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Child’s play: what can be learned from Denmark’s innovative playgrounds?

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The Visiting Seals Playground Credit: Ole Barslund Nielsen, MONSTRUM

As the country that brought LEGO to the masses, it is perhaps no surprise that Denmark is something of a leader when it comes to innovative places to play. We examine the role that Danish local government have in the creation and maintenance of the nation’s intriguing playgrounds.

If you were looking for a country in which to raise a child, you could do a lot worse than Denmark:

  • Ranked as one of the richest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita.
  • The Scandinavian nation came second in a UNICEF list of best places to be a kid among OECD and EU countries in 2020.
  • It takes the same spot in the World Happiness Report 2023’s list of happiest nations.
  • Its 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment scores place it in the top 30 countries for reading, maths and science.
  • UNICEF research from 2019 into family-friendly policies saw it take joint sixth place in an overall ranking of EU and OECD territories.
  • And, as we know very well at LGIU, all this national success comes from the fruits of local implementation.

Denmark has long been something of a pioneer in relation to approaches that benefit children. It first introduced paid leave for fathers in 1984, and parents who are living together when a child is born are entitled to 52 total weeks of leave with parental benefit. Parents pay no more than 30% of the cost for a place for their child in a daycare facility, and formal schooling sees pupils taught to challenge the established way of doing things.

Given the value placed on childcare, it is, therefore, arguably unsurprising that Denmark is a leader in the play sphere as well: the first junk playground (also known as adventure playground) was founded in the neighbourhood of Emdrup in 1943, and national playground equipment supplier KOMPAN was created in 1970. In more recent times, however, another Danish playground business, MONSTRUM, has hit the headlines for its bright and colourful play spaces, which boast innovative structures for users to explore.

UNICEF and The LEGO Foundation say that play generates opportunities for learning across physical, intellectual, emotional and social areas of development. The activity enables children to do things such as develop resilience, navigate relationships and build leadership skills, with play also offering a platform for creativity and imagination to be expressed. MONSTRUM argues that playgrounds are at their best when they have the ability “to create site-specific playscapes inspired by and integrated with their surroundings and the local community”, and this approach has worked with both local and international local government bodies to create different tailormade spaces.

“The designs of MONSTRUM’s playgrounds are based on stories,” says Ole Barslund Nielsen, who founded the company in 2003. “The playgrounds must first and foremost inspire children to play and challenge their motor skills as well as their imagination.”

Below, we outline a few key examples of playgrounds in Denmark that have been built by MONSTRUM in collaboration with local government to best serve the play needs of the local community.

Want to learn more about local government and play? Read our bulletin Global Local: Play packed with practical guidance and inspiring practice.  Find out about our Global Local bulletins and how to get fresh insights to your inbox each week for free.

Near the shore

The Visiting Seals Playground is an amenity situated by Hestehovedet Beach – not far from the centre of the southern Danish town of Nakskov. As the name suggests, the playground is focused around two giant wooden seals, which are fashioned in attractive colours and offer ample opportunities for climbing. Despite their solid appearance, the creatures are hollow, with their insides designed to resemble seal anatomy and the larger seal equipped with paintings that teach intrepid adventurers about the local wildlife.

Gathering Place playground, Tulsa. Credit: Ole Barslund Nielsen, MONSTRUM
The Visiting Seals Playground. Credit: Ole Barslund Nielsen, MONSTRUM

The play area – which also allows for sliding and balancing – was created in 2021 in collaboration with Lolland Kommune, the council for the local municipality of Lolland. “Hestehovedet is a leisure area for the town of Nakskov, and people have been coming here for at least 50 or 60 years,” explains Henrik Madsen, a member of Lolland Kommune’s development department and leader of the Nakskov 2030 initiative (a development partnership for the town between Lolland Kommune, the A.P. Moller Foundation and Danish philanthropic association Realdania).

“There was interest in developing the area so that it would be attractive not just to the local community, but also to tourists.”

The playground was financed by the EU alongside different foundations, with the external funding matched by the council. With MONSTRUM known for producing unique playgrounds that incorporated the feel of local areas, the company was chosen by the local government to assist with the creation of the facility and thought was given to how the neighbourhood could be represented within the playground.

“There are seals in the nearby sea, and for years, there has been one seal in particular who has very much enjoyed going onto the beach, so it was sort of obvious to go that way,” explains Henrik. “It was important that the wildlife of Nakskov Fjord was represented in the playground,” adds Stina Jørgensen, communication manager for Nakskov 2030. “The paintings of the fish and wildlife from the fjord offer a little bit of education for children when they go inside the bigger seal and explore.”

Gathering Place playground, Tulsa. Credit: Ole Barslund Nielsen, MONSTRUM
The Visiting Seals Playground. Credit: Ole Barslund Nielsen, MONSTRUM

The amenity, which is looked after by a department at Lolland Kommune focused on outdoor maintenance, has received very positive feedback overall. “I think it’s a playground which slightly older kids can also use because of the climbing possibilities,” Stina notes, adding that the provision of lighting inside the wooden seals offers extra safety and play opportunity.

“We have tried to make it non-restrictive,” Henrik adds. “I believe that nature is very much a universal interest which will appeal to most groups of children.”

