Play Spaces - Playing out

Veronica Simpson looks at the latest in making places fit for children to find joy in their play spaces.

IT’S BEEN a long time coming, but what a joyful (re)emergence onto the scene for the Young V&A, formerly known as the Museum of Childhood. After several years of careful planning and workshops with client and the wider community for architects De Matos Ryan and interior and exhibition and designers AOC, this iconic building has reopened as a radically rethought, light-filled, fully interactive, welcoming space for children aged 0 to 14 – and, equally importantly, the families that will undoubtedly accompany them.

The Young V&A is teeming with activities and facilities, from theatrical stages to wide, light-bathed halls filled with bright colours and decor that will excite young minds. Image Credit: Luke Hayes Courtesy Of Victoria And Albert Museum, London

When I visited on the first public open day in mid-summer 2023, the main hallway, with its distinctive black and white tiles, felt gloriously open to all comers, rather than crammed with café and shop furniture as before. There is still a café, but now it is situated at the far end, complete with generous provision of seats and tables so parents can rest in full view of their kids as they ricochet around the building (the shop now makes a colourful splash in the formerly empty and seemingly purposeless foyer). Meanwhile, the front of the central hall has been reconceived as a Town Square. On the day I visited, it was given over entirely to freeroaming small visitors. They were taking full advantage of the bench seating cantilevered off every side – although more for hanging off, skipping along and crouching under than sitting on. Talk about licence to play and to roam.

The mission here, says Dr Philippa Simpson, has been to make it a museum of joy. That’s what the workshops with children revealed they wanted. And Simpson, the V&A’s director of design, estate and public programme, and her colleague Helen Charman, director of learning and national programmes, have ensured that every square inch of the museum and its contents provokes curiosity, delight and interaction. It wasn’t about designing zoned places for agespecific audiences, she tells me, but making everyone feel welcome; though there are clearly areas tailored towards toddlers or teens, they are designed for maximum appeal. Frankly, I was also tempted to join the 0 to 3-year-olds as they crawled on hands and knees in the Mini Museum, fondling the 111 materials in over 40 colours that have been deployed over a wide assortment of utterly seductive shapes and structures. AOC co-director Gill Lambert nicely summed up its multi-sensory, touchy-feely allure as: ‘Scaly and bumpy, fuzzy and furry, fluffy, shiny and sparkly.’

The Young V&A is teeming with activities and facilities, from theatrical stages to wide, light-bathed halls filled with bright colours and decor that will excite young minds. Image Credit: Luke Hayes Courtesy Of Victoria And Albert Museum, London

For those of us who loved the old building and brought our kids to it in its more classically museum-ish days, it’s the same building, but feels significantly different now that light floods in thanks to the reinstatement of so many windows that had been previously walled off or blanked out. There’s also lashings of toplight from the restored rooflights in the refurbished barrelvaulted roof. When it comes to ‘eureka’ moments in the makeover, Simpson tells me: ‘Letting the light in was massive. That’s something museums do not do because we have delicate collections. But it lifts the mood and makes you feel like you actually want to not just be here but stay here.

‘In order to do that, the whole space was modelled inch by inch, for every day of the year, every season, to understand how the light moves around the building.’ Every element is now ‘precision engineered’ to make sure each object is in the right place for the interpretation as well as for its own protection. ‘Everyone had to think creatively and laterally at every stage. There was no formula,’ says Simpson. ‘We had to build a team that was totally up-for-it in every area.’

And clearly, that’s what they had: it takes an up-for-it team to be willing to site a Jeff Koons blue balloon animal in the infant play area; albeit protected behind high security glass. Or a print of Hockney’s Splash in an area that’s about movement.

Directed by AOC’s findings from their intensive co-design workshops, says Simpson: ‘We created space for experiences first, and then the curators came in and said which objects speak to this – they had absolute free range to pull things from the entire collection that have relevance to what we’re trying to do. I guess it’s building an exhibition from the inside out…It really turns the dial.’

The Young V&A is teeming with activities and facilities, from theatrical stages to wide, light-bathed halls filled with bright colours and decor that will excite young minds. Image Credit: Luke Hayes Courtesy Of Victoria And Albert Museum, London

Indeed it does. The downside, if one can call it that, is that the new Young V&A has proved such a hit with families that through the rest of summer 2023, people were complaining of hour-long queues to get in. Which is one ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak scenario when it comes to the UK and its facilities for youngsters. When last I wrote specifically about play, in FX 2015, the situation was deemed pretty awful for urban children. Sadly, it might be worse now, especially with local authorities having spent the last decade selling off much needed school recreation grounds to compensate for other funding cuts. Furthermore, two years of playgrounds being intermittently declared off limits, during pandemic lockdowns, have had as yet uncalculated impacts. But all of this will have contributed to an escalating child obesity issue. According to London environmental and sports charity, Bankside Open Spaces Trust, a third of London children attend schools with less than 10 sq m of open space per pupil, the minimum area recommended by the UK’s Department for Education.

