Future of Playgrounds: Coding Workshop at the Media Architecture Biennale

Compared to generations past, children today play less in general and less outdoors. What does this mean for traditionally-designed playgrounds, spaces specifically set aside for an activity that happens less frequently? How can we reimagine who playgrounds are for? To what extent will digital technologies redefine our understanding of what a ‘playground’ is?

In this and future posts, UNStudio’s strategic R&D unit UNSKnowledge is exploring alternatives for these public spaces through ‘bottom-up’ design methods.

For the Media Architecture Biennale 2018 in Beijing, UNStudio developed a workshop that explored alternative approaches to urban design, taking a ‘bottom-up’ strategy to create social cohesion in small pockets of urban public space.

Technological innovations of the past decade have rendered physical space and digital space as increasingly blurred. Public and private space is no longer easily defined only by physical enclosure. If you have a phone with an internet connection, you are in a form of public space. Still, there are more people playing video games in isolated (physical) spaces than ever before.

By producing prototypes of models for future playgrounds as hybrid conditions between video games and physical space, our workshop aimed to disrupt conventional concepts of playgrounds. We urged participants to make simple games that could facilitate social play environments, facilitate social cohesion and connectivity between users across the scale of the playground, the neighbourhood and the city.

This knowledge sharing journey through design thinking and engagement explored how we can apply new technologies to improve outdated playground environments. True to this mission, colleagues at UNStudio in Amsterdam joined the workshop via videoconferencing to offer guidance to the participants.

The schedule of the workshop alternated between pushing and pulling information to and from the participants. We began by pushing our observations on why we should be interested in playgrounds within the city, then pulled information about why the participants thought playgrounds are important and asked them to consider their response through the perspectives of children, teenagers, adults and the elderly. We then pushed back on why playgrounds require rethinking in the space of the city.

Following this push-pull ideation session, we introduced the participants to Scratch, a visual programming language and online community created by MIT where anyone can create their own interactive stories, games and animations. Given that the interface primarily targets children, the coding work is simplified into blocks and the platform contains extensive resources including tips, tutorials and a library. This makes it extremely user-friendly and thus appropriate for this workshop.

 Five groups of four people each produced a Scratch game based on the ideas that they generated in the first portion of the workshop. With our help, the groups learned how to piece together short blocks of code to control Motion, Looks and Interactivity through conditional statements. We asked that each interactive game act socially, transformatively and in a way that ‘nudges’ – or affects – its players into a positive mood. Participants produced playful, multiplayer experiences ranging from an underwater adventure game to a tilting maze.

Our amazing group of participants came from widely diverse backgrounds, experiences, opinions and interests. The workshop itself, in thinking about the role of ‘play’ in society, was a site for social cohesion through learning, discussion and reinventing our preconceived notions of playgrounds in cities today, in order to project forward into future models.

UNStudio Team: Filippo Lodi, Wael Batal, Sitou Akolly, Mia Ming Guo