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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Playgrounds For All

Too much thinking about education is focused on preparing children for future jobs. We should care just as much as creating great play spaces as great schools.

Playgrounds are for children. Adults who visit a playground alone are suspect because these are not spaces for us. We are not expected to enjoy going down slides, climbing up nets, dangling from monkey bars, etc. If we want to pursue this sort of leisure, we have to do it in a more organized manner: book a day at an adventure course or a paintball facility or a theme park. We get to have fun in public parks, but it is children who get colorful climbing equipment at taxpayer expense. 

Playgrounds are slightly unusual in that there are not many government-operated common spaces devoted to the facilitation of silliness and make believe. As with the public library, the playground is the sort of entity that might seem quite radical if it did not exist today and someone decided to propose it. Spending public money on STEM initiatives? Refundable child tax credits? Highways and bridges? Sure. But because pleasure is thought of as secondary to jobs, and the work of children is to be educated and prepared for the workforce rather than to play and explore and enjoy, there is rarely much public conversation about the question: does every child have the playtime they deserve? 

illustrations by Ellen Burch

Once upon a time, this question was treated very seriously indeed. In the early 20th century, an entire playground movement sprung up. Dr. Henry S. Curtis, one of the movement’s founders, lamented that “play has probably reached the lowest ebb during the last half century that it has ever reached during the history of the world.” Curtis believed that a child’s work was to play, to joyously and imaginatively explore the environment around them, and through the Playground Association of America helped usher in what he called a Renaissance of Play. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt spoke earnestly of a child’s fundamental right to mess around doing whatever: 

[S]ince play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools. This means that they must be distributed over the cities in such a way as to be within walking distance of every boy and girl, as most children can not afford to pay carfare.

A delightful and overlooked figure in the history of playgrounds is Marjory Allen, Baroness Allen of Hurtwood, who began as a landscape architect and became a children’s rights campaigner. Born Margaret Gill (cousin of artist and typographer Eric Gill, who invented the Gill Sans typeface but posthumously became infamous for incestuous sexual abuse and bestiality), she married socialist aristocrat Clifford Allen, a pacifist leader in the Independent Labour Party who had served a stretch in prison for his resistance to World War I. 

Margaret Allen became entranced with the idea of “adventure playgrounds,”  (a term she invented) after witnessing children playing in the bombed-out ruins of European cities after the end of World War II. “It is little wonder that [children] prefer the dumps of rough wood and piles of bricks and rubbish of the bombed sites,” she said. Allen noted that the places children most liked to play in were the places least meant for them to play in. Allen had seen an experimental playground built of junk in Copenhagen and began building them across Britain. (She deployed the term “adventure” playground because no mother wanted her child playing in “junk.”) Carl Theodor Sørensen, the landscape architect who had envisioned the Danish playground, wrote of his vision:

“I am thinking in terms of an area, not too small in size, well closed off from its surroundings by thick greenery, where we should gather, for the amusement of bigger children, all sorts of old scrap that the children from the apartment blocks could be allowed to work with, as the children in the countryside and in the suburbs already have. There could be branches and waste from tree polling and bushes, old cardboard boxes, planks and boards, “dead” cars, old tyres and lots of other things, which would be a joy for healthy boys to use for something. Of course it would look terrible, and of course some kind of order would have to be maintained…it would at all events require an interested adult supervisor…”

Margaret Allen was blown away by the result: 

I was completely swept off my feet by my first visit to Emdrup playground. In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities. There was a wealth of waste material on it and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiment with sand, water or fire and play games of adventure and make believe.

The adventure playground enjoyed a renaissance for a few years. They “were thought to provide a new, civic model of society” where “children would learn how to collaborate, because you can’t build on your own.” Because these playgrounds included abundant loose scrap material that children could move around and shape in accordance with their own imaginative designs, they created the playground as well as using it. At the same time, American landscape architects were designing “‘playable’ works of art” using “areas of sand and water, tunnels, mazes, and irregularly-shaped structures to create spaces of whimsy.” Lady Allen believed that previously-existing playgrounds were boring and needed more excitement and danger. In a letter to The Times, she wrote:

Municipal playgrounds are often as bleak as barrack squares and just as boring. You are not allowed to build a fire, you would head straight for juvenile court if you started to dig up the expensive tarmac to make a cave, there are no bricks or planks to build a house, no workshops for carpentry, mechanical work, painting or modelling and of course, no trees to climb…

A fundamental principle of the adventure playground is that children themselves should determine their play. Several studies have suggested that children and adults differ in their beliefs on what makes a good playground, and when children have trouble playing, adults blame the failure of the children’s imagination, and the children blame the playground. The facilitation of fun is a science, and the best way to go about it is to observe what children like to do and then give it to them. John Bertelman, the supervisor of the Copenhagen playground, flatly declared: “I cannot and indeed will not, teach the children anything.” His job was to make a playground that they could use whichever way they pleased, free of external instruction. A minimalist design “encouraged children to discover shapes, forms, proportions, and distances, and develop their imaginations on their own terms.” This child-first theory of playground design was central to the innovations in playground design of the mid-20th century. 

For a few decades after World War II, “playgrounds enjoyed a golden age, upheld as an almost revolutionary tool for bringing neighborhoods together and bettering society through children’s learning and independence.” Naturally, however, this type of playground did not flourish in the long term, in part because they were dangerous and in part because they were costly (or at least, it cost a lot to make sure they weren’t dangerous). As Sørensen admitted, letting kids play with scrap metal requires a constant trained adult supervisor if it’s going to be even moderately safe. 

