What the Nordics can teach us about having a good time

The Scandinavian and Nordic attitude toward play has had a significant impact on contemporary design and urban living. Clare Dowdy delves into a world of mud, adrenaline, and’skrammellegepladser’.

What happens when you combine a love of foraging and the countryside with a child-centered mindset and a healthy fear of danger? Answer: playgrounds that make the rest of the world jealous. “There is no doubt that Scandinavia is a special place for children,” Brit says. “And Sweden has children at the heart of everything it does,” says Kieran Long, director of ArkDes, Sweden’s national centre for architecture and design. He attributes this in part to “the amazing equality of gender between parents. Parenthood is not just for women in this country; it is much more equal, and there is plenty of parental leave “. This creates a high demand for experience and influences how public play is handled, he says.

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Children in the region have been getting muddy and wet and taking risks in well-designed play areas since the 1940s, and these once-pioneering ideas have spread. The concept of creating a playground with specially designed equipment was conceived in 1850s Germany, with the first constructed in Manchester, UK, and then in Boston, USA.

However, the Scandi play philosophy, centred on free – rather than structured – play, and plenty of it outside, resulted in more inspiring settings. The concept of skrammellegepladser, or “junk playgrounds,” was developed by Danish architect Carl Theodor Srensen. His goal was to provide urban children with the same opportunities to play as those in the countryside. He’d noticed that kids would rather play anywhere than in the playgrounds he’d first designed, and was inspired in the 1930s by seeing resourceful kids turn construction sites into play areas.

Play is something that everyone has a right to – it is a like a basic service of urban life – Hanna Harris

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In 1943, Srensen’s first adventure playground opened in Emdrup, a suburb of Copenhagen. “Children’s playgrounds are the city’s most important form of public plantation,” he wrote. The playground was outfitted with tools and building materials so that children could dig, build, and change their surroundings, as well as collaborate to create their own play space.

According to Emelie Brunge, architect at Nyréns Arkitektkontor in Stockholm, the 1940s and 1950s were a golden era for playgrounds in the region. “With the advent of modernism, a new emphasis on children emerged in urban planning.”

These seeds were collected and planted elsewhere. After visiting Emdrup, British landscape architect Lady Marjory Allen returned home in the 1960s and 1970s and designed around 35 adventure playgrounds. “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit,” they say.

Srensen’s influence was felt in Glasgow four decades later, through Assemble Studio. The Baltic Street Adventure Playground, created by the Turner Prize-winning collective, opened in 2013. Their design promotes the adventure playground as an antidote to the stresses of modern urban childhood. Mud is an important feature.

Things remained radical in the Nordic countries after WWII. Gunilla Lundahl transformed Stockholm’s Moderna Museet into a sprawling adventure playground in October 1968, a hugely influential project that was free and open to the public.

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This emphasis on children’s well-being coincided with the idea that everyone should have access to play areas. In the 1950s, a series of parks known as “valley parks” were created in the new suburbs being built around Stockholm. Importantly, these were places “where different generations and social classes could meet,” according to Brunge.

This sense of belonging has endured, particularly in Denmark. Play is no longer limited to specific areas or to children in cities such as Copenhagen. With a focus on cycling and walking, the capital has prioritised people, thanks in part to urban designer Jan Gehl. Basketball courts in the streets and slides built into hillsides integrate play into the urban environment.

State of play

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According to British architect Jake Ford of Sweden-based White Arkitekter, one of the largest architecture firms in Scandinavia, not all playground equipment has to look like play equipment. “It could be subtle, like a bench that you can climb on to make it into a stage, or climbable trees.” Ford is a member of the team working on the Gascoigne estate in Barking, London, where the Scandi influence will be felt, as play in the public realm is central to the design.

Play doesn’t just stop when you get older, if anything, you should make sure you can incorporate play even more – Guy Hollaway

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Similarly, in Helsinki, the undulating domes of JKMM’s new art museum Amos Rex serve as a public sphere where visitors of all ages can play, climb up, and slide down. Hanna Harris, the City of Helsinki’s chief design officer, explains the Finnish attitude toward play. “It’s something that everyone has a right to – it’s like a basic urban service.”

Skateboarding appeals to people of all ages, and while some cities discourage it, Malmö encourages it. The city of Stockholm has a full-time skateboarding officer and numerous skate-friendly spots. Folkestone, a British seaside town, is also making a name for itself. This spring, F51, an indoor, multi-story skate park, will open there. “Play doesn’t stop when you get older,” says Guy Hollaway, the architect of F51. “If anything, make sure you can incorporate even more play.”

Pinterest’s playful trend for 2022 reflects the concept behind these inclusive spaces. “This year, generation X and boomers will be all over playful pastimes like indoor swings… because crafts and toys keep the big kids young at heart,” the image-sharing service predicts.

Playgrounds can serve additional functions if they are designed to be exciting and one-of-a-kind. According to Long at ArkDes, Malmö families travel across town to visit its network of individually themed parks, which serve as a social exchange engine. “This breaks down barriers between diverse communities”.