“Play is all about allowing natural curiosity and exploration”
Toddlers can stack, splash and wander in Ram Eisenberg’s parks
Ram Eisenberg, 59, is founding director of Ram Eisenberg Environmental Design, a landscape architecture firm based in Haifa, Israel. He specialises in urban playgrounds, parks and gardens that give a feeling of “designed wilderness”, using found materials and input from local residents. Eisenberg is an Assistant Professor of landscape architecture at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and has been practising landscape architecture for 25 years.
In conversation with journalist Pamela Druckerman
What do children need to play?
What a child needs changes at different ages. We see the play realm as two emotional–spacial circles: a circle of safety and a circle of discovery. In very young children, up to age 1, those two circles completely overlap. What these children mostly need is for the parent to feel comfortable.As they grow, very young children become more interested in the textures of their immediate environment, exploring by touch. Toddlers don’t really explore play structures, which are mostly designed for older children. They play with earth, with leaves, with ants; they climb steps; they discover. Play is all about allowing natural curiosity and exploration.
‘What children really need is loose materials, things they can touch and order. When my granddaughter was 2 she liked to sit on the ground with her cup and collect stones.”
What is wrong with today’s playgrounds? How do you design differently?
I generally include some formal play structures in the parks I design. These are necessary to meet the standards and they’re what people expect to find in a park. Children usually run to these familiar structures first, and only later do they discover the non-formal play treasures I hide for them, in full sight, in the rest of the park.Formal play structures are made of plastic and steel, often in bright colours “attacking” the eyes, and dull in textures and other sensory stimuli. Even when they try to provide other stimuli – such as sounds – it is also usually very artificial.Today’s play safety standards are very strict, which results in a standardisation of elements, and a clear- cut separation between what is for play and what isn’t.
In my parks, I intentionally leave natural areas untouched, and accessible. I use stone outcrops, plants and scented herbs. I do this as much as I can, to provide for richer sensory experiences besides the visual.
Colourful play structures are not what interests small children. They’re very interested in details. They like different-sized pebbles, and having things they can go through to experience being on the inside and the outside, or on one side and the other. This is very rich and time-consuming play.
You carried out an observational study at one of your own parks to see how children used it. You also observed your own grandchildren at play. What did you learn?
One parent had a 5-year-old, and they came to the park every day. For the first five weeks, the child wanted to go to the slide. Then all of a sudden he lost interest in the slide, and they walked to a place which he called “the maze.” But I didn’t build a maze.The park has a community garden, and there are little paths between the different kind of herbs. He loved to hide and play there. Then he discovered the pool – a small pond with green string algae. Now he wraps stones in algae and makes sushi!
What made you want to design playgrounds?
I grew up in a kibbutz where I could go anywhere, touch things, explore, be in nature. It was very open. I had the kind of childhood that I want other children to have.
‘It would be too simplistic to say that the children who play in these parks will save the planet. But I hope they will grow up to appreciate
How is your design work linked to climate change? Does this impact children?
We are the problem, our culture is the problem – the way we consume the environment as if it is a commodity. I can’t say that I know how to solve the climate problem. But I do think that we need to develop new ways of thinking and living, and to step outside our current cultural way of being. It would be too simplistic to say that the children who play in these parks will save the planet. But I hope they will grow up to appreciate the planet. If you lack sufficient exposure to these kinds of experiences, you are in a high-risk situation. At least I’m giving them a chance.
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