Meet the Playground Designers Sparking Children’s Imaginations Around the World

Monstrum creates otherworldly structures where youngsters can play, explore, and learn.

The Denmark-based studio Monstrum creates lively and sensibly constructed outdoor spaces that allow children to immerse themselves in imagination, develop their motor skills, and tackle new challenges through play.

When devising their fantastical playgrounds, the company’s co-founders, Ole Barslund Nielsen and Christian Jensen, apply a unique understanding of scene and atmosphere that they developed while working as theater stage designers.  

A visual artist and a furniture design graduate of The Royal Danish Academy of Design, respectively, the pair formed Monstrum in 2003 after putting together a novel playground concept for Nielsen’s son’s kindergarten that won over the children, teachers, and parents alike.

Playground interior at Expo 2020
Chilren play in Future City, one of three playgrounds Monstrum designed for Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE.

“I think it’s really a lot about how to take chances in life,” Monstrum’s creative director Nielsen says about a playground’s purpose. “That’s what you’re learning when you’re playing freely without supervision.”

For Nielsen and the rest of the Monstrum team, which has grown to over 55 architects, designers and builders, a great playground provides a feast for the eyes, instills a sense of adventure, and creates a gathering place. “We want it to be a place that makes sense on a greater scale,” Nielsen says about his firm’s creations, which more often than not become landmarks in their surroundings. “When you put our playground in a park, it shouldn’t just be equipment. It should make sense for everyday life when you look at it.”

Adventurous Octopus exterior, below main pavilion of Expo 2020
The Adventurous Octopus playground occupies pride of place at Expo 2020.
two herons at the Gathering Place
The Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is inspired by the creatures that inhabit the nearby Arkansas River.

Monstrum’s playground at the Gathering Place, a 66.5-acre park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, perfectly illustrates Nielsen’s philosophy. It features two 23-foot-tall steel herons, a hollow paddlefish and wooden reeds connected with ropes for kids to balance on and climb across. Older children can climb inside the two herons, crawl up to the top, and take the 12-foot slide down. A steel mesh tunnel connects the two birds for a better play flow. The at-grade paddlefish’s mouth serves as an entrance to the playground and climbing grips on its inside suit smaller children, while benches and hammocks invite tired out kids to hang out and have a rest.

Designed, like several Monstrum projects, with landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the playground is also a place for children and adults to learn about wildlife along the Arkansas River that passes through Tulsa.

Despite its dramatic appearance, the playground is ADA-compliant, and accessible to kids with a wide range of abilities. Nielsen agrees that inclusivity is critical, explaining that while many playgrounds boast wheelchair accessibility, not enough is done for children on the autism spectrum. Those kids often need to have hide away options or places where they can take a mental rest, and these are features that the Tulsa project provides. “We concentrate a lot on how to make children explore,” he says.

Their latest U.S. project, undertaken with Philadelphia and Los Angeles-based landscape architecture firm Olin, will launch in 2023. It’s an ecology-themed playground at New York’s Hudson River Park Pier 26.   

Whale Playground exterior
The Humpback Whale is the third playground Monstrum created for Expo 2020.
paddlefish playground exterior
Children climb on the Paddlefish, another installation at Tulsa’s The Gathering Place.

Adding to the playground designers’ growing global recognition, the organizers of Expo 2020, hosted by Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, commissioned the three playgrounds from Monstrum: the Adventurous Octopus, the Humpback Whale, and Future City. The Humpback Whale and the Future City playground are dedicated to the Expo’s mascots—the 9-year-old brother Rashid, an explorer of the environment, art, and history and his 8-year-old sister Latifa, who is a science buff. The Future City structures include an almost 33-foot-tall ultramodern radio tower, a space shuttle ready for take-off, space scooters, and numerous hidden details and educational illustrations.

As the playgrounds in Tulsa and Dubai show, Monstrum mainly works with galvanized or stainless steel and wood such as FSC-certified larch from sustainable forestry operations in Europe. Wooden parts with permanent ground contact are made of Robinia heartwood, which lasts between 25 to 40 years without any chemical treatment or impregnation.

“I like the finish of wood,” says Nielsen. “It feels warm and natural, and it’s a renewable natural resource.” Nielsen’s first playground project—the rocket and the princess tower he designed for his son’s kindergarten—were also made of bent wood. “It’s still my favorite,” Nielsen says.

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