However, children (and their carers) are nothing if not inventive, and one common response to lockdowns was families remaking their streets, taking advantage of the reduction in traffic and the more everyday presence of home-working parents to allow children a little more freedom.

Tim Gill, author of the book ‘Urban Playground: How Child Friendly Planning and Design can Save Cities’, is a huge fan of play and exploration spilling out of the designated playground and into the public realm. I ask him if he feels the momentum to reclaim local streets in 2020-21 has made any difference. He says: ‘What’s happened is that the kind of idealism and appetite for change that was around for a few months, during the pandemic – that feeling of “oh, so this is what streets can do” - has collided up against the political challenges of getting people to think differently about space and to think differently about streets.’ He references some gains made with low traffic neighbourhood initiatives and the closing-off of certain residential streets, which were then affected by noisy pushback from determined motorists. ‘They’ve not completely run out of steam, but the pace of change has slowed and some of the political appetite for change has gone.’

Gill is feeling positive, however, about a new ISO standard around play spaces that encourages play designers and managers to be less risk averse. He says: ‘What it says is they should be explicit in weighing up the risks against the benefits of the features or elements. In the past, it was absolutely dominated by a risk reduction mindset. This ISO is really significant…It will strongly encourage designers and commissioners to look beyond checklists and more formulaic thinking about safety. It will probably take a few years to have influence, because old habits die hard, but it’s a big deal.’

Gill’s opinion that you can tell a ‘healthy, liveable place’ by the number of children playing freely outdoors is clearly shared by many others, and being made apparent in recent urban landscaping and housing schemes, especially ZCD Architects’ new residential scheme for housing association Catalyst (see case study). But adults have also enjoyed some of the re-appraisals of outdoor space that the pandemic lockdowns encouraged – many of the bars, restaurants and cafes that brought tables and chairs outside have kept them there. And parks seem to have been reactivated as spaces for civic engagement, not only through thoughtful invitations to both adults and kids to explore, rest and play thanks to specific landscaping and furniture (see Cullinan Studios and Mayfield Park case studies) but also through the growing movement for guerrilla gardening and rewilding. You see far more people of all ages relaxing in the sections of long grass and wildflowers that park keepers are strategically leaving for pollenators and plant lovers of all kinds.


The Young V&A is housed in an elegant steel and glass Grade II-listed structure and has now undergone a makeover. Image Credit: Luke Hayes Courtesy Of Victoria And Albert Museum, London

Radically stripped out, cleaned up, and brightened with all the original windows and rooflights reinstated, the elegant steel and glass, Grade II listed structure of the Young V&A (formerly Museum of Childhood) has been reinvented and repurposed as a place for creativity, ingenuity and joy – joy being the key instruction from co-design workshops which underpinned the museum’s five-year long reinvention.

De Matos Ryan is responsible for the streamlined, pared back and re-illuminating architectural work, plus the more structural but less visible installation of new teaching spaces in the lower ground floor. To draw visitors up to the first floor, their Helter Skelter staircase is so much more than just a staircase: it’s an immersive, kaleidoscopic spatial sequence with mirror panels in which the children can see themselves and the environment reflected.

The design brief emphasised the creation of a place for children to indulge their creativity, ingenuity and joy. Image Credit: David Parry Courtesy Of Victoria And Albert Museum, London

AOC, responsible for exhibition and interior design, also spent a huge amount of time exploring ideas with local primary and secondary school children, as well as parents, to create an experience-led museum that facilitates a huge range of activities. These range from the 0-3-year-olds Mini Museum, which features 111 different textures and 40 colours, to the Performance space, clad in red like a Victorian theatre (or nightclub), where music, storytelling and dance find a natural home, as does dressing up (costumes/fashion being one of the V&A’s key collection categories).

Led by the designated topics and themes, the collection is arranged with huge sophistication and playfulness in a series of figurative enclosures, flagged up with playful totems. Play and Imagine are on the ground floor, the latter hosting the Museum’s iconic dolls houses as a ‘street’, set into an area with maps and captions that encourage understanding of how city streets and placemaking evolve. While the ground floor is more free range, one whole side of the first floor is oriented towards making and workshops, under the heading Design. Here, you can learn everything from how graphics are used to change behaviours (in a section on protest and placards) or how you design games – with an opportunity to create one yourself – which includes an exhibit made in collaboration with Minecraft. In its own sawtooth-roofed ‘shed’ area is a Maker space, where a regular maker in residence will educate and inspire through demonstrating work in their chosen field.

