Teens Play, Too. (As Long As It Looks Cool.)

Last weekend I took my daughter to her favorite park which, according to her, has the best swings in Seattle. Unfortunately, every other kid in the city agreed. After a prolonged wait, I started to shoot a “these-toys-are-for-little-kids” stink-eye at the two teens who had been raucously swinging for at least 15 minutes, soaring high and kicking at tree branches and clearly having a great time.

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Then it dawned on me: these teenagers have nowhere else to play. They are here because these are the only non-baby swings around. Sure there are sports fields and skate parks, but these venues are for specific activities for kids with athletic skills/interest and membership on a team. So what options do teenagers looking for unorganized sport and outdoor fun have to chose from?

Based on my anecdotal observations, many teens would welcome the chance to play, provided the experience was a little bigger, a little higher, a little riskier – in other words, age appropriate. They still have some play left in them. Especially if it involves a swing. Or even better, really cool swing. Here is where playgrounds could take a lesson from the art world, which is currently experiencing a renaissance of play-as-art installations, and swings are the main attraction.

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Take the project Swing It! by supergrouplondon. This temporary installation consisted of garden-variety swings transformed by day-glo geometric patterns and connected to banners that turn and flutter with each arc of the swing. Nice – take the motion and add an extra element of complexity and interest.

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Another (literal) twist on swings is “Swing Hall, Swing All” by Keetra Dean Dixon. By rotating the swings 90 degrees and orienting swingers front-to-back, you either experience a bumper car ride or an impromptu lesson in team building: all must swing in unison in order for anyone to swing at all. Nice way to meet people and practice cooperation, isn’t it?

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Even better was the location – inside an elevated covered walkway on a college campus.

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One of my favorites was a temporary project was called “Swing Time” at the Lawn on D in Boston. It was composed of 20 glow-in-the-dark, looped swings was designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture to be an “immersive and visually stunning public art work.”

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Not only was the shape and size of each swing unique, the internal lights changed colors based on your rate of swinging. Not a bad way to motivate people to move.

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Finally, there is the spectacular “21 Balançoires” by Montreal based Daily Tous Les Jours. These swings produced both motion and sound – beautiful tones that layer into harmonies when adjacent swings are swung in unison. Kids, teens, adults and seniors waited around the clock for a turn on this “giant collective instrument, a game where together we achieve better things than separately.” What a lovely metaphor for the stereotypically self-absorbed teenager. Watch the video. The majority of people raving about the swings are teenagers.

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The trends are alarming: sedentary lifestyles combined with academic pressures are resulting in tested-out/tuned-out teens. Physical activity is more vital than ever. But instead of ordering teens to run laps, what if we designed objects and put them places that inspired them to play, and by default, to move in ways that engaged their muscles and their attention? Can you imagine a high school physical education curriculum that included swings, teeter-totters and a climbing wall? When it comes to free time, could a swing compete with an iPhone for the hearts and minds of teenagers?  I’d bet YES, provided it looks cool.

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4 responses to “Teens Play, Too. (As Long As It Looks Cool.)

  1. Good point! The middle school I teach at has a park across the street. Those kids go swing at 7 am. Of course they have play left in them, so do we!

    • 7am – if a teenager will swing then, they will swing anytime! You mentioned they are in a park – are there any swings at your school?

  2. Fun! Nothing better than DIY play outside the confines of a designated playground.

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