How would you describe your work?
I run Learning Landscapes - a small landscaping company designing and creating bespoke school outdoor areas to create inspiring, educational and fun spaces. This can be anything from creating quiet sensory areas to physically testing trim trails and climbing frames. From environmental learning spaces with ponds and vegetable growing beds to outdoor shelters or timber structures for role play. Everything is made from scratch (usually on site), so can be tailored to suit the individual’s needs and can often serve as a valuable lesson for the pupils to observe.
What, for you, is the role of play in your work?
For me, play inhabits all parts of my life and I wouldn't want it to be any other way. When I meet a client for the first time on a site visit I will be trying to build rapport, so I approach the conversation with a playful mindset and try to find shared interests or, even, humour.
I like to think that I am fairly well in touch with my inner playful child, in fact many people would probably say "what do you mean inner?!" So, when I am designing a new project, I will think 'what would a child like to do in this space?' or 'what would be fun here?’
How does taking a playful approach take you in unexpected or different directions?
Picture this: you are working in a school playground in a cordoned off area. When the kids come outside you are surrounded on all four sides by maybe a hundred children. Then, imagine you are being repeatedly asked the same questions such as "what are you doing mister?", "what's that supposed to be?" or being told "my dad could do that!" At these times, I feel a lot of sympathy towards caged zoo animals.
Now, I could use this as time for a break and miss an opportunity. Or worse still, I could try to keep working and get more frustrated and resentful. So, I often down tools and simply engage with the kids and have a chat. They may not have been told what I'm doing there, so I can explain and say what this could mean for them. Then if anyone still asks me what I'm doing, I can tell them to ask someone who was listening!
Sometimes, it helps me relax, especially if part of the project is particularly challenging, and I might even use it as an opportunity for some spontaneous juggling lessons, although this usually attracts even more kids. Sometimes, if I'm feeling really mischievous, I'll say I'm digging to Australia, looking for treasure or making a swimming pool just to see how they react (I do always tell them the truth later).
At other times, I might involve the children in the design or implementation of a project. Finishing projects together is great so that I can hand over ownership to them. Ideally, I want the project to be an experience in some way for them and not just something that's done to them. Also, in more deprived areas it reduces the chances of vandalism. When they are involved, making the work playful definitely helps to keep them motivated and a healthy level of competition usually improves output.
On some occasions I am invited to do an assembly or speak to groups about what we have made for them. Again, this is a great ‘handing over’ experience and a fantastic opportunity to be playful. I love to use ice breakers and the challenge of trying to keep them interested gets me thinking outside the box.
Do you have any examples of playfulness informing a particular project?
Sometimes the client doesn't actually know what they want or hasn't had the time to give it much proper thought. I had a recent site visit at a new school where my only instructions were "just go for it, you're the expert- so go for your grandest design."
So, in a tiny unused patch of trees in an unused corner of a school field I worked with my own brief. It was an exposed windy site so I decided on something that can feel sheltered and safe and take advantage of the birdlife living in the trees. The surrounding views were amazing and I know that kids love to be elevated, so, I designed a 2-level structure. The 'ground floor' is a bird viewing hide and an external staircase leads to the top floor, which has a pitched roof with skylights poking out of the top of the trees to take in the fantastic views.
I was really pleased with the outcome, especially as I wouldn’t have done anything like this without that freedom to “just go for it”. The school were over the moon with it and lots of other schools have seen it and want one too. So, in this instance, being playful has broadened my portfolio and boosted my enthusiasm for my work.
To see more of Stuart's projects visit his website.