The Diana Memorial Playground, designed by Günter Beltzig. Photograph: Peter Phipp/Travelshots.com
How to design the perfect playground
Veteran playground designer Günter Beltzig reveals his golden rules for a successful children's play area
There are not many people who would openly call for their own job to be abolished. Günter Beltzig is one of them. For the last 40 years, he has designed playgrounds from Pforzheim to New York and from Puerto Rico to London's Diana Memorial Playground. But he would love to see them all become unnecessary, he says, "in a society that accepts children everywhere and doesn't confine them to a special area."
A trained product designer, Beltzig started off with fridges but turned to playgrounds in the late 60s, when everybody "wanted to change the world". Since then, he has helped to build several thousand of them. His playgrounds never feature standard slides and swings - things Beltzig calls "play machines" - but sport complex climbing landscapes, water features and lots of nature. His ideal is for children to play out in the wild. But if there is no wilderness or woodland in the modern city, he says, we have to provide children with something comparable.
It is difficult to define the perfect playground because its success depends on a vast range of issues, from the design to the group dynamics of the children who play there and the attitudes of the neighbours. Nevertheless, the designer has formulated six golden rules.
Playground sketch by Günter Beltzig
"First, the place needs an atmosphere that invites people to linger." It should be neither a training ground nor a "landscape decorated to the taste of adults", as Beltzig puts it.
Second, a perfect playground "gives room for exploration". It works like a theatre stage, where you can change the scenery and - more importantly - discover what lies behind the curtain. This can mean hiding a slide behind a grassy slope or installing toys with functions that are not obvious at first sight. "Of course, us adults, we like a beautifully handcarved, wooden motorbike," says Beltzig. "But what if the child prefers a pony or a unicorn? The more room there is for interpretation the better."
Far from being dangerous, the ideal playground "offers visible, manageable risks, as playing is all about testing and transcending one's limits." Therefore, the designer points out, there should always be the possibility of retreating without losing face. A climbing frame from which the only way down is a slide might force a child to go down, even when he or she is actually scared, Beltzig explains. "Better if a rope bridge offers an alternative route."
Günter Beltzig has formulated six golden rules of playground design
Apart from being shielded from wind, sight (of overly anxious parents) and city noise, a successful playground has to cater for different groups and moods. There will always be more aggressive children who want to prove their power, says Beltzig. It is important to offer ways for them to expend their energy, but also to protect the weaker ones, for example by avoiding having one dominant structure. "Otherwise there will always be fighting."
"Reserved for children aged eight to 12", "No ball play", "Improper use of equipment prohibited": most playgrounds feature signs spelling out these or similar rules. Ideally, though, says Beltzig, it should be built in a fashion that makes specific bans unnecessary. If the compound is spacious enough there should be play zones for younger and older kids as well as meeting points for mums and dads - "Many parents actually come to the playground primarily to chat to other parents" - and areas where teenagers can chill out and share secrets. In Beltzig's opinion, vandalism is a consequence of a lack of alternatives.
He has derived his rules from from decades of listening to children and watching them play – at best, undetected. "If I talk to children, they will tell me what they think will impress me. If they see me watching, they might even be inclined to do more dangerous stuff, just to prove their bravery." In his own vast garden in the picturesque Bavarian village of Hohenwart, he builds new structures for his grandson to try out - who must be pleased that Grandad's job is safe for the foreseeable future.
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