Tuesday 5 May 2009

Play Time

A wonderful exhibition of the work of French director Jacques Tati is currently taking place at the Cinémathèque française, an event which has set me thinking about a rarely considered part of city life. What room is there for Play Time in our cities today, and how beneficial is it for our children? After the dark cloud of seeing parks in Paris closed at the first sign of snow this winter, I have been comforted to see light this spring; a fantastic new installation at the Parc de Belleville in Paris.

When watching the films of Jacques Tati, it is clear that he had a child’s eye view of the world. A theme running through his work is that the absurdities of the modern, adult world are gently mocked, but it is in his film Play Time that these absurdities become truly grotesque. Whilst his previous films had seen his characters coming across hazards in the country (Jour de Fête) or at the beach (Les Vacances de Mr Hulot), here the characters are trapped in a futuristic Paris of straight lines, glass buildings and busy roads. However, as the organisor of the exhibition, Macha Makeïeff puts it, "Tati imagine la modernité comme un vaste terrain de jeu" (Tati imagined modernity as one large playground). The adult world is filled with incredible machines signifying progress, but they certainly do not simplify life and seem ridiculous to children.

The American educator Fred Rogers said that “for children, play is serious learning”. But how can cities help children to learn if their play is controlled by adults who do not understand them, and through fear, constantly over-protect them? Paris contains precious few spaces where children are completely free to run, jump and climb, with adults constantly telling them to get down from walls and trees and off the lush, green grass. Is it though possible to design parts of the city that are truly child-friendly?

Research today suggests that risky, adventurous play helps children’s mental and social development
, and to encourage this in the UK, the government has created an entity known as Fair Play. The goal of this scheme is to change the landscape of towns and cities to make them more geared towards the needs of children, essentially to make sure “children's needs and children's play areas are at the heart of the planning process from start to finish”. Whilst no such scheme exists in France, a true representation of its spirit can be found at the Parc de Belleville.

Running up the steep 30° slope of the park, this construction of wood, rope and slides does not contain a single flat surface. Some parents still watch their offspring carefully, but the children are clearly delighted to scramble freely across the wooden boards, up rope ladders and down long slides. It is a large area, over 950m², seemingly containing many dangers, but in reality very carefully designed to encourage children to explore and take risks. As they jump or climb, it becomes clear that even if they fall the angle of the ground will always lead them down to a safe landing.

The installation, which cost over 1 million Euros, is geared towards 6-10 year olds, and is situated next to a forest of high-rise blocks of flats. Children more used to watching television or to being told to stop kicking footballs around the car-parks of their buildings now spend their afternoon running around the ondulations of this structure. Whether this truly has educational merit is another subject, but the benefits to a child’s health and self-confidence should be clearly seen. It may also make these children feel like they finally have a place to call their own in the city.


Ken Mac said...

what crazy lines. I love Mr Hulot's holiday, one of my top ten faves...

Cergie said...

J'aime beaucoup Tati, sans doute est ce "Jour de Fête" que je préfère, presque muet ; ce facteur qui se déplace dans un village à vélo. C'est ce que j'aime rendre sur mes photos : mettre en situation, placer un personnage tout petit, ou méler l'ancien et le moderne.

Starman said...

But what about we 'older' children?

Adam said...

Starman: That's a very good point. There are some adults using this installation as a comfortable sunbathing area, but I would love to return to my childhood here!

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