A Brief History of Playground Design, Part 2

by Naomi Heller

ASLA 2012 Professional Honor Award in Communications. Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. Sharon Danks, Bay Tree Design, Inc. / image: © 2010 by Sharon Danks

We are very pleased to share the second part of this highly informative article about the history of play, written by Naomi Heller.
– Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network

The first part of this brief history of playground design concluded with the shift from more standardized “model playgrounds” to the more open-ended, imagination-focused play of “novel playgrounds.” Beginning in the 1960s, in response to the Cold War, these novelty playgrounds took on space ship-themed structures. Described in a 1963 issue of Life Magazine, these satellite, rocket, and submarine playgrounds could be seen popping up around the world (here’s just one example: Scott Carpenter Park in Boulder, CO).

During this period, the manufacturing process for playground equipment also advanced. Originally constructed by hand or assembled from kits, novelty playgrounds shifted to more elaborate and standardized pieces. In addition, large firms specializing in designing, building, and maintaining playground equipment began to emerge (Verni, 2015).

In 1978, a one-year-old boy was climbing a 12-foot tall “tornado slide” in Chicago’s Hamlin Park when he slipped between the railings and the steps and fell on his head on the asphalt below. On January 14, 1985 a judge awarded him a minimum of $9.5 million for severe head injuries (Mount, 1985). Similar lawsuits created a need for playground safety regulation. Thus began the era of the “standardized playground,” with the codification of safety regulations and a re-design of manufactured playground equipment.

In 1981, the Consumer Product Safety Commission published the Handbook for Public Playground Safety, which has since been adopted across the US. The new regulations led to the shrinking size and height of new equipment, fewer climbing opportunities, and more guardrails installed on playgrounds. The regulations also addressed safety materials and specified hard plastic or splinter-free wood equipment, vinyl coating, rounded edges, and rubber safety surfaces.

Standardized playground equipment / image: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the regulations, the increased use of plastic in standardized playgrounds was due to the newly-developed rotationally molded plastic, which allowed very large equipment pieces to be fabricated at relatively low prices. As a result of the standardization, most playgrounds built or renovated from the late 1980s through the 1990s consisted of post-and-platform systems loosely based on the interconnected features found in adventure-style playgrounds. These modular systems typically include a series of decks linked by slides, bridges, and stairs, often brightly colored and sometimes designed with a theme (HPS, 2006).

Although the codification of safety regulations was important, the proliferation of identical-looking playgrounds incited public criticism as well as a decline in the use of public playgrounds. As a result, major efforts were made in the 1990s to fund play research to redefine the goals of the modern playground (Barker, 1996). Demand emerged for playgrounds to extend beyond standardized equipment and to include spaces for people of all ages and abilities, with both natural and built environments.

This trend towards more inclusive play led to a shift towards designing ‘playscapes’ rather than playgrounds. The term was originally coined by the sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, whose playscapes blurred the line between fine art, landscape design, and childhood play. Noguchi’s play sculptures were born from his desire to bring fine art into the context of everyday living. He believed that environments should challenge and inspire their users and created playgrounds to foster imagination through their beautiful designs (Larrivee, 2011).

The modern version of a playscape, known as a nature playground, focuses less on the sculptural and artistic qualities of the pieces and more on using natural materials to design site-specific equipment that is built into the landscape. The landscape itself often becomes a play piece.

ASLA 2017 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Chicago Botanic Garden: The Regenstein Learning Campus. Mikyoung Kim Design and Jacobs/Ryan Associates. / image: Kate Joyce

The number of natural playgrounds built increased sharply after Richard Louv introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The book describes the negative effects of the modern child’s total disconnect from nature, such as a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher risk of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses (Louv, 2008). The idea that nature should be an integral part of a child’s play space was further popularized by Robin C. Moore, Hon. ASLA, the Director of the Natural Learning Initiative and a Professor of Landscape Architecture at North Carolina State University. Moore has lectured widely, written books, and worked with communities to bring more natural play opportunities to children all over the world. In his National Guidelines for Nature Play & Learning Places, Moore wrote:

“Decoding the human genome was impressive. The internet has been transformative. Big data are amazing. But a child playing in the woods? That simple, time-honored image is at once magical, and powerful, and inspiring.” (Moore, 2014)

ASLA 2012 Professional Honor Award in Communications. Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. Sharon Gamson Danks, ASLA, Bay Tree Design, Inc. / image: © 2010 by Sharon Danks

The modern playground is not only concerned with access to natural elements, but also strives to create customizable, modular, and flexible equipment, giving children the freedom to imagine their own play space. Playground designers have started to question the fixed plastic equipment of traditional playgrounds, asking what if these could be replaced with movable pieces with undefined functions? Cas Holman, the founder of the toy company Heroes Will Rise, is a contemporary toy and playground designer best known for her role in the design of the Imagination Playground. This playground equipment system, first launched in New York City, uses different sized foam blocks which can be configured and reconfigured in endless ways.

ASLA 2018 Professional Honor Award in Communications. VanPlay: Plan to Play. Design Workshop – Denver/Aspen. / image: Katherine Howard/Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation

Holman’s work is rooted in the belief that imagination is an essential part of childhood. Her toys and playgrounds encourage an exploratory, unstructured play. On the other side of the world, similar ideas have been applied to a system of early childhood education across an entire province in China. Anji Play, developed by educator Cheng Xueqin, is a curriculum of self-initiated, self-determined play, reflection, and self-expression. Children build bridges with ladders and planks, run across oil drums, and construct their own play environments with bricks, lumber, and rope. Children are given the freedom to construct the truest modern playground based on their own creative explorations.

Looking back at the history of playgrounds, it is evident how greatly their design has been impacted by political events, technological advancements, and the influences of developmental psychology. Some concepts and design considerations can be seen reappearing at various times throughout playground history, while others disappear from the world of playground design forever as new ideas take hold. In many ways, it seems like we have come full circle from Fredrick Froebel’s Kindergarten, characterized by natural play materials and flexibility of function, to today’s modern playgrounds, including Robin Moore’s nature playgrounds and Cas Holman’s modular play systems. What was apparent to Froebel in the beginning of the nineteenth century has become evident again today—children are dynamic, imaginative, and naturally curious. Play is not, and should not be, something prescribed by adults, but in its true nature is a world invented by children.

ASLA 2016 Student Honor Award in Research. Flowers in Crannied Walls: An Elementary Schoolyard Redesign. Taylor D Metz, Student ASLA / image: Taylor D Metz

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.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Playground Design, Part 2

  1. Jacob Noah February 3, 2021 / 9:12 am

    Interesting write up Naomi! This history of playground designs is so interesting. The first slide was built in 1922 for a park and gained popularity. Now, we cannot think of a playground experience without slides.

  2. Kathy April 10, 2022 / 2:14 pm

    Thank you for these articles. I’m a STEAM teacher researching the history of playgrounds and your articles were super helpful, and really interesting.

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