play with. Surely the whole playground is like a womb? The fence around it marks it out as a space dedicated to creativity. The work of a playground is indeed to call children to play from its minarets. However the important work of the site lies in the work that I have seen the children doing in between the big fun-fair style things that you plan for them, taking up so very much room and hogging the limelight. The boys digging and damming in the sandpit. The girls stretching to touch fingertips across a divide. The little lad coming out in a red fright wig. The teenage lads hauling crash mats over to the stage and laying down together to giggle and chat. These are the real moments that Shadwell cannot offer. These are the things that the addition of small world dressing up, sand and water can offer. The delight of the child squeezing the mud between his toes: the intensity of the child from an abusive home lost in the world he can create in a dolls house.

What is more daring? To jump onto a massively scary swing? To wear a shimmering ball gown or to assimilate your thoughts and feelings?

Extinguished candles and trashed secret spaces are probably because these things are alien and unbearable. The small intimacies that we know are so important to children are unknowns to these kids. Feeling threatened by them, they destroy them. If the playground is to be a compensatory environment, this has to be worked through to the point where it is bearable for the children without them feeling that it impinges upon them.

Could it be that all of these are of equal value? Should Adventure Playgrounds be seen as a Gesamstkunstwerk (‘total artwork’ that employs all of one senses,)?

So, yes dear. It is interesting the ‘poles in holes’ technology, but ask any woman and she will give you examples of ways that things can be done differently as well.


Hi Sisters,

Thanks for your thoughts,

I’m still concerned with the conspiracy against “massive erections”. Come on, do these structures threaten you so much? Do they “hog the lime light” or create all sorts of spaces for play?

I respect your prejudice for softer more eco-friendly playspaces but in an area where Kelda describes walking down the street making her feel “miserable,..” I want to create a play environment that excites and enthralls and can function. Part of me would much rather be able to offer the fantastical “carved and wild wood” but I don’t know how long it would last. Would it matter that the ‘total artwork’ gets totally trashed? We would lose so much if we closed the gate only allowing small controlled groups of children controlled access to soft artistic environments. We have to be clear about what we can and can’t do. Glamis is a small part of lot of children’s lives. We have scarce resources, and no mandate, to manage children’s “disconnectedness” from what is an aspect of their environment. All sorts of children, of all ages, can do all sorts of things at Glamis. As playworkers, not Play Therapists, we daily play host to a great variety of different children ‘playing out’ all sorts of different emotions. We also have an understanding of Adventure Play history and I have learnt that the more stuff there is for children to play with as they see fit, without interference from me, the better. Once erected, structures require little maintenance and can cope with the rough and tumble of several hundred children. I think that they represent more than benign male indifference. I think that around, under and between there is space for quieter temporary imaginings and the lose parts that should be the day to day focus of playworkers intervention – this could involve cardboard, cloth or wobbley willow wombs – the softer, earthier, wilder the better as long as we are not too precious about it.

On the highest structure I observed: an 8 year old girl in shocking pink complete with pink hand bag climbs around the outside of the tower; beneath a roof of white net curtain dolls, soft toys and tiny furniture is intricately displayed.

What I don’t know is what was going on for those children.

To answer your question “What is more daring? To jump onto a massively scary swing? To wear a shimmering ball gown or to assimilate your thoughts and feelings?” I would agree with the latter – challenging your own beliefs scary. Writing about this has been difficult… but I will put down my club – and maybe my desires for an even bigger structure in the corner could evolve……

Lets think about this bit of space together. See you around the camp fire or in the Prospect of Whitby?


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  2 Responses to “Thrusting Structures or Secret Spaces? Male and Female perspectives on playground design”

  1. Oh my word! This has been a highly entertaining read – wobbly willow wombs & massive erections! Heeheehee. I’ve only just entered the world of playwork blogs – what have I been missing out on all this time?
    Seriously though, it’s interesting – I’m quite obsessed about den building, hidey holes, earthy quiet space too and contemplative space such as ponds or daydreaming at sky, space to think, space almost where you can reach a level of boredom from which creativity can burst forth. I think this possibly links with my interpretation of the metalude within the play cycle. Also a response to fast paced life and links with the concept of Idleness.
    I admit this is driven by my interest and personal choice of study subjects, also my own childhood play experience.
    Thankyou for highlighting this angle of male / female slants on play environments – good food for thought. xxx

    • It’s a pleasure Polly.
      I agree that there is a lot to be learned from the low energy soft times of play.
      Always worries me when this is missing. Feels like play sugar highs without it!

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