I was talking with my mom regarding children during COVID-19 times. She reported a tough episode happened to her colleague son, Matteo, a 6-years-old boy who, seeing the surgical mask of his little friend on the ground, returned it stretching himself towards her, in a gesture of gallantry and friendship. He was yelled out by his teacher. He was mortified, and cried while telling the fact to his mother. 

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It is largely shared that the spread of the coronavirus disease is having a destructive effect on the mental health and wellbeing of children, especially in their role as forced premature adults who are called to handle a situation that is bigger than them. 

We’ve only heard about the COVID-19 rules, and they’ve only increased panic. They were also only dealing with political issues. No one bothered about our mental and physical health.

11-year-old girl, Kosovo

The recent report published by Save the Children has brought to the surface a critical insight regarding hidden impacts caused by COVID-19. “We know that being in contact with friends and ability to play makes a big difference to children’s emotional wellbeing. More than half the children who were not in touch with friends reported feeling less happy (57%), more worried (54%) and less safe (58%) (The hidden impacts of Covid-19 on children’s mental health, by Helena Thybell).

The schools, the parks, the sports centers, the football pitches, the basketball courts are intermittently closing to cope with the pandemic, giving rise to a lack of instruments for the parents and the caregivers. The children are forced beyond screens to be posted on school and to keep in touch with friends. 

Reading about the topic made my mind jump into an exhibition I heard of one or two years ago, which was curated by Vincent Romagny, Kodomo No Kuni

Staged at the French Art center Micro Onde in 2018, the exhibit explored the role of playgrounds in Japan during the post-War World II with a focus on the symbolical meaning for the communities for whom these were designed. 

The selection of artwork Romagny made on that occasion is the mirror of his deep research on playground history and models.

Since 2010, Romagny has traveled to various countries, meeting the major exponents of the children's play area project such as Dalisi, Friedberg, Pestalozzi, Nielsen. But it is only in Japan that Romagny, in 2015, has found a new substance to his research.

Kodomo No Kuni can be understood as a response to the natural and human cataclysms that contributed to writing the traumatic history of Japan.

Kodomo No Kuni: Playgrounds in Japan exhibition, 2018

Despite the importance of Noguchi, the symbolic aspects behind the exhibit were embodied in what became a kind of trademark for the exhibition: the Panel Tunnel, the architectural play designed in 1976 by Mitsuru Senda, a colorful shaped game covered in holes that were originally designed having in mind the tunnels dug by Yokohama people, to protect themselves from the American bombing.

After the Kanto earthquake that destroyed the Tokyo and Yokohama plain, an urban planning law required that any house built be located less than 500 meters from a piece of land on which the population could gather…Kodomo No Kuni is not simply a physical and real place.

Kodomo No Kuni: Playgrounds in Japan exhibition, 2018

The focal point is now becoming clear: what Vincent Romagny staged is a fair on the positive value that Japan has embodied in the urban planning as a resilience mechanism to recover from traumas, passing through the children’s play.

In general, until the 1980s, architects and designers focused on risky projects around city parks.

The playground represented a laboratory, a discovery center and a new focal point of the city in which both the designer and the user could express themselves.

From the second post-war period, the parks help to heal the city and repopulate it with the presence of play and vitality.

From the 1900s, with the emerging child psychology, the parks were transformed from mere functional places equipped with steel pipes and gymnastic equipment into creative design experiments, on one hand by modifying the concept linked to the fun of the child, on the other, it was the chance for the architects, designers, urban planners to bring out social experiments in the cities.

While Van Eyck transforms the city of Amsterdam destroyed by the destruction of the war into a dreamlike place, Mitsuru Senda exacerbated the tragedy of the bombing with colors.

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Isn’t celebrating childhood the best way to announce the beginning of a new era? 

Kodomo No Kuni: Playgrounds in Japan exhibition, 2018

In the wake of the re-appropriation of public space, in the 1970s, M.Paul Friedberg, one of America’s leading designers and landscape architects, together with Ron Greene, a graphic designer for a Portland lumber company, designed several models for wooden playgrounds that were easily adaptable to the environment and at low cost. The customer ordered the set of wooden structures and could then build the playground himself, according to the supplied models or freely.

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Handcrafted Playgrounds - Design You Can Build Yourself by M.Paul Friedberg, published by Vintage Books in 1975


A page from Handcrafted Playgrounds, 1975

The book, Handcrafted Playgrounds - Design You Can Build Yourself represents a vademecum for the new generations which was called to care for the city through the play, by making affordable the instruments of their actions.

Ladders, concrete blocks, all the materials suggested in the design can be easily purchased and mostly inexpensive.

A revolution for the architect’s role.

A revolution for avoiding standard environments.

A revolution in city management.

A revolution for the child, empowered in his role.


Pages from Handcrafted Playgrounds, 1975

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A page from Handcrafted Playgrounds, 1975

The book perfectly embodies the perspective of the 70s in which groups of citizens interfere with urban planning and playgrounds begin to take on a political dimension as well. With a view to rebirth, we can learn from the models of the past by focusing on the concept of the Active city, that is the future prospect after the forced digitalization that took place with the covid: a city in which policies for the promotion of physical the sectors of urban planning, architecture, sport and health, allowing children to return to being active figures, and to test the consequences of their actions in an environment of their own, leading them to use their creativity and to arrive at innovative solutions and experiences.

To heal a trauma.

Caring the children in the post-covid period would mean caring the city as well: taking up the message launched by Save the Children in the aforementioned article that urges world governments to engage the children in the “developing, designing, and implementing preparedness, response and recovery plans while safeguarding their healthy development, protection, learning and wellbeing”, the provoking vision of the article wants to launch a possible way to reconstruct the social fabric through the making, starting from the most affected groups during the pandemic, through the concept of re-appropriation of public space, and bringing back a spontaneous and collective way of making cities.

Learning from the anarchic and spontaneous approach with which experiences of this kind have arisen over time means giving the tools to the community for joyful experience through play and synergistic action between and with children, creating opportunities, new landscapes, possibilities for a different future, buildings an environments developed for children by the children.


A page from Handcrafted Playgrounds, 1975

Could we apply what has been characterizing a Movement, born after World War II, of architects-artists-urban planners who put their creativity at the service of children, designing urban public places exclusively dedicated to them?


Source of pictures from the book Handcrafted Playgrounds: Designs You Can Build Yourself (1975)