By Luke Ryan
From a distance, the Five Fields kids playground doesn’t look like much. A few sheets of wood planted in a forest glade, noticeable mainly for how out of place it looks among the surrounding greenery. It’s only when you look closer that you begin to notice the details: the impeccably placed sprays of colour, the child-sized portals and pathways that pepper the structure like rabbit holes, the tower and accompanying flying fox, the stairway to nowhere. With its ambiguous shapes and closed-off spaces, it doesn’t look like anything you’d usually call a new playground, but for husband-and-wife team Brandon Clifford and Johanna Lobdell, that was entirely the point.
“From the very beginning, the idea was that we would experiment with a completely new idea of what a playground could be,” Clifford tells me. “The goal was not to dictate anything, but rather to produce something that was ambiguous enough so that the children could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.”
An architect by trade, Clifford saw in the Five Fields project a chance to really push the parameters, both of his own practice and of the shapes and structures we usually force onto children’s play. Working with another architect, Michael Schanbacher, Clifford began by creating what he calls a “vocabulary” of basic shapes and movements. “We had these little elements you might associate with a playground, like where you walk across a beam, or climb under a fence, or you slide around a pillar. We isolated these tiny little moments, and then started combining that vocabulary in weird, experimental ways. We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t going to look like any other playground in the world.”
This appetite for innovation can be traced back to the Five Fields community itself. Started by a group called The Architects Collaborative (TAC) in the early 1950s, Five Fields was a suburban experiment founded on ideals of community and shared living. TAC members bought five adjoining dairy farms and then shaped the resulting property so that each house backed onto the same common land—no fences allowed. “When we were brought in, there was already an existing playground on the common land that had swings, slides, a jungle gym. But they’re very dedicated pieces. You slide down the slide, you swing in the swing. The neighbourhood said, ‘What we really need is a place for the kids to engage with.’”
Before they began construction, Clifford, along with Schanbacher, spent time exploring the emerging academic consensus around play theory, “something I didn’t even know existed until I began this project”. They were inspired, in particular, both by the concepts of free play – hence the ambiguous and undefined spaces – as well as the idea of ‘escalating danger’. “The concept is really simple,” Clifford explains. “Basically, kids won’t do something that is dangerous right off the bat. Instead, they will gradually build up to something that’s dangerous. If a child is on a platform that’s high in the air, they won’t just go and run off the edge, because they’ve had to climb up there themselves and so have internalised the need for caution.” It’s when parents intervene that the danger grows. A parent might take a small child and lift them up to the topmost point, but because the child hasn’t had a chance to recalibrate its perceptions of danger, the chance of an accident actually increases.
For Five Fields, Clifford and Schanbacher countered this by making the space actively exclusionary to grown-ups. “In architecture, we’re very good at designing for adults,” says Clifford. “But one of the exciting things about Five Fields was that we were able to design things that perfectly suited children. The dimensions are such that children can just burst through a space, but the adults need to turn sideways and sidle through.” Behind the closed walls of Five Fields, the children look after themselves.
Not that safety wasn’t a paramount consideration. “We built the playground over a three-month period, and as we worked, the kids were climbing all over it, so we could see them play and get a sense of where the critical points were. All the parents were witnessing it too, so I think everyone got to a level of comfort with how things were unfolding.” While the design is deliberately open access, there are still certain areas that younger kids cannot access. “They end up crawling under something, while the older kids climb over to get to the more dangerous areas. These details were just part of the ongoing conversation with the community itself.”
Due to the marginal budget of the project, Clifford and Schanbacher were limited in their choice of materials: “Basically, wood was the only option,” Clifford says. So, after selecting a timber—cedar—they turned to Lobdell, a graphic designer, to create a colour scheme that would add playful accents to the basic structure. “We were hoping for more nuanced engagement with colour as opposed to just painting the whole thing, or picking a colour, or going crazy. We wanted to create something where children could use the colours to break down the form and develop their own teams and stories.”
“I have a background in engaging with spaces, bringing people into certain areas,” says Lobdell. “But this was my first mural display, and it was also the first time I was working solely with colour. And that was such an interesting challenge. Without using words, how can you draw someone to a certain area of a piece in the middle of a field? How do you invite people in and let them know that these are ways to enter?”
In the end, Lobdell settled on a palette of nine colours. Eschewing the overpowering hues usually reserved for children’s play areas—“I always feel as if they get distracting”—she went for milder, more interesting shades: seafoam green, royal blue, muted white. Rather than being purely decorative, she wanted the colour scheme to offer direction and suggestion, using open-ended symbols like circles and chevrons to add a sense of movement. “You can see clusters of colour elements in the facade. There’s the red room, which is a tiny little staircase. There’s the green flying-fox area. I was trying to keep the design simple enough that the kids would be able to transpose their own meanings onto it.”
Lobdell’s favourite element remains the flying-fox box. “Graphically it was fun, because I got to play off the shape of the box and create this shadow element. That’s where I really homed in on the idea of directional graphics. But from a more practical perspective, I just remember painting the space at the end, and it transformed from this bare wooden sculpture into a light-hearted and creative play space. That transformation was really gratifying to see.”
The playground is a year old now, and the structure has already become an integral part of the Five Fields collective. “The residents have come back to us saying that people are using the common land more now, as a community,” says Clifford. “The parents and the kids are coming out more and more to share the space. That was the whole goal, so that’s amazing to hear.”
As to what we might be able to learn from the success of this kind of avant-garde play area, Clifford is emphatic. “I don’t think the problem is with design or with ideas of how to create play. I think the biggest hurdle right now is these false questions of safety and liability. There’s too much negativity surrounding play. Everyone’s trying to cover their arse and the kids are losing out. I just hope that a project like this might inspire someone else to push the envelope in their own communities and create something imaginative and unique.”