Swings & Roundabouts

On the revolutionary potential of playgrounds.

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Everytime I go to the Tate Modern there’s never anything in the turbine hall. It’s annoying. It’s like they know I’m coming so hide whatever was in there in an equally massive space that exists only to hide exhibits from me. I visited a few weeks ago and so missed the new exhibit installed in the hall by an art collective called SUPERFLEX. Their work – One Two Three Swing! is an enormous playground for adults with, amongst other things, three seated swings in it! As I say, I’ve not seen it in person but the pictures look nice.

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SUPERFLEX’s work has in the past had something of a political or socially conscious edge. They’ve challenged multinational corporations in Brazil, campaigned for the inclusion of Palestine in the Eurovision song contest and flooded a Macdonalds. One Two Three Swing! is also intended to have a social significance. The idea being that you can only use the swing with two other people so you have to work together so you understand community action, collaboration and solidarity and conclude that there’s nothing for it but to join an anti-capitalist organisation to smash the system! I try to have an understanding and balanced relationship with my inner cynic but he’s got the better of me on this one.

Playgrounds as art – or, at least, in art galleries seems to be a common thing these days. Just last year the Baltic had a playground installation – The Playground Project.

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Previously in the turbine hall Carston Holler’s installation featured big slides and Anish Kapoor’s Arcelormittal Orbit is a big sculpture, created for the 2012 Olympics with a huge slide you can go down, also designed by Holler. Weeeeeee!

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I saw the Playground Project. It was fun. My kids loved it. Of course they did it was a big fucking playground in a big room. I’m not entirely sure what I and other adults were supposed to be getting out of it, other than something to occupy the kids, but there we are.

Which is not to belittle the social significance of the design of playgrounds. I’ve spent a good part of the last seven years around them and was recently pointed in the direction of an interesting article all about the evolution of playgrounds in New York City. In New York, in the 1930s, playgrounds were functional, concrete and tarmac brutalist structures, the function of which was to allow children to work off their excess energy. Functionalists often miss the first part of that word. Then in the 60s a new left approach to the planning and design of playgrounds emerged and more imaginative, colourful playscapes began to be built. tumblr_nowtjo9u6s1utece2o1_500These were expressly influenced by the work of child psychologists such as Jean Piaget and served the function not just of allowing kids to expend energy, but to play creatively to the benefit of their psychological development. This altered in the 90s when litigation and a hyper safety consciousness amongst parents led to newer, safer playgrounds with rubber floors, in which no child could ever get so much as a scrape. More recently there is a realisation that this helicoptering approach to childhood play is potentially crippling to our kids. They’re not learning about risk and how to deal with danger and this carries over into their adult life. So the design of playgrounds and the approach to children playing and how they play can have an enormous social impact that, much like parenthood in general, you don’t really see the effects of until much later. Sorry in advance kids.

But to come back to playgrounds in art galleries – we’re not kids. While I wouldn’t discount the value of play in adult life either, surely our ‘play’ should be of a different order to the way we played as kids?

This all enforces a sneaking suspicion I’ve had over the years that our entire culture is slowly becoming infantilised. Playgrounds in galleries aside look at the bulk of TV documentaries these days. Documentaries were often headed by figures of some authority and they would present information or opinion from an educated position. These days some very well spoken presenter pretends to be stupid and talks to you as if you’re stupid.

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The BBCs new Newsnight team

They pretend they know nothing, assume the viewer knows nothing and in the process no-one really learns very much at all. Look at the popularity, amongst grown adults, of superhero films and Star Wars. Look at the profusion of colouring books for grown ups in bookshops. Listen to most popular music and how it ends up in our ears – from quiz shows where the musicians plead to a panel and the public for affirmation. It’s as if asking for some discernment or the nurturing of taste these days is considered snobbish. And, who knows, maybe it is.

Though I’m often guilty of blaming everything on the evils of capitalism maybe this trend toward toddlerism is due to the leftover stains of the previous feudal system. In that system most people lived on the land and the feudal lord was seen as a father like, protective figure. Perhaps our culture still yearns for that. To be children looked after by benign parental, protectors. Which would explain the bewildering popularity of the monarchy and why entitled, hereditary, twats end up being elected as Prime Minister.

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Don’t even need to say it.

Or, more worryingly, perhaps we should look at the pioneering child psychologist Jean Piaget again, one of the inspirations behind the creative children’s playscapes of the 60s and 70s. Jean_Piaget_in_Ann_ArborPiaget had a four stage theory of childhood mental and cognitive development which briefly goes like this:

The Sensorimotor stage up to 2 years, where the child only knows of what is right in front of them and the world is experienced primarily through physical sensation

The Pre-Operational stage – 2 to 7 – where children start to develop language and memory and so can think about time, can think symbolically and begin to use their imagination.

Concrete Operational stage – 7 to 11 – where children start to develop logic and begin to realise that their perspective is not unique.

The Formal Operational stage – from 11 – Where children start to attain the capacity to think about abstract concepts, to use deductive reasoning and develop the capacity for critical thinking.

However Piaget didn’t think everyone reached this fourth stage and research suggests that only about 30 to 40% of people ever enter it. That’s not a typo. Between 60 to 70% of adults do not seem to have developed the cognitive ability that an 11 year old has the capacity for. Perhaps culture is becoming more infantilised because such a large proportion of us is actually infantile. Is it too churlish to ask that we might consider growing up?

Or maybe I should just lighten up. Perhaps, after all, it’s not such a bad thing and we should listen to what baby Jesus told his disciples when they tried to shoo away some plebs who were asking the Messiah to bless their little ones – ‘Truly I tell you” he said “unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven

And, let’s face it, he should know.

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