Chief designer for LEDON Playground Manufacturing Company Søren Skøtt, whose office lies just around the corner from Design School Kolding where I spent a couple weeks this summer, enthusiastically shared with me his basic philosophy of play: All play is good play, and we need more of it in the world.
Back in the researcher's office at Design School Kolding, Ph.D. candidate Line Gad Christiansen described a colleague in western Denmark working with teenagers in "dark play" (a term I hadn't heard before) on a kit for cutting their own hair. This made me think of a project a few of my former classmates (YES! We graduated!) from University of Washington's design school developed for marginalized young people, assisting them to tattoo themselves and each other with minimal risk of infection and increased creativity and social connection.
A hundred kilometers from Kolding, University of Aarhus Ph.D. researcher Marc Malmdorff Andersen and I sat across a dinner table and discussed the dark underbelly of play. "Bullying is play," he said. "For me, as the bully, it checks all the boxes." He sheepishly confessed, "I had my experiences bullying other kids, and I liked it. Obviously I'm not proud of it, but at the time, it felt like play to me."
Designers have been frequently criticized for their pie-in-the-sky, dreamy looks of myopic optimism. The Australian facilities manager at Frederiksbjerg School in Aarhus, a state-of-the-art school building which won "best building in Europe" the year it was completed, showed me around and complained incessantly about how the designers and architects messed it up: no walk-in freezer for the cafeteria; maintenance offices so far from the main offices they waste several days a year simply walking across the school for meetings; kitchen services for the students which had to be removed due to vandalism; drug deals on the roof-level outdoor sports areas. "I told them these were bad ideas," he grumbled, "but they had their designer's ideals and we couldn't talk them out of 'em. Now we have to go back and fix them."
I feel concerned about the piles of rubbish marketed as children's toys, video games, and highly-touted public recreation areas all designed for "play" or even "educational play". In my conversations with Marc and later with Amos Blanton, past director of LEGO's Idea Studio, I've been searching for a simple delineation between destructive play—and garbage—versus beneficial play: easy play (which doesn't challenge the player to grow and presents little or no significant benefit beyond distraction) versus hard play (marked by the tangible benefits it offers).
I recently heard Cas Holman, Rhode Island School of Design instructor and near-legendary play designer now featured on Netflix's "Abstract" design series, share her toy/play company's motto, "Easy is Boring." Something inside me jumped up and down. Yes, there's something to that. But even beyond boring, is easy... detrimental?
The path of least resistance seldom does us any favors. Rest is good—I'm not talking about living in a constant state of stress. But according to Anders Høj From, pedagogue at a forest kindergarten in downtown Aarhus (their kids take a bus to the woods and back every day), "Children should always struggle a little." When I gasped and bugged my eyes out at him, he modified his statement for me. "You could say practice. It means the same thing." Honestly, I think struggle is a more useful term here. And it's not just children—I wonder if we shouldn't all struggle a little more often.
What happens when we design for play, and that play becomes destructive? Not just knocking down a stack of blocks or dismantling a toy to learn how it's built—those are great. But what about bullying? What about exploitation at a corporate level? What about these violations of mind, body, and relationships we couch as play? "Boys will be boys," or "kids will be kids," has been an accepted phrase for ignoring certain aspects of weaponized play. Sure, we need tough kids, we need to make money, and sometimes we need a break from thinking so hard. But as designers, can't we do better?