A Brief History of Playground Design, Part 1

by Naomi Heller

N.Y. Playground, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915 / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

We are so pleased to share this informative two-part article about the history of play, written by Naomi Heller. Naomi is a playground designer focused on creating spaces and objects that provide children the freedom to think, act, and play in creative ways. Naomi received her Master of Science in Architecture from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and her Bachelor of Architecture from the Boston Architectural College. She is employed at StudioMLA in Brookline, MA.
– Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network

The concept of play as a vital part of human development is newer than we may imagine, emerging only towards the end of the nineteenth century. Before that time, children were required to work in fields or factories and were not given designated time for play. Public playgrounds did not exist (O’Shea, 2013).

The first public play space was introduced in Germany by Friedrich Froebel, founder of the kindergarten. Building on the work of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and educator Johann Pestalozzi, Froebel recognized the importance of a stimulating environment and how it could positively impact children (Pound, 2011). Promoting the value of free and nature play, he emphasized the need for contact with natural materials such as sand and water.

Motivated by Froebel’s ideas, sand bergs (piles of sand) were placed in Berlin’s public parks in the 1850s. A more designed sand play was popularized in 1889 when Froebel published plans for building a sandbox (Levine, 2003). The article prompted the use of sandboxes across Germany, in schools and homes.

“African American girls playing games.” 1922. / image: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections

A wave of immigration as well as expanding urbanization during the Industrial Revolution resulted in the growth of slums where homeless children lived and fought to survive on the streets (Zacks, 2012). Providing a safe space for children to play off the public streets arose as a response to the rise of poverty all across America’s cities. In 1886, the first ‘Sand Garden’ was introduced by Dr. Marie Zakrsewska, a Berlin native, who mimicked the ones she saw in her home city. Its success encouraged more piles of sand to be placed the following year in the yards of the Boston Children’s Mission Parmenter Street Chapel and the Warrenton Street Chapel. The number of sand bergs and kindergartens rapidly increased, appearing in cities across the country (Frost, 2010).

As public play spaces became more valued, the Playground Association of America was established in 1906 to promote the importance of public playgrounds to communities across the country (O’Shea, 2013). Among its founding principles, the association stated:

“That inasmuch as play under proper conditions is essential to the health and the physical, social, and moral wellbeing of the child, playgrounds are a necessity for all children as much as schools.” (National Recreation Association records, “Early Days,” n.d.)

Girls’ playground, Harriet Island, St. Paul, Minnesota / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, the association officially established the necessity for public playgrounds, and outlined their standard design and activities. Early twentieth century playgrounds were not intended for free-play, and special instructors were trained to teach lessons and organize play. The term “model playground” emerged as an example of the ideal playground. It incorporated:

  • separate play sections and athletic fields for boys and girls
  • shelters, toilet/bathing facilities, shaded spaces, garden plots, and swimming pools
  • the “four S’s”: swings, seesaws, sandboxes, and slides
  • merry-go-rounds, and other twirling contraptions
Children’s playground, Belle Isle Park, Detroit, Michigan / image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Model playground equipment was built using galvanized steel pipes, striking vertical and horizontal elements, ladders, and chains. Up until this time, steel had primarily been used for small objects, but the Industrial Revolution made it possible to use it on a grander scale. The model playground concept was spreading rapidly and by 1917 could be seen across the US. Schools were setting aside periods of play for young children and even certain factories and industrial plants were building playgrounds for employees’ children (Curtis, 1917).

The Great Depression of the 1930s greatly affected playground development. To manage increasing unemployment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal assistance program aimed at creating new jobs for the unemployed. Among other projects, a number of WPA workers were responsible for building playgrounds (Brechin, 1990). World War II, however, resulted in metal equipment being sold for scrap to build war essentials and the manufacturing of playground equipment virtually ended. Many playgrounds suffered from lack of maintenance and fell into disrepair.

Remarkably, post-WWII bomb sites all over Europe created incredible opportunities for play, allowing children to experiment with lighting fires, building structures, and manipulating the materials left over from demolished buildings (Chilton, 2018).

DeWitt Clinton Park, 1909 / image: Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives

The realization that this sort of free-spirited play allowed children to fulfill their innate urge to explore, experiment, and invent led to the establishment of adventure playgrounds. In the mid-1940s, landscape architect Marjory Allen, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, petitioned for the first adventure playground to be opened in London at Lollard Street and Clydesdale Road. Subsequently, her petition brought about the building of adventure playgrounds throughout the UK, established on land of little or no economic value.

Instead of the traditional metal swings, slides, and roundabouts of model playgrounds, adventure playgrounds featured an abundance of unconventional structures, discarded household objects, and loose materials. Beyond an ingenious use of otherwise unusable land and a concern for the developmental needs of children, adventure playgrounds were also an acknowledgment of broader social issues. WWII left many people with pervading questions of human morality and the inherent goodness of society. Responding to the horrors witnessed during this time period, adventure playgrounds were seen as “little models of democracy” where children would learn how to collaborate and build together (Martinko, 2017) and an attempt to create a more just and socially conscious society through children’s play.

