Playscapes in the city of Larissa: a participatory design approach engaging architects, children and adults
– Eliki-Athanasia Diamantouli and Athina Fousteri


This article points out the problematic of the institutionalized playgrounds in the city of Larissa, Greece, and proposes an alternative approach for the design of spaces for playing, which actively involves children in the early stages of the process. Recent law changes in Greece also raise questions about how the playgrounds are being designed and who is involved in the process. Findings from an earlier phase of research—in which users rated the quality of local playgrounds—showed that the majority (83%) of the research sample (adults and children) frequently (at least once a week) visit neighborhood playgrounds, and children prefer to visit playgrounds for social interaction and free space to play rather than for the use of the equipment (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2017).

As part of a diploma thesis1, LUDUS LOCI2 developed a practice-based research platform through which a series of creative participatory design workshops were initiated and implemented, and a toolkit with models and graphics was created, in order to coordinate the project with the several stakeholders (municipality, designers, children). The aim of the project was to concentrate on the children’s role, i.e. their participation in the playground design and planning. [Image 1.]

1. Analytical diagram of the concept that was developed around the event, and the ways of participation LUDUS LOCI project was proposing to follow. Image source: Authors own.

Urban Play + Architecture

In 1989, the United Nations (UN General Assembly, 1989) established the children’s right to play. As a result, cities and municipalities became responsible to fulfill this need. It is of note that playgrounds emerged in cities through the need to supervise children in a protected-controlled area (Cavallo, 1981). Since the 70s3, families in Greek urban cities have been living mainly in apartments and without any outdoor spaces. In the 80s4, the need for a law determining a public space dedicated to children was recognized. Nowadays, a well designed and easy accessible urban space for children to play is a requirement.

European laws EN 1176 and EN 11775, dated 1998, define security rules and certifications of playgrounds in the EU. A Greek law, voted in 1988, determined the standards for indoor playgrounds and since 1998 the responsibility of outdoor playgrounds was handed over to the Hellenic Organisation of Standardization (Karagianni & Karioti, 2003: 31). The ever-increasing constraints on design unilaterally emphasized safety, ignoring and neglecting every moment of spontaneity and discovery (Lefaivre, 2007). This also happened with the further changes in the Greek laws (2004 and 2009)6. As a consequence, municipalities order similar certified playing objects from catalogues instead of designing individual playgrounds.

The LUDUS LOCI (LL) project started with the case study of the city of Larissa7, an analysis of the existing situation was drawn into infographics/diagrams, according to Otto Neurath’s approach (Vossoughian, N. and Camp, 2011). Statistics with the number of playgrounds, the size, and the number and kind of playing objects (swings, slides, etc.) of each playground, were recorded and visualized. According to the number of children living in Larissa, the result was that the city provides one playground per 200 children for the age sample 2-10 (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 7-19).

Simultaneously, questionnaires around the notion and habits of play were created, and completed by 200 children (6-12 years old) from 3 primary schools, as well as by almost 100 adults during a public event. Every questionnaire was divided into four chapters: personal information, the relationship to playgrounds, other places to play in the city and the way of playing (materials, actions, colors, instruments, etc.) through word games. Children and adults received different questionnaires. Yes or no questions were avoided. The results of the first three chapters were transcribed into diagrams—individually for each question—dividing children’s responses from adults’ responses, and in the case of the same questions, they were shown together in comparative diagrams (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 23-36).

One of the most striking findings that emerged is that the majority of the children chose the playgrounds for the interaction with other children (39%), while fewer mentioned the equipment (14%) [Image 2.]. 80% of the children visit playgrounds at a frequency of 1-2 days per week (38%) or 3-4 days per week (26%), for an estimated time of less than one hour. Many parents believe that playgrounds encourage their children’s social development. Both children and adults showed a preference for outdoor natural spaces (beach, park, football field) and natural materials (sand, wood, water, textile) for playing.

2. The results showed that the majority of the children preferred the playground as an open space due to “free space and other children” (39%), while fewer mentioned “equipment” (14%). Children and adults showed a preference for natural outdoor spaces (beach, park, football field). Image source: Authors own.

Urban Play + Kids

The researchers share the principles of Van Lingen and Kollarova’s “Seventeen Playgrounds” manifesto (2016), starting from Aldo Van Eyck’s principles around playgrounds. At the same time, the researchers saw place making events as part of a bottom up process were seen as having a potential power to influence decisions made by the city.

LL started a discussion on the state of playgrounds—the living space for kids—and it aimed at achieving interaction between people and sites. There were two possible ideas for interaction with citizens: to choose a neighborhood and its playground and come into contact with the residents; or to discuss with the citizens through collaborating with the municipality and to plan a public event. Choosing the second option, LL designed and realized the “Playing on the Ground” workshops (place-making event) in the framework of the Pinios’ Festival8.

