Like many other aspects of life, the playground has evolved over the years reflecting both cultural shifts, a growing knowledge of children's interests, scientific research on play and, probably above all, health and safety.
A good playground has to have plenty of opportunity for imaginative play as well as a wide range of play equipment such as slides, swings, and climbing frames. Today, we expect them to have enclosed spaces off of the ground, safety rails, and a soft surface should our kids somehow still manage to fall. Moms and dads hover around their littles, determined to ensure no harm comes to them and we have even started to segregate our outdoor play areas so that toddlers are protected from any possible rough and tumble they might encounter playing with the older children.
Play “experts” are now encouraging playground designers and builders to become less methodical in how they create play spaces. Emerging theories say that our children do not have the opportunity to exercise their imaginations in our current, safe and structured playgrounds and that we should be giving them a chance to build, hide, and within reason, hurt themselves, in the pursuit of play.
Finally, play spaces are coming full circle, from rough pieces of ground with random debris on them, to play equipment, to overly structured, and now to a combination of equipment and open spaces filled with haphazard items.
20 Play To Learn
The first playgrounds were built in Germany in the mid-1800’s by the educator Friedrich Fröbel. Fröbel was the first to recognize that children had different learning needs and capabilities and he suggested playgrounds as a developmental aid, a place where children could learn to play nicely together and become better citizens. These first play areas were all attached to schools and “playtime” was part of the daily timetable, a lesson in how to play correctly.
In 1837 Fröbel founded his “care, playing and activity institute for small children,” a place which he later came to call the kindergarten.
When these kindergartens became popular, they spread across Germany with their attached play areas. The young children attending the school were encouraged to sing, dance, garden, and indulge in self-directed play, something that was revolutionary at the time.
However, these play areas are not what we might traditionally think of as playgrounds today. As you can see from the photograph above, which was taken at a Fröbel kindergarten in the late 1800’s, they were mostly glorified garden areas with enough space to run about and play. There were no swings, or slides, or climbing frames, in fact, there was no equipment at all. The ground was cleared, and a garden area was set out in such a way that the children could participate in gardening but the playgrounds were only accessible to children attending the school.
19 The First Public Slide
The world's first public playground slide, as we know it, was built in Kettering, in the North of England in 1922. Wicksteed Park was the brainchild of Charles Wicksteed who had become very wealthy through making munitions during the World War I. Aware of his good fortune he wanted to give something back to the local community and so the park that bears his name was born.
An engineer by training Wicksteed built equipment for the children to play on and this is where the first slide was made. Two slides were built side by side, one for the boys and one for the girl. Wicksteed said in an interview later in life “that seems silly now, but at the time I had the quaint idea that boys and girls should play separately.”
The slides were made of wood, and splinters were an accepted hazard. Three long planks were affixed to each other with nothing to hold onto. The one exception was the very top of the taller boys slide which had a short guard rail at the top of the 13-foot ladder. The runs were also very straight causing the children to gain a great deal of speed. No curve at the end to slow you down back in those days.
18 Then There Were Swings
Following on from the success of his children's slide Charles Wicksteed built the first public park swing set. The equipment was erected in 1923, a year after the slides but the swings were made of metal, except for their wooden seats, and were designed for both boys and girls to play on together.
Charles Wicksteed said at the time:
"We had a Sunday School treat in the park and put up primitive swings with large poles, tied together at the top with chains. Fortunately, they were not cleared away with the other things the day after the treat, and I ultimately found them so popular that instead of pulling them down I added more."
Later, in his 1928 book, A Plea for Children’s Recreation after School Hours and after School Age, Wicksteed said: "I have good reason to believe that the park I have formed has changed the lives for the better, to a greater or lesser extent of thousands of children. I have direct evidence from mothers how whining, pale-faced children, complaining of any food they get, have come back with healthy faces and rosy complexions, ready to eat the house out after a good play in the playground.”
17 Outdoor Play Grows In The US
In time, these places of play began to pop up in the United States. The growth of public playgrounds was not in anyway coordinated, and they began to appear, mostly, in places that were considered slums in order to keep the children out of trouble. The play equipment was very basic, and there was little to no thought given to safety.
However, all of this was about to change. In 1907 President Roosevelt said:
“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 backyards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children."
He also added, "Older children who would play vigorous games must have places specially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools. This means that they must be distributed over the cities in such a way as to be within walking distance of every boy and girl, as most children can not afford to pay carfare.”
16 Where’s The Instructor?
In the early 1900’s playgrounds were not the free play places that children could drop into that they are today. In these early stages, children did not necessarily just turn up and play; they were required to do what the "play instructor" told them. This included orderly queuing for the equipment, taking turns and generally being polite to each other.
