October 16, 2017

Reem Charif & Mohamad Hafeda. A Space for Ambiguity: Play and Playfulness as Spaces of Protest

by Z33

Looking at playgrounds as public social spaces reveals how communities operate, how they innovatively respond to limited resources and relate to each other and to their environment. Playfulness can be about play itself, but can also function as a form of community protest against social ideas, authorities and processes of decision-making in the public realm.

Text Reem Charif & Mohamad Hafeda
Scale of Play. Febrik 2017.

Scale of Play. Febrik 2017.

When thinking about play, the word can suggest a diverse range of social and spatial practices that employ a playful mindset able to question social norms and to creatively suggest alternatives. This mindset is attributed to child play but often occurs outside of it. The child / adult dichotomy, when opened and viewed as a notion of oppositional forces, can change the way in which we interpret play from a Colin Ward perspective as a politically charged, non-conclusive practice about breaking of order on a small scale in everyday life (Ward, 1966). The playfulness aspect of play crosses age, gender and culture because playfulness can be applied to many practices, such as playing with words or with ideas. It is a disposition “that continuously questions bodies, space and materials to see what more can be done with them” (Lester 2014, p. 200). Play and playfulness emerge as “a form of protest that may be low-key, exercised through spontaneous, impromptu and resourceful acts that stake a claim for modest redistribution of space / time” (ibid., p. 202). Looking at playgrounds as public social spaces reveals how communities operate, how they innovatively respond to limited resources and relate to each other and to their environment. Such (inter)actions express their aspirations through the way they engage with the spaces, adjusting them and reimagining their potential. Playfulness can be about play itself, but can also function as a form of community protest against social ideas, authorities and processes of decision-making in the public realm.

Play as protest: public play practices

Annelies Vaneycken’s lexicon for ‘Play’ notes Roger Caillois’ (1961) two types of play: the first follows rules set by others, or regulated play (ludus), and the second is self-directed play (paidia) (Vaneycken, 2017). This text suggests that an activity approached with a playful mindset and taking place in the public realm is a form of protest because of its ability to subvert, continuously question and break order. We refer to these activities as ‘public play practices’, they include self-directed play (paidia) and the subtext occurring during regulated play (ludus), and extend to culturally specific public practices and codes of conduct, such as satirical humour in local poems, songs or theatrical productions, political rumours, socially engaged art works and subtle political chatter while engaging in social games like backgammon.

James Scott uses the term ‘public transcript’ to describe the open, public interactions between ‘dominators’ and ‘oppressed’, and the term ‘hidden transcript’ for the offstage critique of power within this context. He suggests that we can “interpret the rumours, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes, and theatre of the powerless as vehicles by which, among other things, they insinuate a critique of power while hiding behind anonymity” (Scott, 1990, p. xiii). By tapping into public play practices, one can reveal the hidden transcript of the community, their unique way of using play to debate and express opposition and propositions for change. Thus, looking closely at public play practices shows genuine signifiers of public opinion and raises questions about the way consultation, participation and collective engagement take shape.

The diagram, ‘Why do we play? A list of public play practices (a work in progress)’ (Febrik, 2017) [Image 01], explores the different types of public play practices noted through Febrik’s research into social playgrounds. Some occur in the traditional playground while others occur outside of it, transforming, temporarily, any public space into a public ground for resistance. Whilst all of the public play practices mentioned are politically charged, some are more purposeful than others. The protest is sometimes a direct ‘public transcript’ (play with a purpose) and sometimes a ‘hidden and subtle transcript’ (play for play). Different types of public play practices transform public spaces into areas for conflict, negotiation and transformation.

The protest aspect of play opens an opportunity for individuals to make personal use of and comment on these public spaces. It is one of the ways in which communities make decisions about their environments and how these should work. Henri Lefebvre’s triad spatial model (conceived, perceived and lived space) suggests that public spaces are often planned, designed and used by different groups of people, who may not have the same vision about the nature of a public space. Ideally, though not frequently, planners aim to partner with the users in the design of their environments. Lefebvre’s ‘lived space’ (Lefebvre, 1991) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s ideas of ‘lines of flight’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1998, p. 205) allude to public space practices as ways in which people creatively subvert and rework public space to make space for themselves, for their desires and beliefs. This suggests that people transform the space they use, appropriating its meaning and function and thus protesting against the processes of public space making. What is interesting here is that public play practices build on this type of protest, carrying with them a wealth of politically charged ‘hidden transcript’ built into everyday practice. Play initiates both negotiation and conflict, thus making the dynamics of the playing incredibly valuable, as they reveal the way in which the players (the community individuals or groups) relate to one another, their hierarchies, power struggles and frustrations or preferences. Public play practices are one of many practices taking place in the public realm and they may be an unexpected and effective mechanism for revealing the hidden protest.

'Play Space'. Mohamad Balshi, Burj el Barajneh Palestinian Refugee Camp. Lebanon 2005.

‘Play Space’. Mohamad Balshi, Burj el Barajneh Palestinian Refugee Camp. Lebanon 2005.

Encouraging public play practices through the social playground

Whether in spaces designated for play or spaces where play coincidentally occurs, public play practices open up a dialogue about the role of play and playfulness in processes of public space design. It is not only about formal processes of participation, but also about a parallel process in the everyday context through the reading of the ‘hidden transcript’ of how communities engage through play. In order to encourage public play practices as a mechanism for revealing the hidden transcript of public spaces, one must accept different types of ambiguity and unpredictability that nurture a playful environment and disposition. Using this mechanism to inform public design processes may mean ambiguity in either the programme, or the form / physical language and/or the boundaries of the site. The ambiguity of these components makes space for ‘lines of flight’, or space for people’s appropriation in accordance with their needs and desires.

