An article in this month’s Atlantic Magazine described a playground in Wales called “The Land”. The description of “The Land” will set your head spinning and would give municipal lawyers nightmares – kids lighting fires in metal drums, piles of old mattresses, kids piling up and knocking down tall stacks of wooden palettes, etc.
Today’s Boston Globe featured an article called “The Future of Play”, inspired by the Atlantic article. It talked about the history and evolution of playgrounds in Boston and America.
Both of these articles struck a chord with me and gave voice to vague, nagging, subliminal feelings I’ve had in recent years about our playgrounds.
At the moment, my wife is involved with a fund raising effort to replace our local playground equipment at the Emerson Playground in Upper Falls. We have catalogs from playground equipment company’s scattered around our house. What’s striking about these catalogs is the basic “sameness” and “borning’ness” of all the playground equipment. For a given park you can buy more equipment or less equipment but its all off the same ilk – plastic, generic overly safe structures with rubber flooring. You can travel anywhere in the country, and for the most part everyone’s playground are nearly interchangeable.
Three import points about our standardized “Mcdonald’s model” playgrounds are that
*Kids mostly lose interest in them at a relatively young age
* There’s practically no provision for free form exploratory play – climb on the structures, slid down the slide, that’s pretty much it.
* The sense of risk has been wrung out of the designs. The facing of, and mastery of risk is an essential part of kids play. That doesn’t mean we want to fill our playgrounds with broken glass and loaded guns but it means that there have to be parts of a playground that put an 8 or 9 year old slightly (and relatively safely) out of their comfort zone.
When my daughter was younger and at prime playground age we use to seek out odd ball, different playgrounds. Even then (5 years ago) they were few and far between and there’s even fewer today. The ones that she was always drawn to were the ones that had different and by today’s standards more dangerous equipment – a 1950’s era playground in Dedham full of steeps slides and a high speed merry-go-round. The kids would organize themselves on the merry-go-round with the bigger kids pushing on the outside, the littler one riding inside and the magic of it was for the most part parents would stay off sides and watch the kids sort themselves out. For the kids, an essential element of the appeal was that it went fast enough with the big kids pushing to really scare them.
Another favorite was a fairly nondescript generic playground but it did have a big sandbox. The neighborhood tradition was that people left their toy trucks, cars, etc there. Kids who had just met would play together in the sand box for hours, building roads, building towns, acting out various scenarios – going shopping, car crashes, drive to vacation, etc
The genesis of all this standardization and simplification of playground equipment were a few high profile law suits in the 1970’s. From then on, legal liability became the main driver of playground equipment design. As a result, all the equipment is designed to be very safe and very boring for all but the youngest kids. Even swings are being eliminated in towns around the country as one more way that kids could potentially be hurt.
The other missing piece in today’s playground is raw material to play with – to build stuff, to create something, to knock it down. As the Globe article mentioned the first playgrounds in Boston were giant piles of sand and were immensely popular. Today, even sandboxes are frowned on for a variety of safety and health reasons.
As Susan Solomon, an architectural historian and playground consultant was quoted in the Globe article – “Things like taking risks, learning to fail, learning to master something, to plan ahead, to develop deep friendships – none of these could take place on most playgrounds today.
So how can we do better in designing the next generation of Newton playgrounds? How can we push back against the overwhelming fear of LIABILITY! to make more interesting, engaging playgrounds that can hold older kids interest, and foster real play rather than just a bit of climbing? I don’t know the answer. I do know though that the system today is designed to just build nearly identical Mcdonald models playgrounds that don’t do much to foster real play except for the very youngest children.