Although this sounds bizarre today, there was a specific logic to the instructor being there. Until this point, most children had not had the opportunity to play in a park with lots of other children, and social etiquette around playgrounds was still evolving. Parents would drop their kids off to play, safe in the knowledge there was a responsible adult to oversee their little ones and that the children would be learning new social skills.
Today, of course, we do not need instructors to teach our children how to play in the park, we are there to do that ourselves. I bet you never thought that when you were calling across the park to tell your child to wait their turn or play gently, that you would have, at one point, have been considered a cutting-edge childhood development educator.
15 Girl Power
This photograph was taken at the girl's playground on Harriet Island, just across the Mississippi River from downtown St.Paul, Minnesota. The island was named after Harriet Bishop, who was a Baptist school teacher from Vermont. Bishop arrived in Saint Paul in 1847, was involved in the temperance movement, and opened the first school in the frontier city, teaching children of diverse ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.
The park was built by Dr. Justus Ohage, A St. Paul's health officer, who donated the land to the city in 1900. Dr. Ohage's idea for the park was to build a place for healthy living in the center of the city.
This had become a popular idea with the more well off in society after large numbers of families had migrated to the cities from the countryside and had ended living in slums. The park initially had a public bathhouse and beach, along with amenities like playgrounds, picnic grounds, handball and tennis courts, and a bandstand.
Taken in 1905 this photograph shows the girls playground. Interestingly the girls play equipment was not really different from that of the boys, they were separated because it was seen as "unseemly" for young ladies to be running around the park in the presence of young men.
14 Flying High
This is the first public playground in Seattle, Washington. The photograph comes from the Seattle Historical Photograph Collection held at the Seattle Public Library and dates back to around 1900.
As you can see the boys in this playground were not adverse to a little climbing. Coming in at over 15 feet this was no small structure, and it was, like most other equipment was at the time, built from wood, ropes, and a few metal fixings.
At this time in the United States, there was no Health and Safety legislation covering the building of playgrounds, the materials used in their construction or the specifications of equipment.
Most playgrounds were being installed by local groups concerned with the health and morality of the local children, and there was a limited amount of money to spend on their construction. Also, there were no plans for maintenance and general upkeep, so it was during the first decade of the 20th century that local governments first agreed to pass bylaws that set aside small amounts of public money to ensure the continued maintenance of these parks.
It was only after the local governments started to become involved that people began to give thought to how safe the equipment was for the children who were playing on it.
13 Vertical Climbing
These girls are probably from the Washington Irving High Schools in New York City, attending a Midsummer Day Festival held at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx on June 23, 1911.
The equipment reflects the Victorian passion in PE and fitness which was referred to as vertical climbing. There were instruction manuals for teachers and fitness instructors devoted entirely to vertical climbing, and these tall wooden and rope structures were erected in parks primarily so that school groups could visit and take advantage of equipment they could not afford.
The equipment in this photograph would have been classed as intermediate because the rope ladders had firm, flat, wooden planks on which to place your feet, which was considered east to climb, but the bottoms of the ladders were not affixed to the ground, which was deemed to be difficult.
The straight poles were the most difficult element of all. Some equipment would have poles with knots on them or twists in them to make climbing easier, but these are straight all the way up. I don't know about you, but I really can not imagine trying to get to the top of that, even when I was young enough to be at school.
12 Fun For The Little Ones
Gradually, mostly in response to Roosevelt's declaration, public parks began to crop up all over the United States, but the most significant focus was on parks in cities.
During the industrial revolution, rural Americans had migrated to the cities in the hope of finding better paying and more secure work. However many of the jobs available required specific skills that these people did not have so many families ended up living in slums with little to no work and struggling to provide even the most basic of necessities to their families.
Philanthropists saw this happening, and numerous social programs were started from special homes for orphaned children to providing places for children to play.
These play places were not intended to be just for fun and a release from the day to day struggles of their lives, they were built with the intention of providing a place where health and fitness could be pursued.
The children in these swings at Hamilton Fish Park, New York were beneficiaries of the next step in playground evolution. Here consideration was given more to play and enjoyment which is reflected in the fact that the smaller children have been provided with swings that must be pushed by someone else.
11 Swinging High
This piece of playground equipment was one of the first purpose-built metal swing sets by what would become the Wicksteed, possibly the worlds first playground equipment manufacturer which is still in operation today, although their swings look more than a little different now.
As you can see from the photograph, the playground does not have any kind of safety surface, something that would make most parents today think twice, even before they had had a good look at the swings themselves.
This particular kind of swing allowed multiple children to stand or sit on it at a time and as you can see on the right of the photo the children also soon discovered how much fun it was to dangle off of the end. An element of this piece that you cannot truly appreciate from this photo is that it had nothing to stop it from swinging so far that it was vertical, or even past vertical if the kids on it were brave enough.
