Designing for play

Michael Laris

Editor’s introduction

As I write, another child has been murdered on a London street. He was robbed for his mobile phone then stabbed by a gang of older boys. In the light of urban crime such as this, it is important to consider the environmental quality afforded to children living in the city. Play parks, dedicated children’s areas within the city, are practical because they can be controlled and therefore made safe. However, children will only use them if they are stimulated and engaged by what they find there. Designing effective environments for play must be in tune with the contemporary culture of childhood.

Michael Laris works for Kompan, a manufacturer of contemporary play equipment which has been widely recognized for its quality and style, a factor which is particularly important for older children. However the author conceives his designs in a totality, recognizing that play equipment is only one aspect of the playground environment. In this chapter he describes the conceptual thinking which goes into his work, elevating a piece of climbing equipment to part of a psychological landscape of play and experimentation which extends developmental possibilities for those who use it.

Laris starts his piece with a relatively simple question ‘what is design?’ and in particular, ‘how do children use these places which are essentially adult visions of childhood needs?’. In order to answer this he adopts research-based methods, observing children as they use play spaces, particularly the spaces he has designed. This information helps him to modify and transform those spaces so that they are more in line with childhood aspirations. Change and evolution are fundamental aspects of his vision, and the novelty this affords is an essential dynamic in the definition of his thinking.

This then provides a crucial insight into the realities of a top designer who sees through the eyes of a child. This perspective is laced with fun and wry humour, this attitude being an essential part of the designing for play. Laris also has a wider perspective which recognizes that we are only another layer between past and future; we build upon the past and set the framework for the future. In an urban environment which is often confined and limited by dangers, nothing could be more important than designing for play.


Design is primarily about use – imagining, inventing, drawing and forming things that are useful to others. It is a complex developmental process that starts with a vision and ends with a product. In order to design successfully, one must understand the user and reconcile all aspects of the user’s relationship to the forthcoming product. When working on the design of playground equipment, many contrasting needs come into play. The safe

Подпись: Figure 2.1 Almost anything can be used for play, even church steps in Granada, Spain. (Photos: Michael Laris.)
functioning of the equipment is particularly important, yet the equipment must also be challenging to the user. It must also fulfil the demands of a manufactured industrial product, being attractive, robust, and affordable, and most importantly, it must appeal to the user in a deeper, more intangible way than most adult products. It must excite the child’s imagination and create a sense of magic.

For the past seven years, I have worked as a playground equipment designer. My role has been to invent new play items for the outdoor environment. I find this profession highly rewarding because it brings together two delightful and inspiring subjects, children and play, and also because throughout the past seven years I have been fortunate enough to be able to include my own children in my daily work. In fact, they have been the experts, the test pilots, and my toughest critics. Through them I have been able to enter the child’s world, and design things for play that I otherwise could not have.

Understanding the concept of usability, i. e. making something that has a specific function to be used by a unique group of people, is essential when designing playground equipment. In theory, this task should not be that difficult, as play has few boundaries and children can use almost anything for play. The designer’s task should thus be to discover why some things work well and to optimize these characteristics. To do so requires
the utilization of a design process wherein factors such as play value, safety, accessibility, product life span, and methods of production are considered from the very start and integrated into the final design.

In the following pages I will explain in greater depth the factors of this design development process and open a discussion around the role of the designer. I will also illustrate my approach to design with two play products currently on the market, explaining the sources of my inspiration and describing key design principles that support the child’s developmental growth and ultimately enable the child to take ownership of the product. Throughout this chapter, I wish to focus on the users – the children – and there is no better way of doing this than by beginning with a story about them.