There are two ways that I look playgrounds and play areas; as both a symptom, and a treatment for the effects of domestication.
Standardised equipment, unspoken rules for what constitutes acceptable play, as well as explicit rules for where such activity is permitted, are all components of these play areas, whether they are swing parks, skate parks, parkour parks and gyms [link to exercise and athletes]. Once the land has been claimed, cleared, privatised and divided up, wilderness no longer exists, and small pockets of urban space must be allocated to physical activities, in the same way that most other domesticated space is specialised for a narrow set of purposes. With work and education both being reduced to routine, carried out in specialised spaces according to set rules, play also follows the same structure. The playground doesn’t move, it doesn’t expand and rarely undergoes change. It is barren and static, a product of the unseen authority that governs everything within the domesticated environment.
The existence of the play area undermines acts of exploration elsewhere, by establishing an artificially restricted context for physical activity, both conceptually and spatially. The domestication process re-packages ‘wilderness’ in acceptable, and repeatable forms that can be controlled and regulated. Skating is banished to the skate park, street dance is quietly ushered into a studio, and parkour is safely contained within the limits of its new home where it won’t be upsetting to anyone. Politicians can visit in comfort and nod their heads approvingly, knowing that the once rebellious activity has been tamed, and its threat neutralised.
These modern play areas can be also seen as superstimuli. A concentration of equipment within a small, defined space that is convenient and easy to access. The rising popularity of the multigym now means that all manner of physical activity and games can be confined to a single warehouse on an industrial estate somewhere away from the rest of civilisation. We no longer need to seek and discover adventure when it is placed at our feet within driving distance. New social norms are born that shape our perceptions and change foundations as young generations grow old.
Playgrounds are ageist. There isn’t a playground for teenagers, let alone one for adults, which is society’s subtle suggestion that play is for children only. Once you grow up you must be a serious individual interested in serious things.
A lack of time means that parents need a quick fix for those rare occasions that they spend with their offspring. For such an eventuality playgrounds are just one of the pre-packaged options we offer, conveniently located on your doorstep, robust and childproof, their safety is our guarantee.
“This is not a gymnasium!”, my dad would shout, as we flipped and frolicked around the front room. And he was right. In our naivety we had mistaken our specialised-living-area for that of the specialised-rumpus variety.