A Short History of Playgrounds

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CC BY 2.0. Teddy Cross -- An adventure playground in Berkeley, California

For more than a century, playgrounds have played a pivotal yet evolving role in the lives of urban children.

There is a playground near my family’s house, but it’s so static and boring that my kids beg not to go there. They’d rather walk further to reach the playground that has swings, trees, sticks, mud, sand, and, at this time of year, icy snow hills for sliding. I find it amusing that they couldn’t care less about expensive equipment; they seek the thrill of adventure, which is easier to find with natural materials and imagination.

Playgrounds haven’t always been so limiting. There was a time when they used to stimulate, excite, and entertain children, but that has been steadily declining since the 1980s, when playgrounds first became mired in safety regulations, causing their designers to become cautious, to the detriment of the children who played there.

Gabriela Burkhalter is a Swiss urban planner and author of The Playground Project. She was recently interviewed by City Lab about the history of playgrounds, which provides interesting insight as to how we ended up where we are now – and why we need to return to the past when it comes to playground design.

Burkhalter explained that playgrounds were first created in the late 19th century as a sort of holding pen for street kids, to keep them from harassing adults. Following the Second World War, they evolved into adventure playgrounds in Europe, where they were seen as “little models of democracy.”

“Such spaces were thought to provide a new, civic model of society. The idea was that children would learn how to collaborate, because you can’t build on your own. You always need a group to negotiate who uses what tools and materials and for what purpose.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, landscape architects were converting playgrounds into ‘playable’ works of art, using “areas of sand and water, tunnels, mazes, and irregularly-shaped structures to create spaces of whimsy.”

For several decades, playgrounds enjoyed a golden age, upheld as an almost revolutionary tool for bringing neighborhoods together and bettering society through children’s learning and independence, but this changed in the 1980s. At that point, Burkhalter explained, people began withdrawing from public spaces and retreating into their own homes. Safety regulations quickly took the fun out of playgrounds.

That’s where we are now. Fear of litigation handcuffs municipalities and playground companies; overly-anxious parents fear worst-case scenarios when letting their kids play. The result is a playground that pleases nobody – neither the kids who are uninspired, nor the parents who either watch from the sidelines, or are constantly disrupted by bored children.

An employee of Play by Design shared some insight on City Lab's interview:

“One major influence on playground design is visibility and transparency. The older designs are amazingly complex and intricate, and have many small hidden spaces. Parents and law enforcement prefer to be able to see the majority of the play space easily.”

There is, however, slow and steady pushback from increasing numbers of parents who like the idea of free play and are trying to bring back adventure play spaces. Burkhalter is happy to see this, though she thinks it will be a tough sell:

“People are becoming aware that these parenting trends, and the accompanying constraints put on children’s play and freedom, are not good for children in the end. There is the concern that children no longer take risks and are unable to make decisions when they leave home. As a parent, you have to let them learn and become independent.”

Not only does this mean seeking out better playgrounds that actually enable kids to play, rather than climb stairs and slide down ad nauseam, but it also requires parents to step back, to trust their kids' ability to balance and explore limits, and not to panic or point fingers when accidents happen -- which they will. That's just part of being a healthy, active kid.