Inspired by the Baupiloten game sets (Hoffmann, 2014), it created the “Playing on the Ground” game set. The main goal was the user’s participation and the creation of ephemeral structures by adults and children. Materials, such as car tires, ropes, metal nuts and wood were used. LL choose a specific site in the area of the festival by taking advantage of the morphology of the river bed (trees, inclination out of concrete, grass, etc.). The main ingredients were playing-related actions (spin-hang, balance-slide, hear, climb) and the landscape. Each action corresponded to a box of the aforementioned materials and was accompanied by a manual, bonus material (each time different for every box of its kind) and explanations of basic knots and fastening techniques (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 55-9).

The boxes were available for four days and proposed different playing-related actions and combinations, so that the complexity of the created structures would vary. The first day was the European day of music, six boxes with the verb listening were available. The second day, two boxes of the other three categories could be chosen (sliding/balancing, turning around/hanging, climbing). The third day, combinations of two boxes for every structure we available and the fourth day combinations of three boxes without the action listening were planned (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 54).

During the workshop, the process (of designing) was essentially more important than the result. No construction was planned, but arose, by challenging participants—through collaboration and creativity—to use the materials and consult the box’s manual and the corresponding action. Tools, such as sketches, gestures and real-scale simulations were used to make the ideas understandable. At the end of the workshop, nineteen one-to-one-scale constructions were recorded and analyzed in terms of their components. Some of them activated parts of the body and senses, like using ones hands and or hearing, others became a full-body experience.

Parallel to this, a small exhibition presented the data from the aforementioned analysis of the city’s playgrounds, and interactive questions and explanations about the workshop were exchanged. Adults—more often parents—completed questionnaires, while the children were building their structures. The estimated time of design and construction was 30 minutes to 1 hour, with groups of 2-4 persons per structure. The tutor got involved only where explanations of in case knots or fastening techniques were needed (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 61-67).

The structures that were created were designed to last for the duration of the four days only. Adults were responsible for their kids in case of injury. No accident occurred. One rule was to play with closed shoes, this, however, was ignored by some participants and parents.

Every playing object/apparatus/ephemeral structure was documented and a guideline-manual was created and published (online)9 (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 68-86),[Image 3.].

3. For every playing object/apparatus a guideline-manual was created and they were all published online on the LUDUS LOCI platform. Image source: Authors own.

Urban Play + Architecture + Kids

The interactive approach of the workshops was aimed at investigating if citizens are interested in participating in the creative process of designing and creating structures to play and if they can envision a different approach of creating urban space. The feedback from the workshops was more than positive; people were wondering what the next step would be, while kids were amazed by the variety of the materials used and the possibility of creating something on the inclined landscape. The more structures created, the more childeren who wanted to participate were attracted to construct. Children between 2-6 years old were mainly playing and climbing on the structures, while even some teenagers expressed interest in creating structures.

The information from the questionnaires and the analysis of the structures led LL to a first classification based on the action, and a second one, based on whether the apparatuses function as a boundary/ground/object in the space (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 87, 89). Based on this, LL analyzed six city playgrounds, different in size and shape, through drawings at a scale of 1:500 (Diamantouli & Fousteri, 2016: 92-101). This creative experiment led to the idea that every playground in the city should be differently shaped, so that kids might become curious to explore all the city’s public spaces. The question was then posed: In which way could the initiated discussion on playgrounds be continued?

Inspired by the participatory practices of Baupiloten in Berlin, AREA in Athens, and Al Borde in Equador, the team decided to create a 1:50 scale unique prototype. The next step was the design of a toolbox of models, a categorization table of ideas and different structures play [Image 4.]. Plaster pyramids at 1:50 were created, as participating children preferred inclinations,. The ephemeral structures of the workshops were included in the design and new playing structures came to life from the previous observations and analysis.

4. The toolbox of models that were created, analyzed and categorized, with a legend for the action playing-verbs. Image source: Authors own.

The apparatuses/ephemeral structures and models—created following the workshops—were placed in the toolbox, sorted in relation to their function (boundary/ground/object), the action(s) they perform (climb, spin, hang, balance, slide, hear), the proposed ground morphology for their placement, their construction materials and their reference to the workshop-created-structure. The toolbox became an idea that could be used as a representation for the creation of a playscape. It should be seen as a box of unlimited option of apparatuses/structures.
Discussion – Future Research

The overall model of a playscape does not capture a unique snapshot of the space. The goal is to formulate each proposal through dialogues and events. The different variations in essence also express the variety of playgrounds which they can be created using the same method. At the same time, the playgrounds constitute a network within the urban environment, challenging and inviting the user to visit playing areas outside her/his neighborhood. The model was chosen on purpose as the communication tool of the project; as it was considered it to be the most appropriate means for an open presentation and a collective discussion of alternative solutions, but also as a final decision making process with architects, children, the community and municipality participating and co-forming the proposal [Image 5.].

5. The proposal for the use of the model as a communication tool for the creation of a playground/ playscape. The idea is that it is seen as the most appropriate means for an open presentation; a collective discussion of alternative solutions: and a final decision making process with architects, children, the community and the municipality participating and co-forming the proposal. Image source: Authors own.

