Photo by Suzannah Larke
A ludoteca is a play space for children
When Ildefons Cerdà designed the Eixample in the 1850s, he envisaged a green city with public gardens in the middle of each manzana (block). The reality today is that most interior spaces are private gardens or car parks. With ever-smaller living conditions, and few safe open spaces, families with children need to be resourceful to find quality outdoor play areas for their little ones.
The ludoteca (play space) in the Ciutadella park is one such haven. It is free of charge and open seven days a week. There are dozens of ride-on toys, huge balls of all sizes and plenty of toys for symbolic play where children interact with adults, nannies and grandparents. In drought-free summers they turn on the water fountains, making baths in the muddy sand.
A ludoteca is a play space with a heavy emphasis on educational play. “But this ludoteca is a bit different to others,” Beatriz Hernández, a playworker there, told Metropolitan. “Firstly, because it’s all outdoors. The children come and go freely and play wherever they want. Secondly because parents come with the child. We could distinguish this special ludoteca by calling it an outdoor ludoteca or an espacio familiar (family space).”
It is the only outdoor ludoteca left in the city, according to Fátima Roel, another playworker there. “There used to be three of them, all managed by [the Ajuntament’s] Parcs i Jardins—one in Villamella, one in Cervantes and here. The Villamella one was taken over by the district of Sarrià for refurbishing. Now it has changed, it’s an indoor ludoteca, it’s not like before with the outdoor toys and everything. The Cervantes one was closed last December because it was not in good condition and there wasn’t enough public interest to renovate it.”
Both playworkers said they knew of no plans to open more outdoor ludoteques. “To us it feels like things are closing down one by one rather than opening,” said Hernández. “Play is very important for children, it is fundamental that they have places like this because in the city there are so few spaces to play freely, where they don’t have to be holding someone’s hand all the time. Outdoor play gives them a chance to develop their independence, to have contact with nature, the changing seasons, the air, the sand, the birds, the leaves.”
The importance of outdoor play is something not lost on Jordi Sabaté Puig, head of Barcelona Diseño Urbano (BDU), a company that specialises in designing and fitting children’s adventure playgrounds. He is like a big kid, animated and enthusiastic about his work. “Playing outside stimulates your senses, the rain, the air. The light is also really important. When I started the company, I tried to imagine I was a six-year-old and think what would I like to play with.”
He was originally inspired by an image from a catalogue of children’s playground equipment made by German company Richter Spielgeräte and now he works closely with them. “The picture fascinated me, it showed a kid at play on a child size digger, manoeuvring sand and water, and that’s what it’s all about, the basics of child’s play—sand and water. We have installed two of those in Barcelona so far.”
BDU works all over Spain and Barcelona. They built the adventure playground in Barcelona Zoo, and designed for the Forum in 2002. They recently won the Columpio de Oro (golden swing) award in Zaragoza. BDU also works on public projects, that are commissioned by Parks i Jardins or by local municipal districts to renovate old play sites or create new ones. “They used to put any old installations in children’s parks, just put them in next to each other with a bit of cement, but things have changed,” said Puig. “Parcs i Jardins really look for fun games for children. Slowly, things are being fixed up, it’s a huge investment.”
For BDU, the emphasis is on interactive play and working with the natural environment. A good example of this philosophy at work is the Joan Brossa Park on Montjuïc. Webs of rope and swings, their signature musical ‘sound cushions’ and interactive games are all set into the natural habitat of the park. They use the existing environment wherever possible—stones or rocks from the site, ruins and natural materials like sand and wood chippings. They have installed similar parks in Diagonal Mar and Plaça Cerdà on Gran Via.
Stimulating play areas are important, but it is adult interaction that is key to a child’s development, according to Jill Anne Jenkins, a child psychologist from the Barcelona group NEST (Network of English-Speaking Therapists). “The most important thing is quality of play—a child left to their own outside benefits from fresh air and being in nature, but does not grow and develop in the same way that a child who is inside, and guided by a loving caretaker, will grow and develop on cognitive, language, social and even motor levels.
“The city is what parents and caretakers make of it. In several cities where there are less outdoor parks, or climate does not encourage outdoor parks due to snow during the winter and lots of rain throughout the year, outdoor parks are replaced by indoor play spaces that are found in community centres, libraries, museums, and even commercial centres. Again, the key is for families to take advantage of the spaces, whether they are indoors or outdoors.”
Jordi Puig agrees strongly with the idea of facilitating play between children and their caregivers. “When we go to photograph the installations after they have been built we often see adults playing. It’s very important that the games are interactive—that parents are involved, that it inspires adults as well, or that children have to work together to play.”
Many of the play structures are purposely built so that they need more than one person to function. Roundabouts, two-person swings and games using sound or music figure large. They take children’s playgrounds to the next level: not just a place to let the kids run around while the adults sit and chat, but an innovative and social learning environment.
“The last 10 years the workload for companies like ours has increased hugely,” said Puig. “Young, fun designers and architects are coming of age and it’s making a difference. The city is not as Cerdà envisaged it, with community parks in every interior. We have made mistakes along the way, but little by little things are improving.”
www.bdu.es (Information and list of Barcelona parks designed by BDU)
www.bcn.cat (Search ‘ludoteques’ for a list of ludoteques in your area, or ‘Parcs i Jardins’ for a webpage dedicated to the main parks in Barcelona.)