If your childhood was anything like mine, outdoor playtime meant grass beneath your feet. When I moved to New York for graduate school, I could not help but notice that every playground I came across seemed blatantly to ignore the very land that it was on. It made me curious as to how, in this densely urban environment where so few children have a yard to scamper about, we are designing for outdoor play.
How has our notion of the ground on which we play come to be little more than a collection of catalog-ordered equipment: a narrow assortment of monolithic pipe-rail and plastic units moored in seas of asphalt or rubber matting? When did these Rube Goldberg-like contraptions become the standard of urban child’s play?
Our concept of the modern urban playground was born at the turn of the 20th century, when improvements in child labor laws afforded city children more time to play with nowhere to do it but the street. Early reformers considered playgrounds a “healthful influence upon children’s morals and conduct.” One can imagine that these first playgrounds must have felt like amazing new worlds to kids used to scrounging for scraps of land to commandeer.
In October 1903, 20,000 New York children turned out in the rain to witness the unveiling of America’s first municipally sponsored playground, in the Lower East Side’s Seward Park. With its three S’s—swings, seesaw and slide—Seward Park ushered in a new era for civic playgrounds and served as a design model for decades.
Between 1934 and 1960, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses became the city’s playground drill sergeant, adding no fewer than 658 of them to the New York landscape during his tenure. Through the 1930s and 1940s, The New York Times published hundreds of articles announcing new playgrounds and championing Moses’ administrative prowess. Moses’ chief concerns were play spaces that could be built and serviced inexpensively on a large scale. Consequently, his early playgrounds were, by and large, harsh environments, filled with metal and asphalt that were easy to maintain but hard on knees and elbows. Despite their uncompromising nature, these were valued and celebrated spaces. Elaborate opening ceremonies were planned and broadcast on the radio. Recreation specialists and active programming such as kite days, storytelling and athletic competitions gave these urban playgrounds a vibrancy now lost.
The mid-20th century saw artists such as Egon Möller-Nielsen and Isamu Noguchi valiantly attempt a creative transformation of the playground. Noguchi’s proposed 1933 gesamtkunstwerk, Play Mountain, would have filled a full city block with a pool, gymnasium, skating facilities and playground in the shape of a gently sloping, tiered pyramid housing a usable interior space. Traditional playground equipment was eschewed in favor of sculpting the earth into abstract mounds and peaks. But Moses could not be summoned to Noguchi’s Mountain and thus it was destined to remain a myth.
In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art teamed up with local business Creative Playthings and Parent magazine to extol the value of artful playgrounds. Dismissing the city’s “monotonously identical” play areas as “cogent proof of how inadequately we have estimated their importance in our communal life,” MoMA hosted a Play Sculpture Competition with Philip Johnson as jury member. Newly aided by their association with modern art, playgrounds were highly respected by the end of the 1950s.
Despite such high cultural critiques, today every playground looks pretty much the same. The colors are brighter and, thanks to a phonebook-thick set of safety standards, the surfaces are softer, but the monotony is the same. Susan Solomon, in her definitive book American Playgrounds, blames McDonald’s: to her, the over 8,000 cookie-cutter playgrounds that append its restaurants nationwide represent the low point in post-World War II American playground design—safe but spiritless. These modern playgrounds tell you how to play, with little room for imagination and creativity. They exercise the body, not the mind.
Imaginative play is under siege not only in the sandbox. American culture in the early 21st century has constricted children’s play as never before. Increased competition, organized activities, parental fears, technology and educational shifts have combined to produce what psychologist David Elkind laments as “the reinvention of childhood.” Across the country, and especially, one imagines, in New York, parents are exchanging playtime for résumé-building activities. Studies show that today’s children play an estimated eight hours less each week than they did adecade ago.
“Kids are victims of this changing perception of what good parenting is,” argues University of Pennsylvania pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg. “Good parenting has suddenly become about signing your kid up for many different activities; about making sure that they get into the best college… When this happens, childhood changes: it becomes parent-driven and adult-driven, rather than child-driven,” Ginsburg remarks. There is simply no time today for the real business of childhood: the chaotic, unstructured fun of the local playground.
Over the past 50 years, the increasing primacy of television and computers in children’s lives has transformed their activities, in what play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith calls a shift from a “manual” involvement with objects and places to a “symbolic” relationship with information and amusement. Increasingly, reality is exchanged for a simulation of reality, and kids’ bodies are left behind in pursuit of the visual and the virtual.