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.

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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.

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