We have three children, so we’ve visited an awful lot of playparks over the past six years. Going to the park is our go-to activity when we aren’t sure what else to do, and we are lucky enough to live within a short walk of two great ones. Whilst we have been to some great parks in the UK, it’s the German playparks that have really impressed us.
We first visited Germany as a family in 2016 for a wedding, and we were struck by the locals’ positive attitude towards children. They’re treated as a valuable part of society, rather than a bit of an afterthought. German playparks further demonstrate this with their design and execution, and (sorry, UK) they are vastly superior to ours.
Without getting too technical (and because I do not have any qualifications in urban planning), the concept of the playpark can be interpreted in many different ways. In the countries we’ve visited, I’ve found that the design of dedicated children’s spaces can be indicative of that culture’s attitudes towards children and play.
My love affair with German playparks first flourished in Hanover and continues in the towns and villages we’ve visited since. We’ve found similar parks in Belgium and we hope to find more in the Netherlands and Northern Europe in our travels next summer.
Why do I love German playparks? Let me count the ways…
The German playparks that we’ve visited fit into their surroundings, rather than standing out. They are not plopped down in the middle of urban or suburban areas, and they’re not fenced off. They are part of the immediate environment, whether set in woodland or the middle of a city. This gives the impression that playparks (and by extension, play) are seen as an essential part of life, not something to be crowbarred in or a box to be ticked.
Natural materials feature strongly, and in many, there are sand and water play areas. Structures are built from wood and are natural colours rather than painted brightly. Children play in environments that are close to nature and mimic their surroundings, rather than in dedicated boxed-off areas.
Sidenote: I have no idea how the sand is kept so clean. I do not think it would be so sanitary in the UK, unfortunately. I did ask some German friends about this and they said people just don’t throw their rubbish in the sand. Which seems fairly reasonable.
Engineering and learning
We have visited lots of German parks that contain pulleys, pumps, and pipes. In fact, these are more common than swings. This type of equipment encourages the development of so many skills, like problem-solving, teamwork, and curiosity about how things work.
I think this is indicative of the German attitude to learning and development in children. Children in Germany start structured schooling a lot later than in the UK and learning through play is encouraged in the early years. Continuing and reinforcing this attitude in a play setting means that young children consistently have the opportunity for self-directed learning through play.
Isn’t the ideal playpark the one where the least parental intervention is needed? I hope that’s not just my view! Not only does it give us a bit of a break, but children get a sense of pride and accomplishment from figuring things out themselves. We’ve visited German playparks where our two-year-olds could reach, climb, and play with everything with no help from us. Again, this is indicative of German attitudes towards child development: we’ve found that German children are expected to do much more for themselves at an early age than kids in the UK.
One of the best pieces of equipment we found last summer was a set of swings that children could move themselves, using a bar mechanism. Let me repeat that: there are swings you don’t have to push. Why are these not in every single playpark everywhere? The kids had a great time figuring out how the swings worked and felt so rewarded when they got them moving.
In the UK, I think there must be very little competition between playpark equipment designers. Most playparks look very similar: black tarmac, brightly-coloured play structures, a swing set, and some benches. There is usually a fence around the playpark, and gates to enter and exit. Wherever you are in our country, you will likely find a playpark closely matching this description.
In Germany, each playpark is different and unique. Some have outdoor trampolines, others have sand and water areas. The slides go down hills, the climbing structures are varied, there are huge logs or boulders to clamber on. Playparks are sprawling, or they are in woodland clearings, or they are next to cafes at the zoo.
Playparks are design-led. They look cool, they fit into their environment, and the equipment is different in each park to reflect the different surroundings. They are functional and fun, but not at the expense of design. I get the impression that in Germany, play is something to be celebrated rather than being forced into urban and suburban areas. Children and play are vital parts of society, not just an afterthought, and I think that’s exactly the right attitude.