Meghan Talarowski thinks we should let kids fall down more often. The landscape architect, who leads Philadelphia’s Studio Ludo, designs playgrounds for a living and believes in a riskier‚ more open-ended version of play—picture higher climbing structures‚ faster‚ scarier slides‚ and more labyrinthine hideaways for getting lost.
"Part of play is learning how to navigate environments and our own bodies‚" she says. "We have to remember that breaking a bone is not a bad thing—it used to be a badge of honor."
Talarowski first developed her thesis in 2015 while living in London as a new mom‚ after she noticed the city’s playgrounds were less manicured than American ones. She applied her research background to finding out why and spent six months observing 18‚000 visitors across 16 playgrounds.
The study brought to light the formulaic nature of American playgrounds‚ which prioritize safety and therefore limit play to a controlled‚ linear exercise when research shows it’s anything but. "Play is full of anarchy‚" Talarowski says‚ but instead of encouraging that‚ "we spend a lot of time telling kids what to do and how to act."
Modern parental values also stress the importance of success at an increasingly young age; by kindergarten‚ anarchy has succumbed to achievement metrics. It’s a trend she views with alarm, pointing to research on "kindergarten burnout" that describes ways in which academic rigor may stifle young children. Free play, however, lets kids develop a sense of creativity and resilience.
While Talarowski can’t always convince clients to go along with her completely, she’s still able to get planners to agree that not everything needs to be as easily identifiable as a simple swing. For the Northwest Resiliency Park in Hoboken‚ New Jersey‚ she’s creating huge tree houses reached via ladder tunnels.
For an upcoming project in Omaha‚ she designed a fractured wooden deck-like structure covered in hammocks and bridges. Those expecting a traditional playground might find it confusing. If you ask Talarowski‚ that’s precisely the point.
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