History of Art Seminar 23 February, 2022
From Malene Nafisi
Prof. Ben Highmore (University of Sussex, Brighton UK)
Experiments in Free Play: From the outdoor gymnasium to the junk playground
Abstract: Most playgrounds today are discrete areas dedicated to the physical play of small children. An uncharitable description of them might compare them to ‘hamster wheels’ designed to siphon off excess energies by using brightly coloured devices (usually plastic) laid out on a spongy ‘prison yard’ designed to keep children from hurting themselves. Playgrounds today are risk-averse places that require the least amount of upkeep (the devices are durable and fixed). The history of playgrounds, however, particularly in the decades that followed 1945, tell a much more diverse and experimental story. In this history we can learn about playgrounds that were aimed at all children and young people aged between 4 and 16; playgrounds where children learnt (with only the minimum of supervision and instruction) how to build shelters, how to grow food and how to cook it; playgrounds aimed at instilling a love of nature. These were playgrounds that saw their task as preparing children for the future by giving them the space and means to develop a democratic ethos and to inoculate them from the lure of fascism. These were spaces ambitiously aimed at fostering self-reliance alongside the ability to participate in collective communities. These playgrounds often snatched ‘waste ground’ for a few years during transition periods between destruction and rebuilding. Today, as we face an uncertain future threatened by climate catastrophe, where urban space and the right to the city seems to preclude the young, we might want to ask: how can we prepare our young people for the future? How could the history of playgrounds offer resources of hope for an increasingly precarious future?
Bio: Ben Highmore teaches Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. He has recently published work on Brutalism (The Art of Brutalism: Rescuing Hope from Catastrophe in 1950s Britain, Yale University Press) and feelings (Cultural Feelings: Mood, Mediation, and Cultural Politics, Routledge). He is currently finishing a book on postwar English taste in relation to the new middle classes and beginning another on the history of playgrounds.