What you can see in the background though is just how high into the sky the swings go when they have an enthusiastic player on them. I can't see that happening today, can you?
10 The Joy Of Play
By the time of the Second World War, playgrounds were firmly entrenched in the psyche as places dedicated to the pursuit of fun. While children were also taught physical education and sports in schools, this was no longer the primary source of playtime fun.
The two little girls on the bottom left of this set of monkey bars in Central Park, New York are Janet and Marie Wynn Czech-American children, photographed by Marjory Collins in 1942.
This is a typical play scene of the time with both girls and boys playing together on a metal structure designed partly with play in mind and partly with ease of construction and durability.
Again, there are no safe play surfaces here, and the children are free to climb pretty high without any safety features to prevent them falling to the ground and injuring themselves. Despite this lack of modern safety features. research suggests that there are not significantly fewer playground injuries today than there were at this time.
Whether or not that is down to the actual number of injuries or whether only serious injuries would have warranted medical attention back then while children with more minor injuries are taken for medical treatment today is not clear.
9 The Stuff Of Nightmares
In the 1930's Danish landscape architect C Th. Sørensen saw children playing with leftover building materials on construction sites, and the idea of the adventure playground was born, but it wasn't until 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, that the first adventure playground was constructed in Emdrup, Denmark.
The playground was filled with what might be classed as junk including old vehicles, ropes, off-cuts of wood, tires, bricks, and even pieces of old furniture. The ground was to be kept plain earth to encourage children to dig and create, and nothing in the playground was permanent. A play-worker was onsite to ensure nothing got "out of hand" and that the children did nothing to intentionally harm each other.
Meanwhile, in London, England, as a result of the relentless German bombing, thousands of homes were destroyed, and vast areas of the city became rubble. As children in wartorn areas of the globe, throughout history have always done the young Londoners created their own exciting new playscapes among the ruins.
After the war, well into the 1950's and beyond, these wastelands persisted but instead of being discouraged the children were supported by the adults who joined together to build rough structures, walkways, rope nets and more among the debris of war.
8 The Same Yet Different
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States took on the same principles of adventure play, but with a twist. Not having the bombed out lots and abandoned homes that were rife in Europe at the time, the American playground evolved into a neater version of its European partners.
Play structures on which to climb were central, and we began to see the beginnings of the now familiar covered area on top of a climbing structure. Curved and straight ladders were added along with features such as rope ladders, small climbing walls, and tires.
Playground equipment had also, generally speaking, become significantly smaller at this time. Not only were they much shorter than those built forty years before but they also had a smaller general footprint. This was reflective of both a growing concern for safety and a limited amount of resources following World War II.
While we might recognize the early ancestors of our play spaces today, there are still plenty of things that would give us pause, such as the tires. Today the potential for old tires to be covered in or contaminated by a suspect substance, not to mention the fact that they are a breeding ground for mold and mosquitoes, has seen them banished from our modern play areas.
7 Meanwhile In London
A decade further on and London in the 1960's was just beginning to fully recover from the ravages of war. Resources, especially building materials and metals had been in short supply and far too expensive to use on creating playgrounds and many of the prewar, metal playground equipment pieces and been dismantled and melted down for use in the war effort.
This created a perfect trifecta of new thinking, a lack of money, and few resources which led to the creation of playgrounds like the one above.
This photograph was taken in London's Notting Hill in 1965. Long before Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were making romantic comedies here, the kids made the best of what they had in order to play.
In the background, you can see some of the tall apartment blocks that had been built in order to accommodate the large numbers of families left homeless by the war. The focus was on making as many homes as possible, as quickly as possible, in as small a space as possible, so land like that on which the playground was created was at a premium.
None the less, these kids are having a blast on the adventure playground that was created for them.
6 The Swinging 60's
Created by United States artists Ruth and Svetozar Radakovich in the 1960’s this was the cutting edge of the futuristic style that was developing at this time. Very minimalist with lots of open space and smooth lines the play equipment was styled in the same way as modern architecture and consumer goods.
Freestanding on the grass this piece was predominately a climbing frame. Although at first glance the two egg-like structure look like they might be a type of seesaw they are in fact affixed and do not move at all.
The plentiful resources meant that play equipment was becoming bigger and higher again. As you can see from this photograph, it was not considered dangerous to have something that was over twelve feet high for children to play on, without any type of safety features.
The top platform was designed to encourage imaginative play; it could be a viewing platform the deck of a ship, a spaceship or anything else the child could think of. Meanwhile, the slide was still set to a startlingly steep angle. Any child sliding down this slope would probably be going to take off into the air or crash hard into the ground. Perhaps the space theme too?