Gathering Place playground, Tulsa. Credit: Ole Barslund Nielsen, MONSTRUM
The Visiting Seals Playground. Credit: Ole Barslund Nielsen, MONSTRUM

To the harbour

Nature also forms a key component of a new playground at Hals Havn, a harbour in the town of Hals in northern Denmark. Created in 2022, The Arriving Avocets Playground – owned by local council Aalborg Kommune – is themed around two wooden, black-and-white avocets, with one sitting on the ground and one standing. Both are suitable for climbing into, and the standing avocet features a slide. Close to the birds, there are items including a climbing course and a smaller slide, while natural rocks nearby offer an ‘intuitive play feature’. “What makes a playground great is when kids are not able to figure it out at first glance,” notes Ole.

Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM
Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM

However, there are additional draws to The Arriving Avocets Playground, also known as The Avocet Playground. The amenity benefits from a two-storey structure inspired by local lighthouse Hals Barre Fyr, with the downstairs equipped with picnic tables with seating and educational information and the upstairs providing a view of the surrounds. In addition, MONSTRUM has created an entrance to the nearby Nordsøstien coastal path. The playground relies on local community volunteers to monitor it, and they contact Aalborg Kommune to get any issues with the site resolved.

Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM
Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM

The local area had previously been home to a public bathhouse, but it had had to be closed as it required renovation. An agreement was unable to be reached with the private club that owned it. Consequently, Aalborg Kommune and local politicians decided to give local residents the opportunity to decide how the 15 million Danish kroner that had been saved for the project should be deployed instead.

“We called some meetings with local people and asked them how we should use the money,” explains Peter Pindstrup, a consultant within the department for rural communities at Aalborg Kommune. “One local group was working in particular on making Hals an attractive town. We had some areas in Hals which were not very pretty and a lot of money had been put into them, but the group also wanted a playground – and one which expressed the identity of the local area.”

Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM
Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM

The proposals were considered by representatives of different local groups (such as Sea Scouts) as well as Peter, his boss and a number of politicians. Again, MONSTRUM was chosen due to its incorporation of local elements into its plan. “It was really important to us that it was the locals who chose the design,” says Peter. “There were a lot of meetings to finalise the result, but I think the result is better because local people have some ownership of this project.”

With the locality a popular spot for holidays in Denmark, Peter notes how the playground – which can be used by smaller children all the way up to those aged around 12, though potentially older individuals too – is beneficial for tourists as well as local residents. Moreover, with the WHO Regional Office for Europe noting that girls’ involvement in sports and exercise decreases throughout adolescence, the consultant highlights how local people were keen for the facility to have elements for girls and cover the teenage demographic.

“We have seen that when girls, in particular, get a little older, they want to sit and talk,” he says. “It was important to local people that there were places for the girls to talk to each other. When you do this, it kind of makes girls who are not so active more active, and everybody has a feeling that it’s good to be on the playground.”

Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM
Hals Klyder Avocet playground. Credit: MONSTRUM

Beside the water

Another great example of innovative, local-specific play facilities is Life by the Stream Playground in the municipality of Albertslund, located close to the Danish capital of Copenhagen. The amenity forms part of Hyldager Bakker (“Hyldager Hills”), an urban development project initiated by the local council, Albertslund Kommune, in order to reduce noise and provide additional nature for locals, as well as enable the development of new housing. Jacob Ruskov-Nielsen, a biodiversity consultant and caseworker for natural resources management at the council, was brought in to help with the creation of the playground by one of the project leads, who was keen to ensure the space had a natural feel.

“That is how the idea for a playground that mimicked the surrounding nature came up,” he says. “We decided on an interactive theme based on the nearby stream, with reeds, a bird’s nest and a very large kingfisher, all made out of wood. MONSTRUM is famous for its weird and wonderful designs for playgrounds, and after seeing one of their pieces in Gothenburg, Sweden, a couple of years ago, we had wanted one of their facilities.”

Life by the Stream playground
Life by the Stream playground

The resulting design sees a resplendent bird perched on a winding branch with a slide, while tall green reeds complement equipment including a climbable nest with hollow eggs that can accommodate those navigating the structure. “Albertslund has children as an official priority, so the council strives to make the playground a great place for them to be active and to learn,” notes Jacob. “Inside the large kingfisher, there are wooden plaques with pictures and names of local wildlife that kids can learn about while they’re scuttling around inside. The large reeds encourage climbing, and the bird’s nest encourages exploration.”

Life by the Stream playground
Life by the Stream playground

New for 2023, the playground is looked after by Albertslund Kommune’s maintenance department, which undertakes tasks such as sweeping and emptying of bins. Jacob estimates that it is primarily aimed at children ages 4 to 10. “Nature is a great way to encourage learning in children of all ages,” he says. “It sparks the imagination like nothing else really can. The more you can incorporate that into playgrounds, the better.”

Evidently, these creative playgrounds prove that play spaces can be more than simple collections of equipment where children can let off steam. They can educate about local wildlife and help address core policy principles like improving accessibility across gender, wealth, age and ability. Not only can play spaces entertain, but they can also serve as key tourism attractions with wide-reaching benefits for residents and visitors who are seeking to connect with each other and the local area.

Do you have your own inspiring play space to share? Let us know!



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