When Monstrum, a Danish playground-design firm, was asked to make playgrounds on the roof of the Lego House in Billund, Denmark, they knew one thing: they couldn’t be made of Lego. The exhibition building is full of Lego-based installations, games and, above all, playbricks, as visitors are encouraged to build whatever their imaginations conjure. The new playgrounds had to have the same sense of creativity without being made of movable parts. “Since the playgrounds are up in the air we decided to have everything mounted firmly into the ground, in order not to risk anything being thrown overboard,” says Jesper Vilstrup, general manager of the Lego House.
Instead Monstrum, which has built an international portfolio of playable fish, rockets, spires and birds, took the adventurous scenarios depicted on boxes of Lego as inspiration and decided on a theme: “How to get to Lego House”. Each area of the playground would be like a snapshot of a journey. There is a submarine caught in a fish net attacked by a sea monster, a hot-air balloon landing in a cornfield full of scarecrows, a helicopter made of wood and raised up high on thin steel poles that illustrate air currents whipping around it. The steel poles aren’t just for show: children can climb them to get to the helicopter, slide down to make their escape or ignore the vehicle above and simply swing between them. In each scenario, the child pilots his or her play, deciding how high to climb and how deep to descend into whatever adventure narrative they have devised. The playgrounds are stage sets, and the children are actors writing their own scripts.
The theatricality of Monstrum’s work, which has made it one of the most sought-after playground-design companies in Europe, is not coincidental. Before they founded the firm in 2003, Ole Barslund Nielsen and Christian Jensen were working as set-designers for Danish theatres. When Nielsen’s son’s daycare centre was looking to install a new playground he volunteered to build it himself. He realised that instead of buying standard equipment he could design something for the same cost that offered more imaginative latitude.
Monstrum’s designers are not the first to think in this way. In 1943 Carl Theodor Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, created the first junk playground outside Copenhagen. This was not an ordinary play space: there was no equipment as such, just raw materials. Children built their own entertainment out of sand, wood, cardboard and other scrap materials. Around the same time Isamu Noguchi, an American artist of Japanese descent, began planning playgrounds in New York that looked like abstract sculpture, with pyramids, spirals and Minecraft-like blocks to climb. He found the asphalt yards and monkey bars that dominated urban parks too limited to hold children’s attention.
Under pressure from health-and-safety regulations, both kinds of playgrounds went out of fashion in the 1980s. But thanks to recent research in child development, the idea of freedom that they embody is being rediscovered. Researchers such as Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at Berkeley, have found that children who engage in “unstructured play” were far better at adapting themselves to new challenges than children whose play was prescribed. In one experiment, Gopnik and her colleagues presented two groups of children with a toy that had multiple functions. To one group they demonstrated how to play with just one function of the toy; to the other they explained nothing at all and left them to figure it out for themselves. The first group simply repeated the play they were shown, while the second experimented with the toy until they had discovered everything it could do. Watching children at Monstrum’s playgrounds is to see them experimenting in the same way. Encountering one of their creations, a child’s first impression might be “FISH!” But then, slowly, the fish opens up or twists around to reveal a tunnel, a slide, a tower. The playground is made fresh by storytelling and mystery.
One of Monstrum’s strengths is their adaptability: each playground is designed around its location, so that no two are the same. This year they are opening two new projects in America. The first, in Manhattan’s Hudson River Park, features a 22-foot-tall pipefish, a species native to the Hudson. The second, in Oklahoma’s vast new Gathering Place park, has giant paddlefish and volcanoes. In a section called the River Giants, there are herons housing slides, and children can climb through aquatic vegetation. Between two of the birds there is a tube made out of fine steel mesh, which gives kids the illusion of crawling through mid-air. “It gives you a thrill to look down and see there is more or less nothing underneath you,” Nielsen says. Like Sørensen and Noguchi before him, he is setting the stage and then stepping away.