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.
Schools that eliminate recess in favor of more class time to “teach to the test,” parents who fear “stranger danger,” the rising popularity of organized activities and the lure of technology—are all upending the seesaw of a child’s free playtime. “I think that parents, for all the right reasons, have started to do things that ultimately are not in the best interest of kids,” observes John Hopkins educator Susan Magsamen. “In America, we have a very Puritanical work ethic, which is ‘if you just work harder; if you just push harder; if you just do more …’ This is a fantastic ethic, but it has caused us to lose play.”
That’s unfortunate. Thriving on complexity, uncertainty and possibility, play prompts kids to see the world in new ways, providing essential preparation for life in the 21st century. As Roger von Oech, founder of the esteemed consultancy Creative Think, puts it, “Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.” Psychology Today’s Hara Estroff Marano quips: “Play is the future with sneakers on.”
In a July 2010 Newsweek feature, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman reported that American creativity scores have been in steady decline since 1990, most notably for those in kindergarten through sixth grade—even as I.Q. scores rise. But the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment is three times stronger for childhood creativity than for I.Q.
Increasingly, cognitive scientists are finding that it is precisely the type of unstructured child’s play found on the playground that provides the social and intellectual abilities needed to succeed in life. Play develops new skills and functions, encourages autonomous thinking and environment-building, and promotes flexible problem-solving as well as creative and aesthetic appreciation. Play hastens the development of the brain’s executive functions, stimulating the neural centers that give children control over their emotions, attention and behavior.
Beyond convincing parents of the importance of creativity in play, an even greater challenge is the task of arguing the merits of risk. “Total safety” has undeniable parental appeal. But many psychologists and early childhood specialists believe that to be valuable, play must possess not only creativity, but also an element of danger. Educators argue that totally safe environments lack critical elements vital to meaningful play: variety, complexity, flexibility, adaptability and risk. Such challenge allows for the possibility of failure, which fuels both learning and enjoyment. If all of our play spaces are over-structured and predetermined, children lose this key ingredient.
Playgrounds still have the potential to be fully conceived environments, capable of tickling the playful spirit in all of us. In the 1960s, New York became the country’s epicenter of innovative playgrounds thanks to the work of architects M. Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner, two young architects who both worked to weave play features into unified landscapes in unprecedented ways. Friedberg led the way in 1965, with the Lower East Side’s Riis Plaza, an intergenerational gathering space at the center of a housing development. “I’m a child,” Friedberg explained. “Give me one choice and I’ll bore myself to death and I’ll grow up to be a very narrow person. Give me a million choices and you feed my imagination, my understanding of forms, of balance, of movement, and the playing becomes both a physical and an intellectual challenge, a learning by trial and error and an experience of discovery and exploration.”
Friedberg’s plaza was both interactive and intergenerational by design; a place where all ages would intermingle without artificial boundaries to wall off children. Instead of isolated play features, Riis Plaza wove paths amid pyramids, mounds, and wood and granite blocks. “Riis has the mystery of a primitive city discovered after lost eons,” The New York Times enthused.
Two years later, Dattner unveiled Adventure Playground. Commissioned by Joseph and Estée Lauder, it became his first of five such spaces in Central Park. “Many of our friends were fleeing the city because they thought that New York wasn’t the place to bring up children. We decided to build several of these to give the city this little lift,” Joseph Lauder remarked. Within months of its opening,The New York Times dubbed Adventure Playground “the current mecca” for mothers and children, while Architectural Record predicted it would soon become “the single most famous playground in America.”
Inspired by Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, Dattner’s designs were intended to provide children with “the maximum control over their experience.” Like Noguchi and Friedberg, he sought to create a cohesive landscape rather than an assemblage of parts. Intimate areas of mounds and pyramids were linked by a network of interior walls, slides and tunnels. While colors were muted for cohesiveness, careful attention was paid to shifts in material textures.
Whereas Friedberg’s environments like Riis Plaza were totally fixed, Dattner introduced moveable components, setting in motion what would come to be known as the “theory of loose parts.” Central among these were a series of slotted wooden boards that could be assembled in a variety of ways, with some small enough for children to manage by themselves and others requiring cooperation. Large areas of sand and water further imbued the playground with the possibility of transformation. The opportunity for a child to explore and experiment without the direct interference of adults was of central importance to Dattner. “The main thing wrong with playgrounds is that a kid can’t change them. A child must feel he has an effect on his environment,” he explained. Dattner’s 2006 renovation of Heckscher Playground, though modified to conform to modern safety specifications, still gives a sense of this original approach.
