Three principles that were significant during the design of the Minkar were agility, flexibility and proprioception. These three are built into Minkar and take discreet effect, stimulating and supporting the child’s natural urge towards self-development. It is important to note that the children are not consciously setting out to train their sense of agility, flexibility, or proprioception. Like the visitor to the labyrinth, they are simply transformed by the space within which they find themselves.
In this context, agility is the ability to recognize and respond to new and changing situations as they
arise. This quality is crucial and enables each adult to negotiate complex situations; it is a skill we depend on throughout our lives and an important aspect of our survival mechanism. From the beginning, we reach out, we crawl, we balance across objects in our environment, we walk, we run, and we cycle, learning to negotiate our way between obstacles. Playing is part of this training and prepares us for more complex physical and intellectual activities that come later in life, for example, activities such as navigating a highly trafficked road or moving through a busy airport. Such tasks require us to quickly analyse a situation, make a plan, and take action. If something interrupts us, we must re-plan and continue with an adjusted plan. Without these negotiating skills developed in childhood such tasks would be daunting and therefore it is crucial that we develop agility in our physical relationship to space, as well as in our intellectual endeavours and in our social relations.
For younger children, setting out to walk or crawl along a balance beam is a simple yet challenging task. Creating a challenge for the older age groups requires a more diverse landscape, one that is designed to include different shapes, sizes, and materials. One of the ideas behind Minkar was to provide a route for agility training, a path that transformed along its course. In order for the child to get from one side to the other, they would have to climb up, down and sideways.
Components were designed to wobble and rock, adding new and intriguing challenges. Because the many climbing ropes hang all the way down to the ground, children tend to be interrupted in their play strategies because other children can easily enter the climbing route at any point. This situation requires the children to adjust their plan, quickly making a new strategy.
This process is a form of mental flexibility, however physical flexibility is also important. In a digital age we observe that people (adults and children) spend more and more time in sedentary activities, and this makes maintaining physical flexibility all the more critical. Stimulating one’s major joints, such as ankles, hips, shoulders, wrists and neck and generally stretching muscles, is important to maintain smooth bodily movement. The more flexible one is, the less likely it is that one will get hurt when being physically active during the day or when participating in the various leisure and sports activities, which add health and social value to our lives.
When children have to reach and stretch beyond their known capabilities, they develop and improve their skills. In the Minkar, various components are placed a good distance from one another, which challenges the children to go beyond their present skill level. The use of rope creates a situation where the child’s arm and leg joints are constantly stimulated as they adjust to the natural movement in the rope. To move from one rope to the next
demands gripping power and upper body strength, additional important physical qualities to the basics of crawling, walking, running.
Proprioception is the knowledge and understanding of one’s own body in space and this is something children learn through experience: How big am I? Can I fit under the bed? Can I reach something if I stretch? Older children have established their basic spatial understanding and therefore naturally seek out greater spatial complexity. They like to experience their bodies in all kinds of positions: up, down, over, under, in-between, and upside down. This over-underbetween movement is especially apparent on the right-hand side of the Minkar, where three playshells are hung one above the other. Moving through this spatially complex arrangement of curving forms, enhances a child’s perception of their own body and its relationship to the things around them. Spatial complexity is also present in the left-hand side, where children can climb over, under, or around each other – or just relax and watch the others at play.
These three transforming principles – agility, flexibility, and proprioception – can be built into any space for children so that development of these essential skills just happens as children naturally do what they do.
Designing the quality of transformability into playground equipment is perhaps more challenging. A cafe is a private sheltered environment. Tables and chairs can be moved around without causing safety hazards. There is no real threat of vandalism and the micro-climate can be controlled reasonably well. On a public playground these stable conditions do not apply. Yet, the ability of the children to transform their environment is crucial in maintaining the child’s interest and making the product relevant for many uses over a long period of time.
Three of the principles that allow children to transform a play item to suit their needs are multi-functional activities, colour variation, and moving parts.
Multi-functional activities are those activities designed to provide a diverse range of play possibilities and thus they may be used in more than one way. A typical slide, for example, has one main function – for children to slide down. Children also climb up slides, but this is generally not intended; there are no added details to support this form of use safely. The Minkar includes a variety of materials and types of assembly. There are three large curving plastic playshells, there is a twisted steel ladder, there is a suspended climbing plate with rubber cleats, and there are ropes with disk-shaped objects attached in different sizes and colours, some that turn and some that do not. The largest disk is wide enough for children to sit on, and from it a child can rest or watch the others. These components provide for a more varied range of climbing experiences, as well as places to meet and hang out. What is important is that diversity of form, material, and spatial arrangement is provided and the use is not limited or proscribed. Children invent different ways in which the equipment is utilized as they transform it to meet their needs.
Colour variation is the intentional inclusion of different colours, which are placed deliberately around the product. One way in which colour variation was achieved in Minkar was by making the disks several different colours. The production department would have preferred all of them to be the same colour as this would be easier to manufacture. However, the added play value that colour variation provides made it worth doing. When different colours are carefully chosen and precisely placed in the design, many additional play opportunities become possible.
Children may choose their favourite disk, just as in a cafe, adults may repeatedly select their favourite table. A variety of colours clearly distinguishes one part from another and allows children to make up their own rules when engaged in play. It is common that groups of children will agree on a rule where a colour is a key factor, indeed a catalyst in their game. For example they will say, ‘let’s climb through the ropes, but this time, no touching the green ones’. The colour variation affects the pattern of use in a way that encourages decision and rule codification. The children also do this when playing chase and catch. They will commonly use a particular component distinguished by colour
Up or down the pole like a nut on a bolt. (Photo (a): Kompan; Photo (b): Michael Laris.)
to establish a ‘free’ or ‘safe’ zone. Colour variation is also used on the various climbing cleats so that children can design their own colour-coded route. This may seem relatively insignificant to adults, but it is an important level of detail, which increases play value tremendously. Colour variation instigates invention and promotes opportunities for imaginative play, and in my opinion rarely should the use of colour be based merely on aesthetics.
The concept of moving parts is central to making a product transformable because it enables children a degree of control. Here they can modify the equipment so that patterns of play can evolve over time; this supports the natural instincts of children and is therefore one of the best kinds of play. Minkar is limited when it comes to moving parts. Although the ropes, the playshells, and even the climbing plate can sway, which is a significant feature, I do not consider them to be true moving parts. However, another Galaxy product, the Propus, is equipped with authentic moving parts. A triangular pod is mounted on a stainless steel pole and can be twisted up or down like a nut on a bolt. Children use the pod to sit on, spin downwards on, or as footholds when climbing through the equipment. Because the pod can be moved, children have the opportunity to decide their own individual path or choose for themselves how high up they wish to sit. Another benefit of moving parts is the promotion of a sense of ownership. For example, a child might arrive at the playground to find the pods turned all the way to the ground and half covered by the sand or bark surfacing. Or the
pods might be twisted all the way up to the top, where they are hard to reach. In a situation like this the child recognizes that others have been there using the pods, and the child now has the choice to adapt them to his or her own needs, or leave them where they are. By altering the form of the play equipment the child takes ownership of the space, similar to what adults do in a cafe when they move chairs around to form an arrangement suitable to their group size. Play items that can move bring added value to the playground. Such products are usually difficult to develop and more expensive, however, the result is well worth it.