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Abandoned Soft Toy

The Garden of the Moorish King

“Carl Theodore Sørensen watched children playing on construction sites with sand, bricks, and tree stumps, and proposed in 1931 a new kind of playground – skrammelejepads, or “junk playground” – of old cars, packing crates, and timber so children could build their own places. He saw “nicely designed” play equipment and hopscotch lines painted on asphalt as evidence of adults’ profound misunderstanding of children’s play.

The first ever adventure playground built in 1943, in Emdrup, just north of Copenhagen, was a flat, open area of dirt sunk below the level of the surrounding land and bounded by berms covered with dense, thorny shrubs; entry was through a small wooden building on the corner. The whole created a frame for activity and for messy constructions. The dense boundary provided privacy and shielded the children’s work from view. Photographs from the 1940s show an open space with piles of bricks, old boards, pipes, barrels, water and other construction materials and children, in groups and alone laying bricks and hammering nails, fixing a flagpole atop a shack. Photographs from the early 1960s depict neat rows of little houses. Adult play leaders had taken over as supervisors and regulators; Sørensen was very disappointed.”*

Javier has just brought Clara back from a walk through the city centre. They naturally ended up in a little, fenced, children’s playground in the Plaza of San de la Palma, with a climbing frame and slide. He’s complaining about how rough the kids are these days, how they don’t seem to know how to play, just run hysterically and aimlessly.

The playgrounds in Seville are a typical combination of mass produced sets of a climbing rope + adventure frame/tunnel, slide, maybe a swing…. In some cases there is bark on the ground, other times rubbery pads, or stones, or just dirt and dog poo. Interestingly, there are never swings for kids older than about six, as if we grow out of them by then. I appreciate that in the Palmerston North Esplanade, there are swings that I have swung on well into my adulthood.

I spend a lot of time contemplating these spaces now, as living in an inner city apartment with a small child makes a daily trip to one of these spaces necessary. Some children go for days without getting out at all. It’s just school and home to the apartment where there is TV and homework. What is happening to play?

Spirn brings up a term to describe humans and their speciality for play as coined by Johan HuizingaHomo ludens. He describes places of play as “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart”. In the last century places of play – sports fields, playgrounds, ski fields and other resorts have boomed as we find more time to enjoy “play”. But play is perhaps changing.

I remember how I played. I had the luxury, as I see it now, of open spaces, wild wildernesses at the backs of gardens, running into the bush, streams to follow and vacant lots. I created houses with fallen leaves and whole alternate worlds in a neighbourhood. I got to explore the ramshackle spaces behind the work sheds on farms where treasures lay among the discarded farm implements and made clandestine excursions to explore abandoned houses.

At lunch, with a work contact of Javier’s, over from England for a conference, we had got on to the subject of childhood play spaces when Dave asked me what I was currently painting. On hearing that I was painting a series about a vacant lot, Dave smiled at a memory. Back in his youth in Sunderland, he and some friends had commandeered a vacant lot and turned it into a football pitch, levelling out the ground themselves with spades and making goals with sticks. Years later he and his wife had helped create a community run playground from a vacant lot which they called “The Dell”. It was a wild place and the children were left to their own devices. However things changed with time and the vacant lot became “regulated”.

My local vacant lot is known to the neighbourhood as “El Huerto del Rey Moro”, the Garden of the Moorish King. It’s been a common area for centuries. It may have been attached to a convent at some time and used for community food growing, animal shelter and grazing. It has signs of having had stone buildings on it and there is an old well. An old house that juts into the space dates back to the Moorish Occupation, from around 700ad. With this in mind, although no archaeological dig has taken place, it doesn’t take much to imagine the rich fabric of human history that lies just beneath the pounded dusty earth and overgrown weedy vegetable patches. Seville has two thousand years of human history at least.
For that reason, while I have no idea to whom the land really belongs, the community has managed to keep it out of the hands of developers.

In the hands of the locals, El Huerto has a collection of donated tricycles for kids to play on, faded by the sun. There is a sandpit, an old Wendy House and a swing tied to the old fig tree. Neighbours have raised beds of vegetables and herbs on the go, some organised, some half left to go wild. There is a garden shed where people leave books for exchange, picnic tables under the trees, a water pump and a home made pizza oven.

What I also love about El Huerto is that it makes me feel at home. It’s my place of play too, not just Clara’s. It takes me to my childhood places and reminds me that I still need places like this as an adult. If only there were a taller swing for adults, I’d be there daydreaming too, tipping my head back and staring up to the sky.

Recently the community gained some funding for a better fence to be erected and other things, I know not what. All I hope is that the place is left for the most part just as it is. No neat rows, no mass produced “adventure” climbing frames, no loss of freedom, no loss of play.

* Anne Whiston SpIrn, “The Language of Landscape” 1998, Yale University Press.

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