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Play All Day

A new book featuring many Dutch designers presents the best design for children.  It is about play that matters and play that makes a difference through objects and environments that encourage creativity and a heightened creative awareness.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 15-04-2009

It was through experimenting with creative ways to get her own daughter to eat vegetables that eating designer Marije Vogelzang came up with some of her more ingenious play designs.  She invited some children from the neighbourhood daycare center into her restaurant, Proef, and encouraged them to use their teeth as shaping tools to create what she calls “veggie bling bling”

The children were soon eating their detested vegetables, which lead Vogelzang to her next idea - changing the way food for children is packaged.  “An old English children’s song,” she writes, “goes ‘beans beans the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot, beans are good for your heart.  The more you eat the more you fart.’ By simply changing the label on a can of beans eating becomes play, and may eventually lead to a national farting contest or farting orchestra!”

Her point, of course, is that play can and should extend into every facet of a child’s life not merely the designated play hours.

These days it seems so obvious, but identifying the links between a child’s play and design has been developing since the middle-ages and the latest ideas on offer are beautifully presented in Gestalten’s new book, Play All Day in which many Dutch designers feature.

The very best objects and environments designed for play are packed with potential for exploration, and the practice of skills at various levels of complexity.  Like, Floris Hovers Archetoys, for example, which are archetypes of recognizable vehicles made from basic factory-made metal parts.    More than just a static collection of random objects, play design supports the way children learn and offers challenging choices.

English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1794) was one of the first to suggest that children were born as blank slates.  He believed that a child was completely new at birth and came down firmly on the side of nurture in the nurture vs nature debate. Culture, he argued, determines a child’s life.  

It wasn’t until the 18th century when the issue of play was more directly addressed and children were being seen as more then just incomplete versions of adults.  In his classic book on education, Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated the child’s right to play, and talked about the “charm of freedom” which was devoid of too much adult interference.

After Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller (1770 – 1835) went even further writing about play as an aesthetic and enjoyable necessity.  To him, play was the earliest means by which human beings could express their desire for beauty and for enjoyment.

By the middle of the 19th century new laws were being passed in Europe protecting children from exploitation, which gave young people more free time.  Their type of play evolved from the writings of Rousseau and Schiller, but was peppered with the stricter tones of the Victorian era and much of what started to develop then is still very apparent today – play, albeit with a focus on learning, and an understanding that play can serve a greater purpose than providing mere enjoyment.  Structure, guidance and instruction can all turn play into a useful education tool.

With Freud (1856 – 1939) came developmental psychology, and new ideas about play having an emotional value and being integral to the development of our instincts. Play was now very much about promoting intellectual development, but also allowed children to test their feelings without repercussions or adult disapproval.  It was about ego, building self-esteem and helping to make better sense of the world.

It’s this very rich history of play that the designers included in Play All Day draw from.  Puppets and playgrounds, dolls houses and automobiles all come in unexpected shapes and materials designed to nurture the sort of play that society believes is best for the child.  

In its introduction, Play All Day proudly dismisses with the theories and argues that the three undisputed requisites for a child’s healthy development - challenging tasks to grow from, good examples to learn from, and a nurturing community that makes them feel at home – are what each of the included designs possess.

The book uses reality as a basis:  single parent homes, technology, more frequent family relocations, and assumes that “learning for life” means being able to comprehend complex networks rather then linear structures.  The examples come from all over the world but the Netherlands features heavily with designs that do all they can to nurture self-confidence, flexibility and a proactive approach to life.

Jopie Biesters for Birdie Nam Nam made a bright bedcover appliquéd with a gigantic owl whose eyes open and close and an adjustable felt birthday crown with four medals to celebrate a child’s first four birthdays.

CARVE, an Amsterdam design and engineering office started by Elger Blitz and Mak van der Eng, plans and develops space for young people.    Their play towers are inspired by the skate grounds they wanted as boys, and the Wall-holla, a multifunctional play-structure, is also about realizing the fantasy play equipment they could never find when they were young and energetic enough to need it.

Emily Gobeille & Theodore Watson
created Funky Forests.  What looks like a wild and crazy ecosystem is actually a computer vision based interactive environment. Streams of water flowing on the floor can be directed to make different parts of the forest grow.  If a tree does not receive enough water, it withers away but by pressing one’s body into the forest, new trees can grow.

Black Beauties by Ineke Hans are items made from black recycled plastic and play with the idea that children do not only respond to colours, but also shape and opportunity.

Kidsonroof produced Mobilehome designed by Ilya Yashkin.  It is a small house with eight rooms and spy holes made from recycled corrugated cardboard.  The house comes bare and can be painted and decorated by the children themselves.

Tjep, founded by Frank Tjepkema and Janneke Hooymans designed the famous family-friendly restaurant just outside Amsterdam, Praq.    The design mixes decorative objects and functional pieces so a table is also a window, a bus or a kitchen.

One of the most lyrical and emotional inclusions in Play All Day is Maartje Steenkamp’s long-legged high chair.  It is based on the growth of a child.  A small child likes to be carried around at adult eye-level so it can observe with a parent.  A bigger child is more independent and doesn’t need to be always eye-to-eye with a parent. By sawing down the legs of the high chair, a parent can make a physical statement to help its child gain more and more independence.  The shorter legs are a mark in time, the chair will never get its long legs back just like the child will never be small again.

Play All Day – Design for Children

Published by Gestalten
Editors: R. Klanten, S. Ehmann
Language: English

Release: March 2009  
Price: € 44,00 / $ 65,00 / £ 40,00
Format: 24 x 30 cm
Features: 240 pages, full colour, hardcover
ISBN: 978-3-89955-236-2

Images: main - highchair by Maartje Steenkamp, Marije Vogelzang's bean label, Floris Hovers' Archetoys, Wall-holla by CARVE, Funky Forests by Emily Gobeille & Theodore Watson, Black Beauties by Ineke Hans, Mobilehome by Kidsonroof, and restaurant Praq by Tjep.

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