At a moment when we cannot help but recognize the necessity of new approaches to old problems, it is time for New York to once again lead the country in creating dynamic playscapes that foster a child’s imagination and fuel creative thinking. Though our ever-litigious society has dampened much of the creative impulse, thankfully a handful of recent New York playgrounds are taking up the challenge.
In 2004, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh gave Battery Park City what the Boston Globe called “a manifesto on the possibilities of a playground.” Nestled into a two-acre plot of land amid four condominiums, Teardrop Park integrates playful elements into a sophisticated landscape meant to invoke the Catskills. The result is what the architects describe as “a park that also makes kids happy—rather than a kid’s park.” Thrilling to any city kid, this seemingly wild and secret garden—replete with 14-foot slide—possesses enough enchantment to warrant the lingering of all age groups.
Last year, Frank Gehry presented plans for a $10 million Playspace, his own undulating ode to play in Battery Park. Though it is slated to be unveiled in 2012, further details have yet to reveal themselves.
Undeniably, the city’s latest king of the sandbox is found in the unlikely figure of David Rockwell. As the designer behind some of the city’s hottest hangouts (think Nobu and the W Union Square), Rockwell might be said to have always been in the business of creating playgrounds—albeit ones geared to larger cool kids. At the South Street Seaport, Rockwell lent his vision and P.R. clout (with website, merchandise and a hefty press kit) to the Imagination Playground, which opened last summer to throngs of trendy tots. The chief conceit of Rockwell’s design—five years in the making—is 450 moveable large foam blocks that render children the architects of their own experience.
Looking to build on his playground’s success, Rockwell has partnered with play-advocacy group KaBOOM! to develop Playground in a Box, a boxed set of 75 biodegradable foam blocks in 15 different shapes. Rockwell and KaBOOM! are working to distribute these spin-offs to playgrounds and elementary schools across the country, in hopes that they will provide an affordable solution to making existing playgrounds more flexible—and fun. Last summer, 10 New York City playgrounds (two in each of the five boroughs) were provided with a set, while several more were sent nationwide. “It is going to change the narrative about what is the best type of play for kids, and parents will start to demand those elements,” KaBOOM! CEO Darell Hammond declared.
The trend toward playground starchitecture is not without its critics. A recent reader submission published in Wired depicted a facetious Jean Nouvel plan for a 2024 Lower East Side playground, replete with a Purell decontamination chamber, a Bugaboo stroller rink and a Pratt & Whitney 10G merry-go-round. While the luxurious budgets afforded big architects by high-profile public-private partnerships are rarely feasible, with Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 and Union Square’s newly renovated playground, Van Valkenburgh has demonstrated that, when sensitively incorporated, catalog equipment can create a playground that is more than the sum of its parts.
“I think that the focus should be on making creative imaginative spaces,” remarks Matthew Urbanski, a principal at MVVA and Van Valkenburgh’s closest collaborator for the past 15 years. “If the culture’s attention isn’t on it, it falls to pocket-protector types who are just going to try to cut down their own risk.”
Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, contends that just as museums were the commissions of choice at the end of the 20th century, the coveted assignment of the future could well be the urban playground. While celebrity architects obviously aren’t a scalable solution for local playgrounds, they can serve as a starting point, emboldening us to ask more of our playgrounds.
Further inspiration can be found in playgrounds a little further afield. At a kindergarten in the Netherlands, two industrial designers, inspired by the quirky spirit of Jacques Tati’s film Mon Oncle (and its protagonist with his accidental endless line of sausages), transformed a schoolyard into a playground using a single, continuous yellow tube that snakes its way through the entire yard, and even into one classroom. Its unwieldy Dutch name, Klimglijklauterhangzitvoetbaltoneelbuis — which can be roughly interpreted as the climb-slide-clamber-hang-sit-soccer-stage-tube — perfectly describes the simple design as it folds and curls into monkey bars, slides, steps, loops, benches, a basketball hoop, two soccer goals and, eventually, the base of a stage and its curtain. Creativity does not have to be cost-prohibitive.
Through PlaNYC — Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to create a greener, more livable city by 2030 — New York launched the Schoolyards to Playgrounds program in 2007. Over the coming two years, 258 schoolyards across the five boroughs will be transformed into vibrant playgrounds that serve both the school and its community. Students, faculty and community members are encouraged to take part in the design process.
As New Yorkers, we each have the chance to help transform these playgrounds into beloved community spaces and important architectural elements within the city.
Imagine what the collaboration of urban planners, artists and architects could create? It is time we climb-slide-clamber toward a new model: our society’s collective creativity—and creative accomplishment—could hang in the balance. The power to put New York’s playgrounds on new ground lies in our hands.