It is an alternative proposal from the researchers of LUDUS LOCI as to how playgrounds can be discussed in a simple way, with all the involved and addressed parties. In addition, the LUDUS LOCI toolbox kit could be possibly used in different cities around Greece, each time adapted to fit the city in question. The estimated time for participatory design is 2-4 months, however public spaces that are designed with users give the users a different appreciation of and respect for that space in comparison to others. It is unsure if the resulting spaces will be better than the existing ones or the ones proposed by the municipality, but it is worth trying it out, to get to some clearer conclusions.

The researchers had a meeting with the municipality and proposed the idea of the participatory playground using the toolbox as a tool of communication and negotiation of how the playground should look like. The proposed site would preferably not be characterized by the urban planning as playground, because all the laws of certifications could not be avoided. This was seen as understandable by the employees of the municipality and the elected vice-director. The space proposed for the LUDUS LOCI project was part of the yard of a new cultural center, however the architects of the project wished to create a small forest in this space, rather than combine it with a playscape, and thus the project never came to fruition here. The next 15 playgrounds to be constructed in the municipality over the following two years would follow the traditional method, due upcoming to municipal elections in 2019. Thus, no other opportunities for the LL project arose.

1. The diploma thesis was presented in the Department of Architecture of University of Thessaly (Volos, Greece) by the authors of this article in September 2016.
2. LUDUS LOCI project is a thinking and making platform about play practices and objects in the contemporary urban context. Τhe title, based on the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz, “Genius Loci”, refers to the “playful” spirit of the place. In Latin, the word Ludus means play, game, sport, training, school and the word Loci means place, site, locality. The choice of the term Ludus Loci reflects both issues and proposals regarding playing methods and objects as they appear in the contemporary urban (Greek) context/landscape/space. LUDUS LOCI is meant to be a digital platform (an account on facebook) used for the promotion of the workshops, the upload of photos of the ephemeral structures, the gathering of people interested in the topic and the publication of the manuals of the structures, accessible to anyone that wants to rebuild them.
3. As a result of the destruction of thousands of villages and towns in the Greek civil war during the period 1946-1949, the law ν. 3741/29, was applied as a solution to the acute housing problem in major cities, and in particular in Athens, due to the enormous population accumulation. As a legal term, it means the provision of a site to a contractor or builder in exchange for the acquisition of one or more properties in the building to be erected. This is how the typology of multi-unit housing came to exist, the so-called “polykatikia” (πολυκατοικία). It is also known as vertical ownership. This law was created in the 1929, but people only really started to build this way in the early 50s.
4. In 1979, the right of a child to play was established by the UN and, in Milan and Torino, the International Conference of Majors in the World took place. In 1979, in Larissa City the Technical Chamber of Central and East Thessaly created a team of architects, Kaltsoulas Grigorios and Elena Chalkoutsaki-Kaltsoula, to research the conditions of a child living in the city of Larissa. This research was published and presented in August 1982 in the Chamber and municipality, just before the meeting in Vienna of the International Playground Associations in September of the same year. In 1988, the Greek law for indoor playgrounds was created (FEK 317 Δ/ 15.4.1988).
5.EN 1176 is the European Playground Equipment Standard and EN1177 is the standard about the impact-absorbing playground surfacing—determining the critical fall height.
6. Nowadays these are the laws amending and supplementing our decision 28492/2009 on the organization and operation of the playgrounds of OTAs (FEK 2029Β /25-07-2014).
7. Larissa is a city in the middle of Greece. According to Hellenic Authority of Statistics, in 2011, from the 145.000 inhabitants, 33.000 are children from 0-18 years old.
8. The workshops “Playing on the Ground” took place in the Pinios’ (River) Festival in Larissa, Greece, during the period of 21-24.06.2016, with the valuable assistance and support of the Municipality of Larissa and the Deputy Mayor of Culture and Sciences.
9. These manuals of the ephemeral structures/apparatuses that were constructed in the workshops were published on LUDUS LOCI digital platform (facebook page).


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Athina Fousteri was born in Athens, in an enchanted garden with clementines and Dalmatian dogs. Since kindergarten she remembers her fingers being dirty with glue and colors. As she grew up she realized she really enjoyed theatre and clothes. And travelling. She is charmed by issues of spatial perception and imagination processes, especially concerning children. She investigates ways—while working with and studying them—to enhance architectural design and re-invent creative channels of composing, thinking and never forget imagining. She holds diploma in architecture engineering (Honours) and is currently studying in the Department of Early Childhood Teaching & Education.

Eliki A. Diamantouli grew up in a small town in the middle of Thessaly’s lowlands in Greece. From early childhood she was helping on the almond and walnut family farm and loved to be in nature. She started making constructions with her sister at home and in the fields. Later, while studying Architecture Engineering in Volos (UTH), she participated in a variety of construction workshops, organized by the team Ma[K]e of University of Thessaly, Volos. Her field of interest includes construction with wood, clay and gardening. During her three years of professional experience in an architectural practice in Luxembourg, she learned a lot about the practical world of architecture. Participatory design is a way of designing that she believes in and tries to implement it in the most of the projects. Like with the collective Origin’S, she participated in the Festival des Cabanes 2017 in Luxembourg and constructed the Out of the Box participatory and flexible project. In August 2019, she participated in the construction of an Earthship in Luxembourg.



Volume 3, No. 1 February 2020