Strolling past another candy-colored, molded-plastic McPlayground, it’s hard to remember that once upon a (brief) time in America, a playground commission was as coveted as an edgy new museum or concert hall.
For urban dwellers, the playground functions as both backyard and social hub. Ideally, it is safe enough to keep children in one piece, but challenging enough to keep them engaged. “Better a broken arm than a bruised spirit,” remarked Lady Allen of Hurtwood, a landscape architect and child advocate, who once urged New York parents to sue the city fathers “for emotional damage to their children because they failed to provide suitable and exciting playgrounds for them.”
Indeed, former New York City parks commissioner Robert Moses considered playgrounds as places to “intercept” children, where they might work off “excess energy” on the ubiquitous trio of slide, swing, and seesaw without damaging the pastoral surrounds. If Moses
was the Darth Vader of playgrounds, his nemesis was Isamu Noguchi, whose fantastical (and unrealized) proposals for a new approach to play never failed to inspire the commissioner’s ire.
Noguchi sought to replace the stock, single-use structures with a customized (and safer) landscape of mounds, craters, steps, slides, and peaks molded from the earth. He refined his ideas over decades, beginning with Play Mountain in 1933—which the artist considered the “progenitor of playgrounds as sculptural landscapes”—and culminating with the Levy Memorial Playground in 1961. Designed over the course of five years with Louis Kahn for an eight-acre site in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, it resembled a kind of Aztec village set atop a lunar landscape. Although Noguchi’s Playscapes was finally built in Atlanta in 1976, it was his earlier concepts that influenced the built designs of Richard Dattner and M. Paul Friedberg—authors, and spiritual leaders of the modernist playground.
Another inspiration, adventure playgrounds, drifted over from Europe like the heady smoke of an unfiltered Gauloise after landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen observed children playing in junkyards and construction sites. A kind of Mad Max meets Bob the Builder, these “junk” or “Robinson Crusoe” playgrounds proliferated in bombed-out lots across Europe and Britain during and after World War II (there are still more than a thousand today); children built and outfitted their own forts, tree houses, slides, and other amusements using scraps of timber, sheet metal, old tires, blow torches, and tools under the watchful eye of a play supervisor.
Although adventure playgrounds were too rough-and-tumble to flourish stateside, there was a postwar groundswell for something new. In 1954, the MoMA and avant-garde toy company Creative Playthings cosponsored a Play Sculpture Competition that attracted more than 350 submissions. Abstract in nature, so as to inspire creative projection rather than a prescribed response, these cubes, domes, and spirals provoked in Moses a stentorian defense of figurative art: “There is an essential difference between Hans Christian Andersen, Alice in Wonderland, and your stone, fiberglass, and steel Play Sculptured equipment.” The tide turned in 1965, when Mayor John Lindsay appointed Thomas Hoving as parks commissioner, and Hoving promptly declared: “When people begin attacking us for being too far out, that’s when we’ll know we are really trying out constructive new plans that our children deserve.” By 1967, Jay Jacobs, writing in Art in America, decreed that “the public playground is suddenly in the midst of a renascence as designers, sculptors, painters, and architects strive to create a new world of color, texture, and form for toddlers.”
Seeking to satisfy the needs of a growing child’s mind and body, Friedberg and Dattner were interested in the connections between imaginative play, exploration, and cognitive development as explored by psychologists such as Jean Piaget, R. D. Laing, and Erik Erikson. “An environment that provides only the familiar challenges that already have been overcome countless times, will never call forth any new learning,” observed Dattner in his 1969 book Design for Play. After observing how children choreograph their own entertainment in construction sites and on city streets—running, jumping, swinging, and vaulting from hydrant to fire escape to stairwell—both men championed “linked” or “continuous” play rather than offering one static experience per element. “The choice of what to do next becomes an experience. The more complex the playground, the greater the choice and the more enriched the learning experience,” explained Friedberg in his 1970 book Play and Interplay.
Friedberg made his mark on public housing, most notably in 1966 at the Jacob Riis housing plaza on the Lower East Side. Ripping out the fencing, which he described as “cages,” Friedberg connected a series of open venues for all ages, including a play area, children’s fountain, stepped garden, and amphitheater for performances. The playground was furnished with a granite igloo, tunnels and ladders, a wood-timber area, a pyramid, a maze, arching monkey bars, and a Sahara of sand. “We created experiences comparable to those a child might find elsewhere in widely scattered areas—a mountain, a tunnel, a tree house—and brought those together into
a single environment.” Sadly, little if any of Friedberg’s seminal work from the ’60s and ’70s remains, including his “vest-pocket” parks—creative play spaces tucked into derelict lots throughout the city.
Dattner’s tour de force was his adventure playground—one of five play areas in Central Park that he designed, and arguably the country’s most famous (seen daily in the opening sequence of Sesame Street). Built in 1967, and renovated with Dattner’s participation in 1995 after a public outcry prevented its razing, it was a thoughtful, unified space that encouraged improvisational play from the moment children strolled under the low tower and through a maze, “as if entering into their own private world,” wrote Dattner.
Mounds, peaks, climbing poles, tree houses, a volcano notched with cobblestones, and a crater composed of concentric walls were furnished with a network of tunnels, ladders, slides, climbing surfaces, and multiple ways of ascending, descending, and getting from here to there. The structures invited imaginative scenarios that could turn on a dime—from castle fortress to Egyptian desert to polar igloo. There was also a water channel, which Dattner, who appreciated impromptu urban play, considered “a redesigned version of the gutter.” Inside the pyramid were art materials and interlocking wooden panels that gave children a taste of manipulating their environment, as in a traditional adventure playground. Said Dattner, “The next best thing to a playground that children design themselves is a playground designed by an adult but incorporating the possibility for children to create their own places within it.” Low serpentine walls defined the spaces while offering caregivers a place to perch without hovering.
Also narrowly avoiding obliteration was the tot lot in Palo Alto, California’s Mitchell Park, a curvy, Arp-like space designed in 1957 by landscape architect Robert Royston. “We aimed to bring modernism’s free-flowing space to the playground, which was designed without corners so every child could be seen by his mother,” explains Royston, who consulted with landscape architects Reed Dillingham and Stephanie Pearson on the 2000 renovation. The whimsical play structures were all designed by Royston in the precode era, and some (such as the multitiered “apartment house”) had to be removed. “Codes? We never had any rules and regulations,” says Royston. “We had common sense!” A splash area follows the same outlines of the original wading pool, which Royston had designed to be shallower in the center, where children were farthest from their caregivers.
Despite the truth of Dattner’s observation that “no playground can prevent a child from being hurt (and if it protected him from upset completely, it would convey the very misleading impression that he has got nothing to fear from his environment),” the brief era of the designer-built playground fell victim to lack of maintenance, budgetary priorities, and the litigious American mindset. Eventually these creations were superseded by mass-produced structures that came with full liability insurance, if limited imagination.
An encouraging alternative is the crop of community-built playgrounds springing up around the country. And there remain in California two popular European-style adventure playgrounds, a model that might be cheaply reproduced anywhere with a vacant lot and some scraps of lumber. In the quest for play that engages the whole child, we might heed Friedberg’s admonition from half a century ago: “Just as TV becomes an electronic babysitter, so do our existing play facilities become great, gray outdoor nannies, incarcerating children and protecting them from experience and involvement. The air may be fresh, but the play is stale.”