Recess, Rethought

A host of designers is building interactive
landscapes for kids to learn by having fun

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to view a slideshow of the world’s
coolest parks and playpens for kids.

When Michelle Obama hoisted a hammer to show her support for a community-built playground in San Francisco last June, the gesture also symbolized a resurgence of interest in creating engaging public spaces for children. “The type of childhood that kids are having today is vastly different from just a generation ago,” says Darrel Hammond, director of play advocacy group KaBOOM!, which coordinated construction of the San Francisco playground. He’s concerned about the lack of inventiveness—what he calls “child-motivated free play”—today’s kids display. In recent years, this apprehension, along with worries over skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and a desire to create more meaningful public spaces, has led many communities and institutions to rally behind a wide range of interactive playscapes.

“Child-motivated play is like a twin engine when paired with physical activity,” says Hammond, expressing his hope that formal studies will soon prove what many parents already believe: Collaborative, experimental play produces smarter, more well-adjusted adults. Designers have been responding to this emerging desire for better education through play with innovative, sustainable spaces that use a mix of adventure narratives, natural elements, and nontraditional materials to nurture new forms of creative, experiential learning.

Alissa Walker is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and the author of City Walks Architecture: New York, published by Chronicle Books.