This ‘risky’ new playground is a work of art – and a place for kids to escape their mollycodling parents

Picture this: a pile of colorful plastic buckets stacked on top of each other to form a climbable bridge, monolithic blue stone boulders supporting a twisting slide, a heap of moonlit concrete demolition debris as a resting place.

At each location, children can be seen swinging their bodies on deformed, bumpy monkey bars and swinging along ropes stretched between stones.

Would you let your children come and play here?

This new Southbank playground in Melbourne is the work of artist Mike Hewson. The project can be confusing to the public. Is it a playground? A sculpture? Or unfinished infrastructure?

Hewson’s playable public art parks in Sydney and Melbourne are known for being “risk– but risk means different things to different people. And it is precisely the risks his art takes that makes it so valuable.

The risk of non-risk

Urban play has long been synonymous with cultural life of art and the city. During the decades of the European baby boom, new playground concepts emerged with an emphasis on “free play” (as distinct from earlier playgrounds resembling outdoor gyms), as one of the basic needs of children.

“Tufsen”, the unusual sculpture by Egon Möller-Nielsen was the first free play sculpture genre, created in 1949, bringing together abstract art and play in the public space.

This new approach generated a boom in game sculptures.

Egon Möller-Nielsen’s Tufsen in Stockholm was the first sculpture in free play.
Sune Sundahl

In the early 1980s, we saw a significant shift in response to issues of risk, danger and child safety, resulting in fears and threats of litigation.

While gambling safety standards have been introduced in Australia, the US and the UK, innovation in the arena of a slow-mo playable public domain. As soon as standards began to be referenced in liability cases, playground designers began to follow them.

Designs out of specification have been avoided and playgrounds have been standardized in the “boring” versions which still dominate most of our play spaces, where the potential movement of children is scripted: up, through and down.

This playground seems to balance on rocks.

Southbank’s new playground in Melbourne is unlike the playgrounds of your childhood.
Mike Hewson

Over the past 30 years, interpretations of these safety standards continue to regularly confuse the meanings of “risk” and “danger”. A risk is something that the child is aware of, which forces him to identify, analyze and overcome the challenge; a hazard puts a person in danger because there is a condition of injury that the user cannot perceive.

The confusion of these meanings has resulted in a cultural attitude towards the game that is very risk averse.

This risk aversion contrasts with the growing body of research on the risk benefits for kids.

Risk aversion can have long-term health consequences in adolescence and adulthood, potentially impacting the development of anxiety, depression, obesity and diabetes.

This playground seems to be built with plastic buckets.

Hewson is also behind Pockets Park in Leichhardt, Sydney.
Mike Hewson

In fact, researchers Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky to suggest contemporary society “pampers” children. The risk of non-risk is a matter of resilience – not only physical but also, perhaps more importantly, psychological resilience.

Psychological resilience is the ability to adapt in the face of tragedy, trauma, adversity, threats or significant stress. Simply put, resilience is the ability to “bounce back” from difficult experiences.

Based on this premise, Hewson’s “risky” sculptural play environments can strengthen, fortify, and increase children’s psychological resilience.

A child climbs on a brick wall.

These playgrounds can build psychological resilience.
Mike Hewson

Unlike the conventional playground where movement is predetermined, Hewson’s projects offer children the opportunity to explore unknown, unscripted, innovative and playable sculptural worlds.

When given the opportunity, even very young children show clear abilities negotiate unknown spaces, manage risk and determine your own limits.

Read more:
Giant slides and broken legs: why the latest playground craze is a serious danger

playable sculpt

Hewson’s sculptural playgrounds don’t just give kids the chance to take risks. Their very construction seems risky: all the playable parts seem to be improvised, cobbled together with cardboard and chicken wire, in fair balance or on the verge of collapse.

A girl climbs into a cage on a rock.

Hewson’s sculptures seem on the verge of collapsing.
Mike Hewson

And yet, nothing is quite as it seems. With Hewson’s engineering background, each playable element has been meticulously crafted, structurally engineered, and carefully integrated into the urban realm.

This illusion of danger gives the works a sense of strangeness, appealing to art lovers and children alike.

In the art world, Hewson’s works are important for their bold and brazen disrespect of the traditions of public art.

By making these sculptures playable – and seemingly flawed – they overturn the hierarchy of “art”.

A child swings on deformed monkey bars.

It may sound broken, but it’s highly technical.
Mike Hewson

Australia has long had a reputation for presenting “plonk artin public spaces. Plonk art is a pejorative slang term for large modernist works of art for government plazas, corporate atriums and open parks designed to be looked at but not touched.

Hewson lifts sculpture from its pedestal and brings it directly into the public domain, while engaging local communities in the creative development stages of his projects.

For this experiment, he receives some backlash of certain sections of the community – but his beliefs drive him forward.

Hewson's crowded playground.

We need to give children the space to take risks.
Mike Hewson

His works advance the role of public art in creating a culturally richer intergenerational public realm, while challenging the conventions of the ubiquitous safe playground.

So what do you think? Is it time to bring more playable artistic opportunities into the public domain?

Read more:
Bringing art into public spaces can improve the social fabric of a city

Harold B. McConnell