When we play, we rearrange the space imaginatively by using it differently than its original purpose, thus making it ambiguous. Febrik’s project Play Space (2005) 1 is a good example of how public spaces in the Palestinian Refugee Camp Burj el Barajneh were transformed by children to play spaces in the absence of any childhood spaces within the camp. The children’s insertions were public protests against their least claim to space, as they inserted their playgrounds fleetingly and frequently in-between the functions (or programmes) of others. This type of ambiguity of programme is something that was more prevalent in the 1970s and in the urbanscapes of Aldo van Eyck for example, where playgrounds appeared as part of the urban landscape, on pavements, courtyards and any open public space. There was ambiguity as to where the playground began and where it ended. It became absorbed into the physical language of the streets of the city. This type of fragmented playground aimed to initiate public play practices connecting people and expanding the possibility of the use of space, while the clear marking of territories as playgrounds takes away opportunity for overlap between community groups as they negotiate the sharing of the space. Furthermore, whilst the fragmented playground offers physical ambiguity and opportunity for inventive engagement, the traditional playground protects children’s right to play in contexts where they are overlooked, such as the Palestinian refugee camps. Here, the naming and holding of visible and permanent territories of play becomes imperative as an expression of protest.

'Edge of Play' social playground. Talbiyeh Palestinian Refugee Camp, Jordan. 2009

‘Edge of Play’ social playground. Talbiyeh Palestinian Refugee Camp, Jordan. 2009

To retain certain ambiguity in the formal design and planning stages became an important challenge for the project Edge of Play (in collaboration with UNRWA’s 2 Talbiyeh Camp Improvement Project (TCIP), Talbiyeh Refugee camp in Amman, Jordan 2009-11) 3. The balance between ambiguity and clarity was addressed through the design of a ‘social playground’, a multi-generational multi-purpose space that transforms with the needs of the community and hosts a variety of public play practices. Aligned with Liane Lefaivre’s “the playground as the smallest stitch in the urban fabric … with a specific strength in connecting people to spaces” (Lefaivre, 2007, pp. 24-25), the social playground thus aims to facilitate overlaps and negotiations within the community and to highlight the protest of unrepresented groups through prioritising their claim to space. The bigger UNRWA project, and through it also the Edge of Play, experienced challenges, in part due to the lack of transparency and efficiency of both the institution and the community which resulted in monopoly of participation, selective involvement, social alliances and strategic decision making of local community groups (Al-Nammari, 2011). This lead to the construction of only half the social playground (the space for children’s play but not that for adults). Interestingly, this enabled for the first time a conversation about the concerns of the participating community regarding the public visibility of women, the pedestrianisation of public spaces and the appropriation of open spaces by male youths. As such, the ‘social playground’ can take many forms when acting as a mechanism for inviting social engagements and negotiations in the community.

Public play practices can encourage public engagement and act as social activators on a small scale in everyday life. Rethinking public space and its physical and programmatic ambiguity as a means to invite further play, protest and ‘lines of flight’, becomes central to facilitating ‘social playgrounds’ that nurture dynamic public play practices. When carefully observed and studied, play and playfulness in the public realm can be a very useful mechanism, different in logic from current modes of consultation and participation regarding the production of public space. •

The article was originally published in a book ‘Trading Places – Practices of Public Participation in Art and Design Research’ (DPR Barcelona), published in September 2017. ‘Trading Places’ rethinks, develops and tests design-driven practices and methods to engage with participation in public space and public issues.
The book follows ‘TRADERS – Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space,’ an EU-funded project (2013–17) that focuses on developing a methodological framework for participatory work in public space projects. Z33 House for Contemporary Art is one of the cultural and academic partners of the programme.
DPR Barcelona: Traders – Practices of Public Participation
TRADERS programme (2013–17)

Al-Nammari, F. 2011. Talbiyeh Camp improvement project and the challenges of community participation. Jordan: UNRWA.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. 1998. A thousand plateaus. London: Continuum.
Lefaivre, L. 2007. Ground-up city: Play as a design tool. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.
Lefebvre, H. 1991. The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lester, S. 2014.  Play as protest: Clandestine moments of disturbance and hope. In Burke, C. & Jones, K. (Eds.) Education, childhood and anarchism: Talking Colin Ward (pp. 198-208). London / New York: Routledge.
Scott, J. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ward, C. 1966. A parable of anarchy. In Krimerman, L., & Perry L. (Eds.)
Patterns of anarchy (pp. 397-402). New York: Anchor Books.



Reem Charif obtained a degree in Architecture from the AA School of Architecture (AA dip RIBA II) and an Msc in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studied (SOAS), University of London. She is a founding partner of Febrik and a senior lecturer in Architecture at the University of East London. She is the co-author of Febrik’s book ‘Creative Refuge’ was published by Tadween Publishing in 2014.


Mohamad Hafeda is an artist and a designer. He is a lecturer in architecture and design at Leeds Beckett University and Westminster University, United Kingdom. He has a PhD degree in Architectural Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. Hafeda is the author of ‘Negotiating Conflict: A Critical Bordering Practice’ (forthcoming). He is the co-editor of Narrating Beirut from its Borderlines (Heinrich Boll Foundation, 2011), and Febrik’s publications Creative Refuge (Tadween, 2014) and Action of Street/Action of Room (Serpentine Galleries, 2016).


Febrik is a not-for-profit collaborative platform for participatory art and design research projects with practicing architects, designers and artists active in the Middle East and the UK. Febrik’s main area of concern lies in the dynamics and practices of public spaces in relation to social and urban change; in specific in relation to space of refuge and migration.