DeWitt Clinton Park, 1909 / image: Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives

In this post-war spirit of rebirth, questions of more creative play were widely discussed. In Amsterdam, the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, appointed as an architectural designer for the public works department, was charged with building a public playground in each of the city’s neighborhoods. As a playground designer, van Eyck’s leading consideration was to nurture children’s creativity. His playgrounds were woven into the fabric of the city parks, squares, and derelict post-war sites. With no sharp boundaries separating the playground from the city, van Eyck hoped to provoke social engagement amongst the children. Additionally, the playground’s minimalist aesthetic equipment “encouraged children to discover shapes, forms, proportions, and distances, and develop their imaginations on their own terms” (Makovsky, 2016).

Assuming this functional ambiguity would be a stimulus for creative thought, van Eyck strived to design simple forms with no specific functions. He conceived of his abstract play elements as “tools for imagination” (de Roode, 2002) which do not aim to show what they are and how they should be used, but rather suggest what they could be (van Lingen et al, 2016). Rudi Fuchs, the art historian and former director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, wrote regarding van Eyck’s designs:

“The playgrounds were fantastic because the objects were simple…objects that are not anything in themselves, but which have an open function and therefore stimulate a child’s imagination. A child sits still on a slide or a swing: it is the object that produces the movement. Van Eyck’s objects do not move, but they allow a child to move with all the acrobatism and suppleness he can muster. That was the genius of their simplicity.” (Fuchs, 2002)

Charlesbank Playground in Boston, between 1900 and 1905 / image: Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives

In 1954 a playground design competition was sponsored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The winning design, Fantastic Village by Virginia Dortch Dorazio, consisted of seven reinforced concrete panels with cutout abstract designs, ladders, and poles that could be arranged into multiple varieties of five-foot hollow cubes. This open-ended play piece was the beginning of the “novel playground,” intended to replace the model playgrounds, which were considered unimaginative (Ogata, 2004). Designers now began to create novel, fantasy sculptures such as robots, vehicles, and animals. Massive concrete climbing forms with tunnel mazes and a wide variety of shapes and spaces were also used, with the aim of exercising children’s imagination.

Stay tuned for part two, to be published here on The Field next week.

References & Resources

Barker, Stephen. “Brain science benefits from budget plan.” Nature 382.6587 (1996): 105.

Chilton, Tony. “Adventure Playgrounds.” Aspects of Playwork: Play and Culture Studies 14 (2018): 157.

Curtis, Henry Stoddard. The Play Movement and Its Significance. New York: Macmillan, 1917.

Danks, Sharon Gamson. Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. New Village Press, 2010.

Frost, Joe L. A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement. Routledge, 2009.

Frost, Joe L. “The changing culture of play.” International Journal of Play 1.2 (2012): 117-130.

Fuchs R. “Foreword,” in Aldo van Eyck: The Playgrounds and the City. Lefaivre L., de Roode I., editors. (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers): 7. 2002.

Johnson, Lauri Macmillan, Kim Duffek, and James Richards. Creating Outdoor Classrooms: Schoolyard Habitats and Gardens for the Southwest. University of Texas Press, 2008.

Kutska, Kenneth S. Playground Safety is No Accident. National Playground Safety Institute, 2011.

Larrivee, Shaina D. “Playscapes: Isamu Noguchi’s Designs for Play.” Public Art Dialogue 1.01 (2011): 53-80.

Levine, David, and Paula S. Fass. The Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. 2003.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, 2008.

Makovsky, Paul. “Modernists At Play.” Metropolis, 1 Nov. 2012.

Martinko, Katherine. “A Short History of Playgrounds.” TreeHugger, 25 Jan. 2017.

Moore, Robin, and Allen Cooper. “Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and managing places where children engage with nature” (2014).

Mount, Charles. “Boy Injured on Slide Gets $9.5 Million.” Chicago Tribune, 15 Jan. 1985.

Ogata, Amy F. “Creative playthings: educational toys and postwar American culture.” Winterthur Portfolio 39.2/3 (2004): 129-156.

O’Shea, Kaitlin. “How We Came to Play: The History of Playgrounds.” SavingPlaces.org, the website of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 15 Aug. 2015.

Pound, Linda. Influencing Early Childhood Education: Key Figures, Philosophies, and Ideas. McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 2011.

Public Playground Safety Handbook. US Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2015.

Rivkin, Mary S. The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside. National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, DC, 1995.

van Lingen, Anna, and Denisa Kollarová. Aldo Van Eyck: Seventeen Playgrounds. Lecturis, 2016.

Verni, Martin. “Fun Came First: A Brief History of Playground Equipment.” Goric, 15 Sept. 2015.

Zacks, Richard. Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. Anchor, 2012.

Naomi Heller is a playground designer focused on creating spaces and objects that provide children the freedom to think, act, and play in creative ways. She is employed at StudioMLA in Brookline, MA.

3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Playground Design, Part 1

  1. Paul Burton February 3, 2021 / 8:22 am

    Interesting article Naomi! The evolution of playgrounds is so interesting. Not many know that playgrounds originated in Germany in 1859 to teach kids to play “properly”. Now, we cannot imagine childhood without time spent at the playground.

  2. Logan Brown March 18, 2021 / 6:10 am

    Such an interesting read Naomi! Playgrounds encourage children to be themselves, free, and active throughout the day. Scientists are constantly studying how to maximize the various opportunities playground equipment provides for child development. Sadly, rapid urbanization has left lesser space for them to thrive.

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