Across the hall on the opposite side is a space for temporary shows. It feels like a glorious antidote to the decade of cuts in design and art education that UK schools have endured. Every city should have one.

Client V&A Museum
Architect De Matos Ryan
Interior and exhibition design AOC
Wayfinding and signage Graphic Thought Facility
Area 5,200 sq m
Cost £13.5m


The Mayfield Park project has unearthed Manchester’s Medlock river after half a century buried under concrete developments. Image Credit: Richard Bloom

Manchester’s first new public park for more than a century officially opened in 2023, turning formerly derelict industrial land into a 6.5-acre recreational space, and revealing the city’s historic river Medlock which had been buried under concrete for the last 50 years.

Located right next to the city’s Piccadilly train station, Mayfield Park has been designed by Studio Egret West, as a family-friendly, inclusive green space, a pivotal, introductory element in the masterplan for this crucial, 24-acre regeneration site, developed by a public/private partnership between LandsecU+I, Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and LCR, the UK government’s placemaking expert. Once the epicenter of the city’s 19th century textiles industry, the derelict print and dye works, breweries and bathhouses on this site have been cleared to make way for 120 semi-mature trees, 120,000 plants and shrubs, a huge area of public lawn, a riverside walkway and the city’s largest play area, which will be the star attraction for youngsters. It features crawl tunnels, elevated rope bridges, wheelchair accessible play equipment and an 18m long slide that swoops over the River Medlock. Designed and built by a local company, the sprawling play space frames six, 10m high, chimney-shaped tower structures, to reference the industrial history of the park, but which now host a range of swooping and curving slides, including one designed for wheelchair-users.

Historic buildings around the site are being repurposed, where possible, including a landmark former station on Fairfield Street. A huge depot has been transformed into Depot Mayfield, a new cultural venue. Also planned are 1,500 new homes and 1.6m sq ft of office space, as well as retail and leisure facilities, as part of LandsecU+I’s vision for a £1.5bn sustainable neighbourhood.

The park will act as a green lung for the city centre, helping Manchester to achieve its ambitious target of becoming net zero by 2038.

Client The Mayfield Partnership (LCR, Manchcester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and LandsecU+I)
Architect Studio Egret West
Area 6.5 acres
Cost £23m (government grant)
Opened Summer 2023


Katie Scwab’s design ethos focuses around building environments that foster open-ended play, are non-directional and that use sensory learning and child-led approaches.

Artist Katie Schwab is known for creating playful and immersive spaces for all ages. Her physically interactive installations at Tate, Baltic, Arnolfini and the Serpentine have inspired kids and families to explore new play possibilities through unusual forms, images, patterns and materials. Schwab says: ‘I’m interested in creating environments that foster open-ended play, are non-directional, using sensory learning and child-led approaches.’

Over autumn and winter 2022 and spring 2023 she toured a new, play-centred work, The Seeing Hands, first to Liverpool’s Bluecoats gallery and then Edinburgh’s Collective gallery situated within a round, brick tower, once used as an observatory.

Schwab’s practice is both site specific but also about sustainability, sourcing most of her materials locally, from waste processes if possible, and then ensuring maximum adaptability and reusability.

Katie Scwab’s design ethos focuses around building environments that foster open-ended play, are non-directional and that use sensory learning and child-led approaches.

She says: ‘Whenever I begin a project, my first approach is spending time in the space getting a sense of the context, the history of the buildings, looking at the architecture, the detailing of how the buildings are made up. The space at Bluecoats used to be a school, and in the renovations of the building the architects had left some areas where you could see the brickwork through the plasterboard. There were also parallels between the two spaces, both had these triangular features in the architecture and recurring brick motifs.’

Her resulting structures responded in a variety of ways, not just in geometries but also in patterns: ‘For Collective, there’s a block of tiles echoing the window panes, and walls have these offset squares that mirror the brickwork. Part of it is around drawing out relationships to the built environment but also about creating these shared spaces of interaction, and of coming together, and engaging the senses in different ways.’ The title of the show and the ethos draws on the work of Bruno Munari, the Italian designer and educator who wrote a book called The Tactile Workshops.

Says Schwab: ‘His idea was that you’d be surrounded by different materials – hard, soft, scratchy, hot, cold.

Katie Scwab’s design ethos focuses around building environments that foster open-ended play, are non-directional and that use sensory learning and child-led approaches. Image Credit: Sally Jupp Photography.

