Newsletter: Bottle caps and bits of string; mapping our play-based research methods

Play, imagination, storytelling and games form the roots of our methods to facilitate conversations between and within organisations, institutions and participants. We work alongside participants as problem solvers in challenges, whether that be a placemaking exercise, health service, playground design and more. Our approaches are aligned with arts based research methodologies, and sit nicely alongside participatory action research and co-design processes. We talk about ‘playful methods’ a lot. Well, this month, we wanted to share some detail about what we mean. 

The following, from a blog that Malcolm has written Public Map Platform  is a good example.

“I’m looking at a piece of A4 card, on it sits a line of corks, some bottle tops, some wool and a collection of acorns. It looks like it could be the remains of a village, abandoned centuries ago.

“Here is the kitchen, the bathroom and the garden. This is the pond with tadpoles and here are the holes my sisters keep digging”

Great, and what’s that? I ask, and point at two round objects on either side of the end of a pencil. He starts sniggering. Ah! This is a very good reminder that children will always go in their own direction. Considering this session was with my 10 year old son and his pal, an assemblage of appendage should really have been expected.”  

Malcolm was testing out some mapping approaches, inspired by architect Simon Nicholson’s work with ‘loose parts play’ in the 1970s. For our purposes, it involves raiding the junk drawer (or for larger groups, our local scrap store) for an assortment of materials that can be used in multiple ways (think lolly sticks, pebbles, bottle caps, plasticine, googly eyes, cups, string, bolts and other non-prescriptive doodads and whatchamacallits). In free play settings, loose parts play offers open-ended, self-directed, play opportunities. In our workshops, participants are usually offered prompts and use the loose parts as a mode of response.

The example above illustrates how we are using loose parts to assist us to access children’s understanding of space and place and what matters to them, towards a digital mapping tool. But there are many more applications of this approach. We have used this kind of collaborative making with adults to devise a set of disability access design principles for green and blue infrastructure (WECIL), or for anticipating the strengths, risks, challenges and solutions associated with green innovation design projects (Future Observatory). We are big fans of having fictional awards ceremonies in which participants imagine and construct fictional awards (see photo below) and enact the accompanying ceremonies, acceptance speeches and media interviews. Beginning with the idea that ‘you’ve won!’ enables light-hearted, collaborative, story-building that activates creative thinking, detailed envisioning and anticipatory problem solving.  We are currently devising new, loose parts activities for a gathering of academics, researchers and practitioners on the subject of gender in Utrecht in July.

We find that embedding three-dimensional play elicits more information than written or spoken-only responses can. Building something out of somewhat random parts involves creative, embodied exploration and results in non-linear responses that engage the imagination and project symbolic meaning onto objects.  For many, this hand-on approach this makes it easier to think and talk about potentially sensitive subject matter. It also elicits stories of lived experience alongside other knowledges and ways of expressing. As a qualitative research method, play offers a holistic approach that can reveal rich insights that purely cognitive methods might miss. Plus, its good fun! Building and making together is just one of many of our play-based approaches.

We’d love to hear your questions, thoughts and experiences.

Upcoming Events 

This week we are in Anglesey Public Mapping Platform, creating a digital map that can better incorporate young people’s views into future planning. We will be running a series of playful engagement workshop to gather designs for our map from local children aged 8+.  We’ll hold another workshop in mid August, and in the autumn. 

News in brief

 

Designing for girls

We recently had the great pleasure to attend a design ‘charette’, hosted by the Welsh branch of Place Collective UK. In it, we and other place and engagement professionals were asked to think about and envision hypothetical design changes that would make Millenium walk, adjacent to Cardiff’s stadium, more welcoming to teenage girls. We were guided (and inspired) by Susannah Walker, from Make Space for Girls, who makes the compelling claim that “most councils spend more time and money on facilities for dog waste than they have for teenage girls,”  While Walker recommends co-design processes with teens, some of her broad brushstroke suggestions for teenage-girl friendly spaces make sense across the board; Good lighting (including along access paths and avoiding extreme dark/light contrast), shelter, social seating  (as in seating that enables facing one another) and more. Walker suggests that teenage girls are an ‘indicator species’ in the sense that what works to make them feel welcome and safe is good for all. 

Thank you for reading! You win!!! 

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We are eager for this newsletter to inspire thinking and doing around the topics that are important to you. Please contact amy@playdisrupt.com there’s anything you’d like to see covered here— maybe we could do a ‘reader’s questions section! Why not?

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