Finding a place for future citizens: Playgrounds in Armenia
“I have no clear idea of why I started collecting these things, but one thing I know for sure. My childhood was spent in the Soviet era and I remember it as a very positive experience,” says Hayk Bianjyan, a documentary photographer who has become a full-time collector of Soviet memorabilia. His collection spans from shoes and cigarettes to buses and children’s rides, which were once part of playgrounds in city parks.
The collection started nearly two decades ago, when Bianjyan noticed old Yerevan was disappearing. “I realized that only taking their photos and trying to create an archive wasn’t really enough and I just started sometimes taking different things from abandoned buildings to preserve them,” he recalls.
His collection includes items from Armenia’s Soviet-era playgrounds, including shooter games—which remain a crowd favorite.
“At that time, games were guiding kids' attention, trying to prepare them for the future. That`s why there were many shooting games, games connected to war. Some weapons, even though they were toys, were very detailed and even felt like shooting a weapon.” he says.
War-themed games and cosmic-themed playgrounds were common in the Soviet era, and were used as a platform for propaganda, especially during the Cold war. Fostering children's curiosity about outer space was a priority, and public playgrounds in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Safety was less important than prompting children to embrace the state’s ideals.
The result, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was a decade of rusting equipment that was not safe for children to play on.
A former scientist in the Armenian city of Gyumri wanted to change that. Arthur Hovsepyan was one of the few scientists that remained at the Magnon scientific center in the city after the devastating 1988 earthquake destroyed the complex and its equipment. Inspired by a nun’s request that he make children’s playground equipment with the tools left at the center, he began researching how slides and other attractions were produced in the region. Hovsepyan found the Soviet-era instructions were too vague to produce equipment that would be safe for children, so he began studying the practices in other countries, his daughter Astghik Hovsepyan, recalls. Hovsepyan got funding from a US project and went to America to study how it was done there.
When he returned, he transformed Magnon’s production from submarine and space shuttle parts to playground equipment, becoming the regional expert and safety advocate along the way. Today his daughter leads the company, which she says is the largest manufacturer of playground, fitness, street workout, park, and sports equipment in the region. Their equipment is in nearly all communities of Armenia and exported to Georgia and other countries, including Malawi.
Magnon playground equipment is being used in a program to provide safe playing areas for children through COAF (Children of Armenia), a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing educational opportunities and building infrastructure for children and families in rural Armenia.
“In the USSR many rural communities were artificially created around certain factories and their related areas. They were created to host the workers and their families. Of course, schools and kindergartens were also created for the kids of factory workers, but once the USSR collapsed and those factories stopped working, the schools and all the areas for children were abandoned and the children were left with nothing,” Hasmik Sargsyan, the relationship development & fundraising coordinator at COAF (Children of Armenia Fund).
“Our work is not just creating playgrounds all over the country, but to foster dialogues and desire for changes, which these kids sometimes are deprived of and a playground is the very first step to show them something more positive,” she says, adding, that “educating children by entertaining them” is a far more reachable goal. The organization is already working in 64 rural communities.
“I think that the idea of using public spaces to create a safe zone, which will also help to formulate a future citizen is great and could be a nice goal to focus on,” Sargsyan says.
The idea of using public space for educating a future citizen is also close to Araks Arakelyan, Master of Developmental Psychology and the co-founder of the Armenian Association of Analytical Psychology. But she worries there is too much attention to safety, and not enough to provide stimulus for developing minds.
“I have noticed that the contemporary approach to children, in general, is merely focusing on safety so much that we forget about their needs and development. We more create entertainment. This is why we have these, sometimes really frustrating combinations of bright colors, to seem more attractive to children. In reality, children love being involved, engaged in a process of creation, they love being invited to an imaginative game of creating new things from items that we couldn't imagine would be interesting for them,” Arakelyan notes.
While the Soviet-era playgrounds may have been inspired by the propaganda of the time, what remains today is the state’s intent to educate children, not just entertain them, she adds.
“Maybe we could use that old format and dedicate that space to educating kids, viewing them not just as creatures whom we need to silence with toys or attractions, but future citizens, people who are going to take over the world once their time comes,” she says.
“From that point of view, we`ll need to give them a skill set, so it will be easy for them to adapt to urban life. For example, modern urban life has many elements which are important to us and know, for example riding on scooters, which in the future might replace cars. For learning to use them properly, kids should have a safe space, where they could learn to hold their balance…I`d also offer to create spaces that could have elements of a quest or even have some fairy-tale motives, to add just a bit more interesting topics and a purpose, why not, create a mini-city or mini-world for them, where they could choose how they want to play“․
This project is part of a series on playgrounds in the South Caucasus. For reports on the situation in Georgia and Azerbaijan, see: Playground Love| Leftovers for children, Beyond the swings and slides
This story was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer/Autumn 2022.