Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Do stunning structures leave enough room for kids' imaginations?
“Why play in a playhouse if you can play in a moon rocket, a submarine, a giant snail shell, a clown head, or a Trojan horse?”
Such is the philosophy of the Danish company Monstrum, which has created more than 150 figurative, fantastical playgrounds all over the world, from Sweden to Singapore and Dubai. Former theatrical set designers Ole Nielsen and Christian Jensen founded Monstrum in 2003 after Nielsen designed a new playground for his five-year-old son’s school. It featured a set-like “princess tower” and rocket that proved popular with both kids and their parents.
“The scenes inspire kids to play, but also make sense to adults,” says Nielsen. “After all, there are as many adults as children on a playground.”
Monstrum works with its clients—municipalities, schools, housing associations, museums—to develop stories the playground will tell. A haunted house’s door opens, a whale’s mouth gapes, a giant ant stretches its legs. These dioramas, mainly constructed with wooden boards and screws, lend themselves to both physical activity and a narrative in which children can imagine themselves as characters.
Nielsen’s favorite design can be found at a playground in the Danish city of Aarhus: A 23-foot-tall bear holds a hollow tree trunk on his shoulder. Kids can slide down through it. “It’s like having a big friend on the playground who does crazy stuff for you,” he says. “Who doesn’t want that?”
With its sometimes high-up and unwieldy equipment, a Monstrum play area looks more dangerous than it is. That’s a conscious strategy on Nielsen and Jensen’s part. While the company heeds Danish, European, and international safety requirements for playgrounds, it aims to facilitate risk-taking. “Kids need to learn how to assess danger,” says Nielsen. “A good playground should be just as challenging as climbing a tree—the difference here is there’s no rotten branch or hard ground to fall on.”
And while Monstrum’s playgrounds aren’t “inclusive”—“it would be a mistake to build a playground where everybody can do everything, because older kids, for instance, will get bored,” Nielsen says—the designers ensure that parts of each play space are accessible to different ages and to children with special needs, such as those who use a wheelchair.
Swiss urban planner and playground expert Gabriela Burkhalter says Monstrum’s creations buck the conventional design trend, as many playgrounds have moved from figurative designs to more abstract ones. The idea behind this is to give children the freedom to imagine their own worlds. For this reason, she’s a little skeptical of Monstrum playgrounds. “They are beautiful,” she says, “but the fantasy is guided by adults, not children. I believe children should be creating their own make-believe.”
Nielsen’s response? Diversity in playgrounds is a good thing, and kids’ imaginations aren’t hampered by his designs. “Sure, they’re inspired to steer when they see a big ship on a playground,” he says. “But the next day the ship might be a bus or a space shuttle. And later they read Moby Dick, and suddenly they’re Captain Ahab.”