Where Children Play: Photographs of Playgrounds Around the World
From Bolivia to Bhutan, a visual ethnography of childhood experiences.
By Maria Popova
“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin wrote in her beautiful design history of childhood. Nowhere is this mediation more dynamic and vibrantly alive than in playgrounds — those singular spaces dedicated to the deliberate cross-pollination of physical reality and the imagination, which endure as a symbolic counterpoint to work and an idyllic antidote to the tyranny of work/life balance by which the adult world operates.
These sacred spaces of childhood are what photographer James Mollison, who has previously explored where children sleep, captures in Playground (public library) — a global ethnography of where children play, presenting fifty-nine photographs of playgrounds from around the world.
Mollison was moved to begin this project after returning to his own school — “a space of excitement, games,bullying, laughing, tears, teasing, fun, and fear” — as an adult, then visiting nearby schools and being struck by how the different environments effected profound different experiences for the children who went to each school. He became fascinated by how the even greater diversity of playgrounds and cultures around the world shaped experience of childhood.
Beneath the playful subject of the project lies layered poignancy — on a more obvious level, the stark contrast between the most barren and most elaborate of these playgrounds speaks to the growing global gap between poverty and privilege; more subtly, it prompts us to question to what extent the relationship between materiality and the imagination matters in the context of play at all.
Nowadays, whenever I visit my native Bulgaria, I marvel at the fanciful playgrounds that populate not only every neighborhood park but every other restaurant and grocery store “family corner.” During my own childhood there in the 1980s, under communism, the playgrounds were spartan and near-identical — a slide, a sandbox, and a set of monkey bars painted in chipped primary colors.
And yet we were never bored — those few fixtures provided more than enough fodder for imaginative play and for mastering that peculiar art of balance in motion by which the human body carries itself through the world. In wondering whether more — and more lavish — playthings are necessarily better for the development of the child’s imagination, I can’t help but think of Kierkegaard’s masterful treatise on the benefits of boredom, in which he asserted: “The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” (This applies just as much to indoor play — it’s hard to believe that contemporary LEGO sets, packaged in pre-imagined creations like Disney Princess Elsa’s Sparkling Ice Castle, lend themselves to more imaginative play than the classic bricks of my childhood, which came with no instructions, no correct final form to build toward, no factory-made path from the real to the ideal, and only an open invitation for creative construction.)
These questions and many more arise in leafing through Mollison’s captivating Playground. Complement it with photojournalist Gabriele Galimberti’s visual ethnography of children’s toys around the world and photographer Mark Nixon’s portraits of beloved childhood teddy bears.
All photographs © James Mollison
Published June 30, 2015