Thursday 19 February 2015

Tom Uglow: What does play look like in the twenty first century?

Tom Uglow Tom Uglow

Why are we so obsessed with how children play? It is a rich topic certainly; the mind’s ear resonates with the innocent delight of shrieks and yells, it carries us back to (hopefully) carefree reveries, and also crystallises some modern-day anxieties. Perhaps our romantic notions show some of the shortcomings of urban life. From planning and preparation, the careful scheduling of naps, the chauffeuring between parks and wet-play, our rational fear of unsupervised unstructured bedlam out beyond a clear line of sight, up into the trees and out onto streets. Not to mention getting them off the iPad to begin with. Why can’t it be like it was when we were growing up? ‘Child-led play’ has moved from being the natural default to a new metric in our parental optimisation schedule. How well is the city adapted to these needs? This question seems to be undecided. 

It has been on my mind since getting involved in the British Council’s ELEVATE StartWell Challenge which invited applications from across South East Asia for innovative new concepts to improve the element of play in early childhood (0-8 years), reimagining urban spaces and playgrounds, or the way young children interact with space.

In recent years I have judged a number of grants for projects that touch on the idea of urban play - although mainly for adults. I was involved with Bristol’s Watershed amazing Playable City grants, and also with the Tate as they sent robots scurrying around the collection in After Dark, the inaugural IK Prize winner. I even describe my own work at Google’s Creative Lab as “play”. Maybe that’s why they asked me. I am very inspired by the child-psychologist Alison Gopnik and her understanding of “the lantern consciousness of childhood” and how that applies to creativity. Plus, what I do looks like fun, and ‘having fun’ equals ‘play’, right?

It would be disingenuous to say this gave me any great advantage in judging the Elevate Fellows for 2015. But it certainly was fun, and I learnt a great deal, primarily about quite how differently such a brief can be perceived by the 12 countries that applied, across disciplines that included design, architecture, early childhood, performing arts, technology and production. Ideas ranged from simple pop-up spaces in cities (like Hanoi or Bangkok), to fully connected spaces (in Japan), from an emphasis on access requirements (in Australia), to large-scale playgrounds (in Singapore) inspired by the A Different Class typologies presented by Lekker Architects with the Lien Foundation.

Universally, however, there was one theme: “let the kids get back to nature”. How to encourage children to play outside, in unstructured natural surroundings. And for that, the city itself has to change priorities, has to engage the professionals, and academics and plan, not just for benign safety-conscious climbing frames, but preferably conjoined with wild, natural disorganised areas. Spaces that can merge our desire for security and the potential of our information-age, with dirt, dens and distance. Even to find ways that let parents, like me, allow our children out of our sight. I had no idea how hard that is.

The Fellows will gather in Japan from February 23-March 1 to work (play?) on their ideas at a camp supported by the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM] and partners Watershed and Nesta. A month later, they re-submit their ideas in hope of a SGD$50,000 grant from the Lien Foundation as part of the StartWell Campaign.

An early tweeter asked how one could ‘improve’ on play, but having sifted through a wide array of amazing ideas I am quite convinced that we can, and that there is opportunity for disguised digital play too. Perhaps in doing so, our urban spaces might become that much more enjoyable for the grown-ups, too.


Tom Uglow is Creative Director at Google Creative Lab. Further information on the ELEVATE StartWell Challenge, from the British Council and the Lien Foundation, is available on the programme's website.

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