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Two brown library bookcases frame a colorful scene of funky geometric kid’s shelves and climbing structures. Illustration.

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The architect making playgrounds reflect how children actually play

To Meghan Talarowski, play is “so much more than just physical activity”

Every kid wants to climb up the slide. Go to the nearest playground, and you’ll see children clamoring to defy gravity, following an impulse to run up inclines that leads to toddler traffic jams and exasperated parents trying to create order from chaos.

The only problem with how children play on slides, says Meghan Talarowski, a designer, researcher, and advocate who founded Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Studio Ludo, is that the playground’s designer didn’t see it coming.

Kids want stimulation, excitement, the thrill of knowing they could fall—not the stultifying safety of today’s playgrounds. Talarowski remembers her own early years in her hometown of Redding, California, where she spent most of her time outside building forts, climbing trees, and daring other kids to see how far they could lean out over a river without falling in. What kids definitely do not want, she says, are adult preconceptions getting in the way of their fun.

“Play isn’t as linear as we think,” says Talarowski. “Play is so much more than just physical activity. It’s emotional support. It’s social development. I want to design spaces that support kids wherever they’re at. If they’re having a day where they want to be weird, I want to create that space.”

Talarowski’s belief that play needs an overhaul came from sitting still and observing how our parks are actually used. Playground design needs to break out of the bland plastic molds that currently define fun and instead offer what kids and parents actually want. During her TED Talk, she admitted that she hates taking her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to local playgrounds, which she calls “a punishment for being a parent.”

“If you give a kid a crayon, and tell them to draw a playground, they’ll draw a swing and slides,” says Talarowski. “But once you really start paying attention, you’ll be really surprised what kids and parents are really attracted to.”

Talarowski wants Studio Ludo—a firm of four researchers and designers that focuses on integrating research and advocacy into creative design—to be something like the “Pixar of play,” designing parks that are exciting for kids, enticing for grownups, and creative in a way that belies the rigorous work and study that went into their creation.

As a project associate at the Trust for Public Land between 2008 and 2011, Talarowski worked on an array of landscape and park projects and spent a considerable amount of time looking at how people actually use public space. The lessons gleaned from observing—she cites as a hero Holly White, a sociologist and urban researcher famous for his meticulous, detailed studies of streetscapes in New York—helped her think about the power and potential of parks. After graduating with a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, she worked briefly on research and design for the Philadelphia offices of Olin and SALT Design Studio before starting her own firm.

Children play on structures built of wooden planks with sections containing dirt for plants to grow.
Play Terrains, built in Philadelphia, PA, is an example of a lightweight, low cost, playable intervention.
Studio Ludo

Then, when her husband was transferred to London in 2015, she took the opportunity to embark on a wide-reaching survey of play in London. She traveled around the city with her then-1-year-old daughter in tow, taking iPhone videos of playgrounds and later analyzing behavior and user patterns. Her observations after taking in London’s superior swing sets: Kids need more thrills and less safety. Adults need a place of their own at the playground. And physical spaces should offer children the chance to “level up” and practice risky behavior.

She found that playspaces in London included riskier design and focused on non-prescriptive play and more adventurous features such as giant slides or high-speed spinners. These are thrilling experiences that also teach kids confidence in their own movements and the ability to gauge risk. And English playgrounds are more likely to sport amenities, like cafes in or near playspaces, that provide parents and caregivers with support.

Where U.S. playgrounds are a response to high-profile lawsuits, with softer, rubberized surfaces; rounded edges; and what she describes as “overly expensive, homogeneously safe, and insidiously boring” design, English playgrounds resulted from an established, though informal, feedback loop of child development experts and designers who evaluate how children use new playspaces, collaborate on design ideas, and share best practices for future projects.

Talarowski’s report on London’s playspaces, which was cited in the New York Times, helped cement the model for Studio Ludo, the nonprofit design firm that she founded in 2015. In addition to built work, the designer and her partners spend equal time focused on research and advocacy, all in the interest of trying to mirror what they see as the more successful English system.

Two recent hometown projects for the Philadelphia library system show how Studio Ludo manages to introduce new ideas into unfamiliar spaces. As part of an initiative to add amenities to library branches, the studio designed a pair of projects: a climbing structure that teaches kids about local ecology, created in partnership with local landscape architects at Roofmeadow, and an indoor climbing gym, in partnership with designers at DIGSAU and Smith Memorial Playground. These small installations give kids access to thrilling and challenging play in unexpected places.

Children play on a climbing wall made of wood, with blue accents in a library. There are also blue and green decoration on the library shelves, as well as blue and green ottomans scattered in the space.
Play and Learn, built in Philadelphia, PA, it is the first climbing wall in a Philly library.
Todd Mason, Halkin Mason Photography

And two upcoming commissions illustrate Talarowski’s vision and process. In October, she kicked off a national study of playgrounds funded by the National Institute of Health, a three-year longitudinal study of 60 playgrounds in 10 U.S. cities assessing the impact of the latest wave of playground design on equity, access, and education. At a time when cities are experimenting with bringing new, fantastic playgrounds to the public—such as those at Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park or the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma—and spending millions of dollars on play amenities for superstar parks, it’s important to understand what is and isn’t working: “Do we need more sand, height, more places for grownups to sit?” Talarowski asks. “We’re trying to figure out what makes a good playground tick.”

As the study rolls out, a new Studio Ludo playground, in partnership with OLIN and E&LP, rises in Hoboken, New Jersey. The designers have created an outdoor space for the senses, a naturalistic play environment that references the surrounding urban landscape. The centerpiece will be a pair of nest-like structures lofted into the sky on timber legs, supporting giant balls made out of marine rope—a callback to the area’s shipbuilding past. A set of basket swings, large enough for groups and families to ride, will be suspended from the structures. A climbing wall and rings of boulders will give kids places to experiment and climb, while a raised terrace will offer caregivers a perch from which to observe. Finally, all will be ringed with native plants boasting enticing seed pods, oddly shaped leaves, and colorful flowers, which kids can grab, grip, and smell.

Marquee public places like Talarowski’s are designed to be bigger and bolder. But what does “bold” get us? As cities seek to add more playspaces, Talarowski wants to make sure new designs live up to the promise and potential of play, and the demands of parents who, with plenty of consumer choice in almost every other aspect of raising their kids, are asking for playspaces that are a joy to visit, not a chore.

“We can choose anything about our kid’s childhood except for the spaces they play in,” says Talarowski. “I want public spaces to be better, and to serve me, the parent. Parenthood is tough, and I want support.”