Copenhagen - Kids like to make believe, but public playgrounds rarely cater for their ultimate desire. Instead, they come with unspoken instructions: Climb this, slide here, kick around some sand. “We want to give kids an experience and a way to be challenged,” says Tomas Imap Knudsen. “I think when you make an environment that kids think is crazy or inspiring, you get all of those elements.”
Knudsen is a senior designer with Monstrum, a Danish design studio specializing in crazy-detailed wooden playgrounds that look nothing like the plastic pieces you see in your neighborhood park.
Monstrum was created in 2003 after founder Ole Nielsen realized that his child’s school needed a new playground. He began searching for possible replacements and found the designs were lousy and expensive. Instead, he decided to make his own—a tall Rapunzel-esque tower with an adjoining spaceship. The playground was strange (a rocket ship and a princess tower?) in the way children appreciate and left plenty of room for imagination. It was an instant hit.
Since then, Monstrum has built dozens of wooden playground, each with its own compelling narrative dreamt up by its team of designers. The company’s unorthodox approach to playground design comes naturally. Most of the designers come from the theater set-design world, and their history of building props and imaginary places translates well to designing for children. “Most of the designs are based on stories we find intriguing,” says Knudsen. “It’s always about mystery, what makes your imagination start to work.”
There’s a 21×30 foot spider in Denmark that acts like a massive treehouse, outfitted with an LED to give it warm glow at night. In between the spider’s legs is a netted web that can be climbed on. A recently-finished playground in Moscow’s Gorky Park is based on a Jules Verne adventure and features a sunken ship, with a massive octopus as the culprit. “Russia is very dark in the winter, so we wanted to make something with light in it,” he explains. “I had this idea of ship at night with silhouette and a moon.”
The ocean liner was meant to be simple, but people tend to get caught up once they begin designing. There’s a kitchen, a great hall with columns and captain’s quarters in the front. “It really developed into something spectacular,” says Knudsen.
The wooden moon has a glowing LED, as does the lighthouse and windows of the ship. It’s little details like this that help pull the narrative together, which Knudsen says is imperative in Monstrum’s view of playground design. “It really is a process to make a playground,” he says. “You have to have a good story.”