Play: For All Ages

With the Christmas holiday upon us, I was thinking back to some of my family traditions and remembering the hours I would spend from ages 5 through 17 setting up our "Christmas Village" under the tree.

I don't know how my family came into this tradition, but each year we would pick an addition to the growing town under our tree. It probably started with a train set, a couple of town houses, and eventually included ice ponds, bridges, little figurines, animals, light posts, trees, etc. 

While one could argue that these pre-imagined components of an idyllic imaginary place did not offer much to creativity, it was amazing how much fun I had each year, starting fresh to create a re-visioning of our town, with new cotton snow landscapes, train routes, and narratives for the residents. Because no one else in my family was particularly interested in this opportunity for urban design, the vision was all mine. Thinking back on this now, I see our Christmas tradition as one of my first exercises in the design process. I also see an important aspect that sometimes gets lost in professional practice - Play!

Design is a creative process and play is a critical component in the development and act of creativity. Lego has long been championing research on the importance of play in childhood development, arguing that play is one of our brain's favorite ways to learn. It forces us to be active in our learning process, test capabilities and sparks intellectual curiosity, according to the Lego Foundation CEO.   

Deep in the Joshua Tree National Forest, in the deserts of California, artist Phillip K. Smith III revealed his beautiful architectural play of light, the so-called “Lucid Stead” installation.

As Architects we have an incredible opportunity to bring play to our workplace.  We learn this in our architectural education as part of the process. Often this involves playing with scale, orientation, use, and material.  Always asking questions of what we've already made. It's as simple as the asking: "what if we turned this form upside down?"  "what if this piece could move?" Sometimes the answers to these questions are impractical or just silly, but the point is that we ask them and continue to search for something new. According to Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D, editor of the American Journal of Play. “We don’t lose the need for novelty and pleasure as we grow up.”     

So, also as Architects, I believe we have a responsibility to create spaces that are engaging and novel. That is why I am so inspired by serious architects that expose their love of play.

Charles and Ray Eames often said that, “Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas.” Five things that Charles & Ray teach us about play.

  • Maritime Youth House, Bjarke Ingels Group

  • Spun Chair, Thomas Heatherwick

  • Teacup Ride, Disneyland

Play in the design process, through models, sketching or conversation helps us step away for a moment from the expectations of clients, building departments and even ourselves, creating space for new ideas to pop up. 

This holiday season you may find yourself around kids and kids toys. Take some time to play. Maybe you'll have a new idea, or if nothing else, some fun! 


Michele Flournoy, Designer