In the United States, playgrounds gradually became homogenized into the familiar “post and platform” designs we see today, and there are “few true adventure playgrounds left” today thanks to “a health and safety culture that watered down adventure playgrounds in the 1980s and ‘90s,” according to the Guardian. Built with uniform components, the post-adventure playgrounds were both cheap and safe and did not need to be supervised by professional play leaders. Lady Allen’s criteria for a good playground were simple: “a massive supply of materials and a resourceful and sympathetic leader.” Neither is found in the cookie-cutter post-and-platform playgrounds that dot American parks and schoolyards today. The principle that children love playgrounds that resemble ruined cities was slowly forgotten.

One old-fashioned “junk playground” that exists to this day is the famous St. Louis City Museum, which is not really a museum at all but a converted factory filled with bizarre sculptures and bits of architectural salvage that children of any age can climb on and explore. As a Wall Street Journal headline about the place notes, the City Museum “Exposes Kids to Thrills, Chills and Trial Lawyers” thanks to its prioritization of “cool junk” (such as a jet airplane suspended in the air, and a 10-story slide left over from the building’s former days as a shoe factory). The Journal reports that “One woman lost two fingers,” “a boy fractured his skull after a fall from the outdoor jungle gym, the ‘MonstroCity,’” and “the facility has been named in at least two dozen personal-injury lawsuits since 2005.” Bob Cassily, the eccentric artist who created the City Museum, was later killed when creating his next project, “Cementland,” a sprawling 54-acre art project built on the grounds of a disused cement factory. (The official story is that Cassily died when his bulldozer overturned on him, but one examining physician concluded the bulldozer accident was staged, raising the possibility that the makers of staid, safe children’s playground equipment may have conspired to keep Cassily from introducing young people to ever-more-dangerous forms of fun.) 

The push for safety was understandable—even one child’s death can seem too much to justify the “fun factor” of a playground covered in hazards. The idea of filling a playground with rocks and scrap metal came to seem insane. Children were horrifically injured in greater numbers in the years before playground safety became a science, and the idea that needless danger creates “self reliance” is a kind of Social Darwinism—on this philosophy, if kids get injured, it teaches them a life lesson, when in fact the structures we build should accommodate the clumsy and the nimble alike. But it is possible to have adventure with highly controlled risk, and many of our most boring playgrounds are not boring because safety necessitates mundanity but because nobody cares enough to spend the vast sums of money necessary to make truly extraordinary play spaces. We are stuck with “austerity playgrounds.” (In fact, there is a literal connection to austerity policies; the Guardian reports that money that would have been put toward constructing new playgrounds in the UK was reallocated by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that became infamous for its austerity budgeting.) 

Recently, however, there has been a shift back “towards more eclectic and creative urban playspaces” and a “trend away from standardization and towards more unique, site-specific, and engaging design,” according to Curbed. Design has come “full circle,” and “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.” We are now seeing more “climbing walls, splash parks, sculptural play pieces, and playgrounds where kids can change and mold their environment.” The “traditional prefab, cookie cutter approach to playgrounds is undergoing a massive shift towards more adventurous and eccentric public space.” Berkeley, California’s adventure playground “contains furniture, wood, boats, scrap metal, loose parts, and tools for kids to build with and create (with supervision).” 

But the distribution of kick-ass playgrounds is wildly unequal. Playgrounds are, as Theodore Roosevelt had hoped for, generally within reach for children in the United States. But great playgrounds are not. A journalism project at the City University of New York looked at the quality of playgrounds in rich and poor neighborhoods and found, predictably, that playgrounds that scored high on measures of quality (and on maintenance) were clustered in rich areas and that playgrounds in poor neighborhoods were often in disrepair. 

There are amazing playgrounds out there. Palo Alto, for instance, has a unique accessible playground carefully designed to make sure wheelchair-using children miss out on as little of the fun as possible. But should you live some distance from Silicon Valley, your kids will likely be confined to the kind of “cookie cutter” playgrounds that became the norm over the course of the post-adventure era. A sensible proposal to rebuild U.S. infrastructure would do so in part by funding hundreds of millions of dollars in new adventure playground construction around the country, which would both create jobs and give children something almost utopian: the equal right to play well. But many of the playgrounds littered through our cities are relics of a time when play was taken seriously. New playgrounds are few and far between. 

St. Louis City Museum

The future of playgrounds is somewhat uncertain. Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A have ceased to invest in new play spaces, partly because they are viewed as unsanitary and partly because children’s entertainment is increasingly digital rather than physical. One study of human activity patterns found that “93% of the average American’s time is spent indoors [and] another 6% is spent in vehicles.” A playground is boring when you’re the only one on it, and it takes a critical mass of children to bring a play space alive. But it would be wrong to conclude that Kids These Days Are Glued To Screens and don’t want to play outside. The amount of physical energy children have is extraordinary, and a well-designed and imaginative playground can be endlessly fun for even a tech-addicted child, as anyone who has anyone knows who has ever been forced to keep spinning a child or pushing a swing long after the child would reasonably have been expected to become tired and want to go home.

We should think about playgrounds because the right to joy is just as fundamental as the right to healthcare, housing, and food. Every kid deserves the chance to goof off and have fun, not just to be taught academic subjects but to make boats, tell stories, have sing-alongs, record radio shows, write plays, make toys and decorate rooms, wear costumes, walk on stilts, ride on roller skates, stage puppet shows, drum in drum circles, go on treasure hunts, and climb, swing, jump, and crawl all over the place. And this shouldn’t just be for kids. Play is the right of all, and isn’t something that anyone should have to grow out of. We adults get parks, not playgrounds, but we too deserve our socialized spaces for silliness. 

We hear a lot about getting students’ test scores up. We do not hear much about ensuring that they are enjoying themselves. What the playground movement of the early 20th century understood is that play is not secondary but central, and we should think just as much about how to ensure children have fun as we do about how to ensure that they know things. Playgrounds are not a luxury but a right, and they must be the sort of places that children love. 

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