So in the space at Collective, there’s a structure you can weave with, there’s a magnetic board, there’s holes to look through, spaces to climb through and crawl through. I used different materials from cork and timber to lino, and different composite materials that would normally be used in interiors and construction. They were on these shelves and could be taken off to make these tactile boards or arrangements on the floor.

‘The show was open to everyone. There was a focus on thinking about an engaging environment for children and young people. A lot of the feedback we got was also from adults, who were excited to be in a space where they could touch materials, move things around and construct a space. Traditionally with galleries that’s not the case.’


In April 2021 Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST), an environmental and volunteering charity invited architects’ suggestions for a development of Marlborough Sports Garden, re-envisioning a rundown recreation ground as a vital, public hub for sports and outdoor play in Southwark. Cullilnan Studio won the commission, by its imaginative proposal for a building that is ‘as green as possible, carbon neutral and circular economy compliant.’

Currently Marlborough Sports Garden comprises mostly hard landscaping with football pitch, sand court, basketball and netball facilities plus event space, but almost no greenery. Apart from some minor upgrades in 2016, it has had little attention or investment. It is situated off Borough High Street and flanked by two primary schools. Jack Harrison of BOST says the hope was that it could be transformed into an ‘environment where children and young people can find it easier to eat well, exercise more, develop a love for and proficiency in many sports, and establish healthy habits for life.’ The Borough of Southwark awarded £1.125m in CiL funding to progress the scheme.

Much needed – Southwark currently has the highest rate of childhood obesity at Year 6 of any local authority in England. Local consultations revealed a desire for more plants and greenery, eco-friendly structures and buildings with covered seating areas, permanent toilets, indoor studio spaces and a café. Cullinan Studios secured planning permission in September 2021.

Intention to create a garden within this hard urban space, give a sense of ownership to the schools and wider communities that will use it, built it from non-toxic materials, otpimised for daylight and energy efficiency. Taking it one step further by adopting principles of a circular economy, reusing materials sourced locally and designing in a way so as to facilitate easy disassembly and reassembly.

The proposal is for a Gateway Building on Union Street which combines community hub/café, studios, WCs and storage with sheltered outdoor area comprising a climbable structure, with greenery interwoven in the form of planters, and which offers grandstand seating for parents and friends. These seats double up as steps for training circuits, offering a slide back down. The building will have a green roof with solar panels and rainwater recycling system. Edges form warm-up ‘parcour-style’ box seating, with plants that offer shade and screening. The street front presentation will be filled with greenery, with picture windows enticing users inside.

Cullinan Studio is negotiating with local contractors to use leftover and redundant materials throughout, with reclaimed timber for the primary structure and recycled gas pipes for structural columns. With air source heat pumps and MVHR, plus PV and battery power, the building aims for Net Zero.’

Client Transi ankside Open Spaces Trust
Architect Cullinan Studio
Appointed 2021
Construction cost £2m
Completion Planned for 2024


Sidney Close in Buckinghamshire is a development of 19 new homes for housing association Catalyst, all for social rent. Situated right next to the A40, ZCD architects took great pains to ensure that cars and their noise intrude minimally on the lives of the residents – not only are they kept off the streets, with each house featuring its own tidy car port, but children have access to a huge communal garden entirely protected and acoustically insulated from the traffic by the arrangement of houses surrounding it.

As the two bedroomed houses are all designated for families, ZCD was selected in part because of its commitment to and experience of co-designing with children and its wider research into how urban design can prioritise rather than threaten children’s safe play activity.

Each house is laid out in an L-shaped plan, around a small private courtyard. A gate leads off every courtyard into the shared garden, but sightlines from large windows within the house prioritise garden views so that children can roam freely while adults keep an eye on them from within the open plan kitchen/dining area, and also from the upstairs bedrooms. Two further short terraces of five houses are placed to the north, but their rear courtyard spaces also have gates onto the shared garden.

The carport feature allows ZCD to meet the planning requirement for each house to have two parking spaces, while keeping traffic clear of the street. Extra car parking spaces are provided along the edge of the site that faces the motorway. By accommodating a carport into the ground floor, ZCD was also able to expand the space taken up by the two first floor bedrooms beyond national space standards.

The shared garden, with four houses north and south and three to east and west is laid out with two crossing paths and a few trees. The project was designed by ZCD to stage three, but completed by executive architects Rock Townsend, and though ZCD’s proposed a central sunken SuDS area crossed by bridges, with play equipment and communal veg or flower beds, this has not yet been realised.

Client Catalyst
Client ZCD
Construction cost £4.6m
Gross internal floor area 1,679 sq m
Completion May 2021
Executive architect Rock Townsend
Structural engineer Webb Yates (IESIS)
Main contractor Jarvis


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