by Kaylin Slaughter, Student ASLA, and Kenneth Hurst, ASLA
The mission of this study trip to Orlando, Florida, was to have the second year landscape architecture students at Texas A&M University engage with a question about popular play spaces: what elements of design make these spaces work? Students were given pencils and a journal, and were invited to tap into the knowledge we had acquired thus far in our education and record our uniquely formed observations. Through this journaling process we developed unexpected and meaningful relationships with the sites we visited.
In built environments, an individual’s experience of any given site may often feel as programmed as the paths of travel. However, designers have the capacity to see a site for its full potential. As a student of design, I see the world through two lenses. One is the rose-colored glass that shows me the designed world the way the landscape architect intended it to be seen. The other lens offers a designer’s X-ray vision that allows me to see past beauty to purpose. As a design student I am caught between these perspectives—I can uncover a space with childlike wonder, and yet I have the vocabulary to articulate the design’s successes while doing so on a journey deeper into a site’s purpose than most user groups could. This realization came to me as my classmates and I were observing a children’s play space.
Unfortunately, children’s play spaces often take a back seat in design education. Case studies often shed light on audience demographics but there is typically limited focus on the littlest clientele. To our educational detriment, the extent to which students are expected to include play spaces in a project may entail merely finding an existing AutoCAD file for a playground. As a result of this, as my classmates and I wandered around the children’s play space at Bok Tower Gardens with our pencils poised to capture the design and underlying intent, we realized that uncovering the true mastery of children’s play spaces would be trickier than initially imagined.
Bok Tower Gardens is located on Iron Mountain in Polk County, Florida. Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden is just a tiny piece of the 250 acres of immersive gardens but is arguably one of the best experiences at the garden. A dynamic and engaging design for children’s play, the original designers of Hammock Hollow spared no detail. The garden caters to children in the way it excites the imagination, but also challenges them to play in spaces where an obvious activity is not provided. With eighteen distinct features, the Hollow is dynamic and engaging. There is seemingly everything outdoors to do: climbing, sitting, crawling alongside miniature biomes, greater-than-life-size creatures, and child-safe textural diversity.
Enrichment—this word came to my mind as the class studied the site, but to get there we needed more time to understand how the garden elements functioned to enrich children’s experiences. The journal assignment allowed us to metaphorically take home pieces of the site and put them under our personal reflective microscopes. Sketching details that stood out to us provided a chance to determine what makes the site a successful play space.
What we ended up sketching were elements that had nourished the senses—playful yet cool jets of water acted as both a challenge to be evaded and a rewarding break from the heat, softly sanded wood welcomed tired bodies as we rested, warm sand crunched underfoot, smooth stones, sturdy rope. There was a textural variety that gave the space a symbiosis with the native landscape and would encourage an ecological empathy within children, ultimately providing them with further interest in exploring the complexities of the natural environment.
Just as we observed children’s sensory engagement with the site, we also experienced it and translated our experience to sketched features. Capturing a textured path with pencil was preceded by grazing our fingers along the pebbles embedded in rough concrete. Experiencing the water feature, always popular with children, meant observing whether they engaged with it as intended and how much creative freedom they allowed themselves to create new possibilities. Each feature bore a hypothesis for how the participants in the space would utilize it, and it was our job as ‘researchers’ to engage as well, which entailed running through the features, creating games, and discussing our findings. This hands-on method of artistic communication seemed the most honest way to study the site as both user and designer. Not only were we able to observe, we also got to feel what the children needed, like a shaded seat on a hot summer’s day. The personal relationship that developed when studying site elements drew us to understand what completed Hammock Hollow as an idea. It was a place of enrichment; it is a place where children develop core memories.
The assignment was to capture at least three site features, but in the end our journals and minds overflowed with inspiration. Experiencing the design prepared with the tools of a designer, enriched us; experiencing it with the fresh eyes of the user, challenged us. The design of Bok Tower Garden’s Hammock Hollow energized a class of future landscape architects to get out and design our “Hammock Hollows,” and provided us the tools to do so. Studying the functionality of the site showed our class that we possess the ability to enrich the lives of anyone who may derive joy from an imaginative escape.
We would like to extend a hearty thank you to Steve Niedergeses and Greg Meyer of Stantec for their generous hospitality in hosting activities and assisting with logistics for this trip.
Kaylin Slaughter, Student ASLA, is a third year student at Texas A&M University studying landscape architecture. She enjoys reading and writing about design pedagogy, aesthetic and sustainable forms, and historic reclamation.
Kenneth Hurst, PhD, ASLA, is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University. He currently serves on the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team and maintains an active consultancy in parks and playgrounds.