ArchitectureIssue 7

The Grounds for Play

My childhood playgrounds were the vast concrete storm drains of Singapore. Their network represented its own, complex cityscape, an underground web with big bits and narrow bits, scary bits and climbing bits, and some bits three meters deep. I think we went there mostly for the constant gushing of cool water and the underground shade that offered respite from the heavy, sticky heat. We would write our names in marker pen on carefully cut paper, wind cello tape around the pages again and again to make them waterproof, then climb with them into the small gaping mouth of the drain opposite my house. We fastened these names (and those of boys we fancied) to the metal bar wedged through the top of the drain, and they would hang there. I doubt they still do. I recall the conduits opening out into huge basins, pools of crystallised moss staining the lips either side of the drain. Perhaps it is into them that our names have rotted and fled.

These were my playgrounds. The children of the Soho Parish Primary School recently received their own, and it’s almost as strange. At 23 Great Windmill Street, a street whose eponymous windmill once begat a burlesque theatre, and a stone’s throw from the current Windmill Men’s Club and its advertisement of “TABLE DANCING”, you will see what looks like an artfully-piled stack of wood and glass wedged between two old-fashioned brickwork buildings. It looks more like an art installation than a primary school. Diurnally adults, arm in arm, stagger down this street, or play their own games upstairs in bright red rooms. Then, in daylight, this school and its new playground are filled with more innocent primary colours; those of little boys and girls enjoy their own, more innocent, imaginings and rampages.

The school itself makes me feel like an absurd giant, lumbering through the minute and very yellow hallways, peering into classrooms with chairs big enough to fit half a bum cheek. It is, of course, designed for small children, but the architectural bounds within which the school must operate are limited, and it tells on the space. They are boxed in, essentially; entirely surrounded by housing estates and even vaulted below ground. The only direction for development is up. Nevertheless, the dreams of Headmaster Joffy (no idea what this is short for) have come to fruition in an interstice-like space built by the ‘bespoke playground design and build team’ (!) Jane’s Pond. I’m already suspicious. And I want to know who Jane is.

The playground, when I see it, does not look fun. The sand pit is small and grey, the ropes look exactly as interesting as ropes, and the wooden beams are fastened to one another in that ultra-hip industrial kind of way that’s all exposed metal and raw bolts. It could probably be pretty accurately described (and probably was by Jane and her Pond) with words like ‘modern’ and ‘innovative’, but the whole thing looks a bit adult. Playgrounds are supposed to be full of plastic in colours that hurt the eyes, bulging cartoon apparatus, slides, swingy things, and that weird rubbery running-track flooring that ends up on kids’ shoes, coming out onto carpet like burnt crumbs. This doesn’t, so far, bode well.

But then the 12 O’clock bell goes. Playtime.

Headmaster Joffy has been explaining how skills, social understanding, imagination and physical dexterity are learnt through unstructured playing. For a myriad of reasons children have far fewer opportunities for outdoor play today than previous generations, and studies have shown that in cognitive and conceptual development eleven year olds are now on average two to three years behind where they were fifteen years ago. But it is at only when the bell rings that these dry numbers – and Joffy’s attestations – are given weight of reality. Kids are fucking nuts. I’d forgotten. It’s like a little microcosm of adult life. Two boys are running together, hands joined, just fucking clotheslining everyone. There’s a tiny chick looking a bit crazy in her big sister’s too-big shoes, pretending to water flowers and talking to herself. All the rest can be roughly divided into those determined to climb the rope ladders, those determined to stop them, and those remaining neutral (whom I find myself mentally referring to as ‘the Switzerland children’). Every-thing is full of purpose and without direction.

They are not taught, and yet they learn. I look around and I can see personalities already forming; the group of boys intently running about, shouting and bolstering one another with a shared sense of belonging; the more quietly dramatic characters, nattering to themselves and prancing about with dancing hands; and the reflective ones who sit and gaze, soaking in the colours of their friends and enemies. Humanity is here in miniature, coming to terms with itself and others in a way that feels important.

And, it is beginning to be shown, it feels that way for a reason. The Soho Parish Primary School is not the first educational establishment to recognise the importance of free play this year. The University of Cambridge and the LEGO foundation announced last month that they are establishing a new centre and associated professorship to examine the roles of play and playfulness in learning. LEGO’s £4 million grant have established the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL). Joffy, it seems, has pedalled ahead of the curve.

This was not a quick or easy project. The small state school had no private funds. It took three years of campaigning to raise them – and, in great part, the generosity of eleven leading Soho property investors – in order to open the new playground this November. It is a refreshing reminder that Soho can exist as a community, and a charitable one; not just an altar to nights of moral turpitude but, sometimes, to days spent learning more constructively. What’s the lesson? That play is important, and something worth investing in. I don’t know about you but, when I grow up, I’d like to be a little girl at play.