PLAY4ALL… or are we ALL2BUSY? Reflections on the Seattle Design Festival

The dust has finally settled from the 2015 Seattle Design Festival, so let’s reflect on the results of our PLAY4ALL project/experiment.  Our plan was simple: locate a series of small play installations in local businesses.  Our goal was ambitious: spark connections through simple moments of play and, by extension, demonstrate the value of designing for play in our learning environments.

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Overall we received positive feedback on both the concept and the installations.  Our use of recycled materials garnered the most praise. There was a certain novelty in playing with corks from wine served at the bar, stacking boxes from the shoe store, weaving through material strips from the fabric shop.  As one woman tweeted, it was great to see how we made “play from waste.” But many people seemed hesitant to fully engage with the installations.  In other words, people were happy to look but reluctant to play. A quick tour through Instagram #Play4All and #SDF2015 reveals pictures of artful yet lonely installations devoid of people actually playing.

soloinstallNow the obvious caveat: this reluctance to play did not apply to children.  It was remarkable to see the difference in how kids versus adults approached the disPLAYs.  In several cases, adults wanted to know “exactly what IS this?” before they were willing to touch it. In one case, an owner requested we provide a sign that explained everything about the piece because it was confusing some patrons!  I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony as one main principle of the project was to avoid instructions to allow for spontaneous encounters. Kids didn’t care what it was supposed to be – they reached their little paws right in and got busy!

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There are many more anecdotal conclusions we could draw from PLAY4ALL, but the design takeaways center on materials and simplicity.  As we were indoctrinated in architecture school, authenticity (plus variety) of materials is important. A simple design is a trickier goal when combined with the simultaneous aim of an open-ended design.  The key ingredient seems to be loose parts.  Many playground experts, including my hero Lady Allen of Hurtwood, emphasize the importance of loose parts in children’s play (*future post on this topic forthcoming).  A recent report from Play Wales states “Playing with loose parts supports a wide range of development including flexibility, creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, problem solving, self-esteem and spatial awareness.”  Now that sounds like something we could all benefit from – especially designers.

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