While some artists and designers were trying to create play spaces and equipment that reflected popular culture but were still fun for kids, some people were taking the architectural trends of the time and building playgrounds designed to fit with the surroundings and not necessarily with the kids in mind.
Brutalism was an artistic and architectural movement defined by imposing, functional structures cast in raw concrete. Taking a utilitarian approach to public space, it enjoyed its London heyday from the 1950s to the ’70s, when practicality overrode almost every other need.
The vast expanses of gray and brown, with color, studiously avoided, sat among plentiful right angles and straight lines. These were not developments that welcomed or encouraged the colorful, organic elements that we usually associate with play areas.
This playground reflects the brutalist movement and appears to be a stark and depressing place that children might avoid. However, in some ways, it is still a great play space. With its lack of defined areas and with nothing that resembles a house, a ship or something similar it encourages children to use their imaginations to create games.
Imaginative or not, I can't help but think of all of the scraped knees and cracked skulls that resulted from small tumbles in such a space.
4 Safety Takes Off
Over time safety started to become a concern for parents and playground designers alike. It did not necessarily lead to massive changes, to begin with, but you can see in this photograph how some concerns were becoming incorporated.
If you look carefully at the center of the tallest structure in this piece you will see the spiral staircase that in earlier examples would have been open, has been enclosed with vertical poles to prevent a child easily falling off. The same treatment has been given to the walkway between slides which again would have been either wholly open or may have possibly had a simple handrail to hold onto.
The slides have had an overhaul as well. It may not be immediately obvious, but when you look at the slides, they have all had curves built into them. These curves slow the child down a little as the move towards the ground, but they are still pretty high and do not have much in the way of protection on the sides.
Meanwhile, this playground has had a partial makeover. While the equipment is still serviceable and legal at the time in its current state, you can see that the surface below it has been updated to something softer to fall on.
3 Don't Let Go
Other pieces of play equipment had changed little since children found enjoyment in the first playgrounds back in the early 1900's. A piece that is very similar to this one can be seen in a photograph of children playing in New York in 1902.
The difference between the original and the one in this photograph is scale. In the first swing of this kind, the pole was scarcely higher that a child's head and there was limited scope to swing high or fast.
In this version, the structure itself is much higher which allows the children to spin so much faster and in turn swing further out and higher.
The terrifying thing about this piece is the fact that the only thing keeping the children attached to a fast twirling high swinging structure is their ability to hold onto it. One tired hand, one lose grip and these kids are going to be thrown off, flying through the air. Hopefully,y they would be thrown far enough to land on the grass and not on the nice concrete circle directly below.
Danger or not though, can't you just feel the joy these children are experiencing? If this is not pure fun, I don't know what is.
2 Too Rigid For Fun?
This playground was built and enjoyed in Monash, Australia during the 1960's. The park was famous, or perhaps infamous for its incredibly high slides, which in Australia are sometimes called slippery dips.
When you look carefully at this picture, you can see that there are multiple pieces of equipment for all age groups and abilities, mixed in together. The slide may be terrifyingly high, but there are small climbing structures and teeter-totters, known there as see-saws, for the younger or more reserved children.
You might notice the metal pieces built to look like vehicles or similar objects. These were a standard feature of playgrounds of this period and were thought to stimulate the imagination. The theory was that the children had this pseudo car to play on and they would pretend to drive places. The reality was that because these pieces were static, with no moving parts and we designed to be one or a group of things, most children found they had limited play value. Once you had sat in one spot in a metal cage pretending to drive somewhere, what else were you going to do?
This particular park was closed down when local governments became worried about liability issues.
1 The Final Frontier
I fell in love at first glance with this piece of playground equipment. While it was obviously designed by a Star Trek fan, it is different enough from the starship Enterprise not to cause any copyright issues.
The marketing sheet for this piece says:
"This Gigantic Space Cruiser is a whole playground of excitement and body-building activity "imagineered" in one 12 foot high, 30 foot long and the 29-foot wide combination of sliding poles, climbing ladders and slides."
It also highlights the fact that the slides are designed so that children must be sitting before they slide down and that the cockpit windows are a safety mesh to prevent tumbles from the main body of the spaceship.
Other safety considerations were that the structure had plenty of drainage holes to prevent the dangers associated with standing water, all of the welds were chipped and primed and that all of the main sections of the craft were set into concrete footings for added stability.
Unfortunately, despite it being cutting edge safety wise when it was built, equipment like this would not be allowed under today's legislation. Do you think we have gone too far with our safety requirements at the expense of stimulating play?
References: espplay.co.uk, bbc.co.uk, snopes.com, play-scapes.com, guardian.co.uk, wicksteedpark.co.uk, scholarpedia.org, Wicksteed.co.uk, google images, plaidstallions.com,
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