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The Politics of Playgrounds, a History

Fights over how kids play have been going strong since the early 1900s.

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Reuters

Unless you're a frequent reader of parenting blogs, you might not know there's a major divide in the world of children's playgrounds.

On the one side, you have the safety advocates who want lower structures, softer ground, and less opportunities for falling off or over, well, anything. On the other, those who worry that a safe playground is a boring playground that will do little to stimulate a child's imagination.

The debate can seem quite technical – should playgrounds have foam floors, or wood chips? What would be better for the 5-year-olds who tumble off the monkey bars? Should there even be monkey bars, or is that just asking for trouble? One mom was even banned from McDonald's after she was caught swabbing their play places in search of bacteria.

The debate has a very 21st century feel to it but it’s actually nothing new – these types of questions have been asked for at least a century. Below, a look at the history of playgrounds:

1887: America’s First Playground    

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jimmy Linn

America's first playground opened in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Groundbreaking at the time, the playground included swings, slides and even a ride in a cart pulled by a goat. Most popular, though, was the Roman temple carousel, complete with doric columns. This was replaced in 1912 with another wooden carousel. It was so popular that it even did a turn at the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

1898: Playgrounds to Save Souls

Courtesy: New York City Parks Department

Do-gooders with a passion for improving the plight of the urban poor latched onto playgrounds as a progressive ideal. John Dewey argued eloquently that play was as important as work for children, and groups like the Outdoor Recreation League provided slides, seesaws and professional play leaders to slum areas.

1903: Government-funded Play

New York City installed Seward Park, the first-ever municipal playground, complete with a slide and sand box.

1907: The Playground Goes National

In a speech, President Theodore Roosevelt weighed in on the importance of the playground, saying:

City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger, because most good games are against the law, because they are too hot in summer, and because in crowded sections of the city they are apt to be schools of crime. Neither do small back yards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children ... since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools.

1912: The Safety Backlash Begins

The first city to make playgrounds a priority was also the first to regulate them - New York banned climbing structures, citing them as too dangerous.

1931: Adventure Playgrounds

Adventure playground in Berkeley, courtesy of Flickr user jar ()

C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, had a problem. Kids didn't want to play on the playgrounds he built. Instead, they wanted to play with boxes, or dirt, or just about anything else. Sørensen's elegant solution: a "junk playground" in which kids could "create and shape, dream and imagine a reality."

This idea sparked the junk playground movement, which is almost exactly what it sounds like: designers collect old boxes or tubes and let kids create their own play spaces. "Adventure playgrounds" spread through Denmark and London. Eventually, a handful made their way to the United States. They aren't without controversy, as critics worry about safety and ask whether they offer much to kids.

GOOD describes one such playground in Berkeley:

Berkeley's Adventure Playground opened in 1979, and while a few others cropped up around the same time on the West Coast, it is now one of the few remaining in the country. There is no equipment, as such, in the park. Instead, kids are confronted with boards, spare tires, telephone poles, and lots and lots of mud.

1960s: The McDonaldsification of Playgrounds

By the 1960s, play had become big business. Companies like Creative Playthings decided to cash in, developing cookie-cutter playgrounds that could be sold in bulk. American Playgrounds author Susan Solomon puts a lot of the blame on McDonald's. As the company began building cookie-cutter play spaces in its restaurants (it now has nearly 8,000), it reinforced the idea of a monolithic form of child's play.

1965: The Demise of the Visionary Playground

Another blow struck unique playground design when a groundbreaking children's playground concept by Louis Kahn and Isamu Noguchi was rejected by New York City. Landscape Online describes his style as such:

Rather than requiring that children slide on the slide, they could climb it, or roll down it, or use it as part of an imaginative evocation of their own inner theater. Each playground design became more and more interactive as time went on ... His last playground design -- the Adele Levy Memorial Playground in New York City's Riverside Park, done in collaboration with Louis I. Kahn, was the fullest evocation of a playground as an art form, an inviting creative play space that would provide not just interactivity but beauty, solace and a really nice place to sit for people of all ages.

See some of his designs here.

1980s: Lawsuits and Government Guidelines

Courtesy: Consumer Protection Safety Commission

The 1980s brought with it piles of litigation from parents of children injured on playgrounds. In response, the industry began following the safety standards set up by the Consumer Products Safety Commission very closely. See a helpful checklist here. It opens with this:

Is your public playground a safe place to play?   Each year, more than 200,000 children go to U.S. hospital emergency rooms with injuries associated with playground equipment. Most injuries occur when a child falls from the equipment onto the ground.  Use this simple checklist to help make sure your local community or school playground is a safe place to play.

By 2000, four states - California, Michigan, New Jersey and Texas - had passed laws about playground design.

2005: The "No Running" Playground

Schools in Broward County, Florida, famously posted "No Running" signs in their playgrounds, prompting reflections about whether a playground could be "too safe."

2011: The Pop-Up Playground

In New York City, at least, playgrounds have more or less returned to their roots. Borrowing a trendy retail tactic, the city is experimenting with “pop-up” playgrounds in under-served neighborhoods. For one day, the city closed certain local streets, designating them as “play streets” and offering free games, athletic activities and coaching.

Families visited for one to two and a half hours on average, time they otherwise would have spent inside.

The city was so happy with the results that they opened 12 pop-up playgrounds in summer 2011, which offer instruction in activities like yoga, rugby and jump-rope.  

Photo credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.