The design studio created an unusual kit of parts for outdoor adolescent education at The Grayson School in Pennsylvania
Words by Francesca Perry
Secondary school is boring. Well, not all teenagers may think so, but spending seven hours a day sat inside at a desk – while perhaps good preparation for office life – isn’t necessarily the most stimulating way to learn. Younger children learn in more active and playful ways – in fact, play is generally more integrated into their lives.
Matter Design, however, has come up with a prototype to build play into secondary education. Named The Grayson Play-Lab after the school it was commissioned by – The Grayson School in Radnor, Pennsylvania – the set of play equipment is a result of research ‘dedicated to reconsidering the relationship between play and outdoor education, encouraging the next generation of creative thinkers,’ explain the designers.
The play-lab is intended as a scaffold to fuel the imagination of the project-based learning curriculum at The Grayson School. An abstract collection of pale-grey, concrete characters is situated in the landscape, featuring a series of metal elements to tie ropes to, or grooves to hold wooden additions in place. These flexible blocks allow students and teachers to add their own extensions and enable anything from physics experiments to educational games.
A series of bright red, playfully designed instruments called ‘glyphs’ has been created, which have dimensions and forms that suggest usefulness without overtly prescribing functions. They can interact with the structures, or one another.
In form and material, The Grayson Play-Lab’s elements are clearly more grown-up play structures, appearing together more like an adventure course than a children’s playground. The concrete structures, developed in collaboration with CEMEX, recall mid-century experiments in brutalist playgrounds.
‘We know play is an essential component for educating children of all ages,’ says Melissa Bilash, founder of The Grayson School, who challenged Matter Design to provide a play space for its upper grade students and teachers that would ignite an age-appropriate version of imaginative learning. ‘When students (and adults) engage in play, they unleash creativity and problem solving; experience wonder and joy; and develop teamwork and persistence.’ In the pandemic era, outdoor and distanced learning has also become more critical than ever.
‘In considering how to cultivate play for young adults, we felt strongly that the students should have agency over the particularities of their experience and experiments,’ says Matter Design partner Johanna Lobdell. ‘For this reason, we followed a design principle to take every element to 90 percent completion, to stop short of providing a finite solution, in favour of a robust structure that could accommodate the student’s own fabrications.’
All images courtesy of Matter Design. First and second photographs by Brandon Clifford. Third photograph by Ally O’Rourke-Barrett