Children climb on sculpture-like structures in this New York City landscape playground, designed by M. Paul Friedberg, in 1966. Lady Allen of Hurtwood Archives, Coventry, U.K.

Until the 1980s, playgrounds were spaces of adventure and art.

A slide, swings, maybe a seesaw or sandbox: These are the usual elements of today’s playground. We’ve become so accustomed to their uniformity that it’s hard to believe that playgrounds used to be something different.

From their beginnings in the late 19th century until the 1980s, public playgrounds were spaces that would likely horrify today’s American parents. Cities set aside areas for children to build things with wood, hammers, and nails—without parental supervision. Funky sculptures to play on or in made for less safe, but exhilarating, exploration.

With the 1980s came a greater concern with safety, and different ideas about the role of playgrounds. In turn, that led to less imaginative public spaces for play.

The Swiss urban planner Gabriela Burkhalter has been researching early playgrounds for a decade. She has curated a number of museum exhibits in the United States, Europe, and Russia on the topic, and she edited the book The Playground Project, which came out last year.

CityLab recently spoke with Burkhalter about the history of playgrounds in the United States and Europe, helicopter parenting, and the potential for a renaissance of more stimulating, liberating play spaces.

When do we start to see playgrounds in Europe and the United States?

Playgrounds emerged at the end of the 19th century during a time of industrialization and urbanization as well as immigration, particularly in the U.S. As child labor began to be regulated at the beginning of the 20th century, children's preferred play spaces were the streets. Social reformers—and, later, cities—created playgrounds out of concern that these children were not getting an education. Playgrounds were thought to provide a beneficial environment. But playgrounds were also created as spaces to sequester children, because street children harassed adults.

In early to mid-20th century Europe, adventure playgrounds became popular. What did these involve?

The Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen came up with the idea of letting children build objects and structures in a space free of adults. Rather, “playworkers” were on hand to keep an eye on things but not intervene. Children were given materials such as lumber and saws to build as they liked. Some European countries adapted this idea, though not uniformly.

The U.K. after WWII was a particular proponent of adventure playgrounds. After the devastation of the war, 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. Adventure playgrounds were supposed to be little models of democracy. Switzerland in the 1950s also had a lot of these playgrounds, but the idea behind them was more about giving children meaningful activities in their leisure time. People feared that otherwise children would read too many comics or watch too many films.

Unstructured play was a hallmark of adventure playgrounds. (Lady Allen of Hurtwood Archives, Coventry, U.K.)

During this period, landscape playgrounds, rather than adventure playgrounds, were more common in the U.S. What are they?

A landscape playground is a fixed environment, whereas there’s no design with an adventure playground; it’s more just a space in which children can build without parental supervision. But landscape playgrounds were more artistic or sculptural than present-day playgrounds. For instance, designers or artists used areas of sand and water, tunnels, mazes, and irregularly-shaped structures to create spaces of whimsy. They developed more in the United States because the landscape architect profession was more common there at the time than in Europe. Landscape architects designed parks, so they naturally came to do playgrounds.

Contemporary American playgrounds often feature slides and swings. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

The 1940s through the 1970s are often spoken of as the “golden era” of playground design, with the 1980s as the beginning of more boring, uniform playgrounds. What happened?

It started in the United States, with a series of safety guidelines put forth by producers of playground equipment. These guidelines then became the norm. This was more or less the same story in Europe. No individual architect or artist would then create a playground because the design was too regulated. The 1980s also saw the end of the idealistic ideas of earlier decades of how society could be changed by something like creating an adventure playground in a neighborhood. People became less interested in public space, and retreated into the private space of the home.

Some American parents have recently been advocating for adventure playgrounds to counter the trend of “helicopter parenting,” in which parents hover and try to resolve all their child’s conflicts and problems. Might we see the rise of adventure or landscape playgrounds in the U.S. again?

There are an increasing number of initiatives to build playgrounds that allow children more freedom. But these freer spaces can be hard to realize. For instance, in the United States there are laws forbidding parents from leaving their child alone. Even if some parents want to give their children more freedom, say at an adventure playground, other parents will say, “Are you mad? It’s unsafe!” So then parents may change their opinions to meet the norms of the day. In Europe, we have less helicopter parenting, but it’s also a problem. Parents are now very present on playgrounds in Europe, standing near their children and intervening quickly if there is a conflict. Still, children in Europe often walk alone to school and enjoy unsupervised play outdoors.

It’s important that we’re having this discussion. 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.

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