Let Them Have Playgrounds
Playgrounds were once a radical idea. Today, they remain a continually-threatened exception to streets, houses and shops. Darran Anderson explores their history and argues that, in fact, the sanctity of space to play is still a radical proposition.
Looking at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games painting of 1560 (below and large version), the viewer is immediately struck by how recognisable the activities are. Over 450 years later, you can pick out blind man's bluff, hide and seek, ‘who’s got the ball?’, spinning tops, swings and hobby-horses. A handful are outdated – rolling bones and swinging a scourge – but even these still have mechanics you'd recognise in games of today. Children climb trees, somersault, pitch coins, brandish water pistols and don masks. Where it differs is the space in which they roam: no cars and few adults to obstruct play.
Street games have existed almost as long as there have been streets. While mass migration to cities endangered certain traditional rural and village games, children have an innate capacity to modify and even subvert urban space to suit their pastimes. The world over, chalk on pavements creates the shapes necessary for hopscotch, whether it's New York's skully, tokkudu billa in India or paandi in Sri Lanka. Many games are intrinsically territorial, sharing similar characteristics of evasion and capture. Red rover has a Japanese counterpart in hana ichi monme, while statues is mirrored in daruma-san ga koronda. Some activities are undertaken in particular climatic conditions such as snow angels, or oshikura manju in Japan where players shove each other vigorously to get warm. Even cracks in the pavement can become the stuff of childhood mythologies.
Already in Bruegel’s painting, this ability to alter the functions of architecture can be seen as boys turn a wooden railing into a gymnastics bar. This manipulation of space evolves as children get older; skateboarders turn underpasses and railings into improvised skateparks, urban climbers boulder the façades of structures, and freerunners turn rooftops into obstacle courses.
All of these are often-unconscious ways of understanding and attempting to gain sovereign space in surroundings built by and for adults. For cities are often hostile or exclusionary to children. From the shadow-haunting jumbee of Guyana to the river-dwelling grindylow of northern England, every culture has a variety of the bogeyman – a way for parents to police children, out of sight, away from dangerous places and behaviours.
Calls for children to have playgrounds as spaces of safety and nurture began in the Enlightenment. In Bohemia in the 17th century, the philosopher and teacher John Amos Comenius was one of the first to argue for universal education: “Not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school.” This was to be achieved organically: “The proper education of the young does not consist in stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences, and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world, so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers, and fruit spring from the bud on a tree.” Crucially, this would centre around play rather than rigid instruction: “A tree must also transpire, and needs to be copiously refreshed by wind, rain, and frost; otherwise it easily falls into bad condition, and becomes barren. In the same way, the human body needs movement, excitement, and exercise, and in daily life these must be supplied, either artificially or naturally.”
Comenius’ ideas were expanded upon by 18th-century Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the inventor of the kindergarten, and Friedrich Fröbel in Germany, who effectively invented playgrounds in the 19th century. By the Industrial Revolution in Britain, the need had become acute amidst dire conditions for the urban poor. It is no coincidence that demands for playgrounds came alongside those to abolish child labour, improve child literacy and create green spaces for all. With the Recreation Grounds Act of 1859, the intention of providing public space for youths was set down in law, though it was the following decade when this began being enacted in industrial centres like Birmingham and Manchester. The drive had already reached the US, with Fröbel’s ideas being adopted by visionaries such as Susan Elizabeth Blow and Elizabeth Peabody in the face of hostility and at considerable personal cost.
It may seem strange that such ideas were ever radical. With the City Beautiful and Garden City movements, they became increasingly accepted, at the very least as a way of mitigating the evils of the industrialised city. Yet the radical edge remained, as demonstrated in the keenness of architectural movements to adopt and adapt it. Both the Bauhaus school of design and the De Stijl movement focused on designing children’s toys. Le Corbusier sought to humanise his Radiant City tower block design by placing playgrounds on the rooftops. Sometimes children themselves would discover playable features in modernist architecture such as a climbing frame in Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry’s Chandigarh jali screens (below).
When Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, the architects Dan Fink and Carl Theodor Sørensen collaborated with play leader John Bertelsen to build the first 'junk playground' at Emdrup in Copenhagen. Afraid that children would be mistaken for saboteurs and shot while playing in the ruins, they created an outdoor sandpit surrounded by a grass verge and trees. There children could play out of sight, directed by themselves, digging and building elaborate structures as they wished. It was both a subversive and egalitarian act, a semi-secret independent space defying the invaders. One of its ideological descendants can be found in White City's adventure playground today.
Immediately after the war, the architect Aldo van Eyck embarked on creating a series of playgrounds for Amsterdam, a city whose children had recently suffered the horrors of the Nazi-enforced Hongerwinter famine. Railing against the “cold technocracy [of functionalism], in which the human aspect is forgotten,” van Eyck sought to create architecture, “to facilitate human activity and promote social interaction.” Observing the way children explored their surroundings, he responded with playgrounds that were both utilitarian and strangely poetic, his much-replicated igloo-shaped climbing frames being one example. These spread first across the Netherlands and then the world, morphing to match the Space Race with playgrounds imitating satellites and rocket ships from the US to the USSR.
Playgrounds face oppositions that still remain, now perhaps more than ever: the demands of the traffic lobby, health and safety bureaucracy coupled with an increase in litigation, and the rise in land value which redefines the city as a machine for exacting profit. At the heart of these issues are existential questions. What and who are cities for? A further factor has emerged in recent years, which we might call the pavilionisation of playgrounds. Councils and designers have been forced to provide reasons for their existence beyond simply offering our children somewhere to thrive. In response comes a benign but off-track model. Architects and designers offer bright, eye-catching parametric designs as ways of publicising architectural firms or filling the Instagram feeds of parents, in some cases losing sight of the children who use the facilities. Added to this is the concern that perhaps playgrounds are a form of pleasant containment, which enable city planners to neglect the needs of children in the rest of the city.
What if we were to reinvent the city itself as a playground? There have been many successful versions of this, albeit limited to a single site. Angela Danadjieva and Lawrence Halprin's remarkably egalitarian Ira Keller Fountain Park offers a space where everyone can play in pools or relax next to waterfalls. The key is integrating these into cities so they are not continually-threatened exceptions. One way of doing this is the living or shared-street models, evolving from the Dutch woonerf approach, where spaces are either pedestrianised or traffic-calmed and then adapted.
"In the past decade, there's been a rebirth of a number of ideas going back to the beginning of playgrounds,” Alexandra Lange, author of the forthcoming Wonderland: The Design of Childhood told me, “loose parts being better than fixed equipment, new junk playgrounds, the sanitised junk of the Imagination Playground blocks, or even just pop-up play with cardboard boxes. Urbanists have started talking about making play part of the streets, and part of parks, in places like Governors Island where bikes and pedestrians and golf carts share the roads, and the climbing structures aren't fenced off. The dream is to make streets like that in the city proper, either via the woonerf concept, or by creating more space for pedestrians and bikes and less for cars. In Rotterdam, there's an initiative to put more benches on residential streets, encouraging urban stoop-sitting as a means of building community. Once there are people outside together, the thinking goes, it makes the streets safer and friendlier for different and more types of activity. This was very much part of the narrative of urban landscape pioneers like M. Paul Friedberg, who talks in his book Play and Interplay [written with Ellen Perry Berkeley] about making streets for people of all ages, and in his parks he often created water, shade, stage, and let people do what they will."
Yet Stefen Chow’s stunning drone photography series of Singapore playgrounds shows how little room there is to manoeuvre in a heavily built-up metropolis. Even in parks, playgrounds have faced opposition from preservation groups, as demonstrated in the furore Richard Dattner’s Adventure Playground faced in Manhattan’s Central Park. The idea of a topographical approach to play envisaged in Isamu Noguchi’s contoured landscape Play Mountain (1933) or in the contemplative, exploratory landscape architecture of Charles Jencks seems now more startling than ever.
Moerenuma Park (above) was designed by Isamu Noguchi and displays similar contoured playscapes to the never-realised Play Mountain. Photos: makou0629 (licence) and Tokyo Times (licence). Header photo by inefekt69 (licence).
It is important to ask not just what and who cities are for but also what and who play is for. Very often a distorted nostalgia pervades. Bruegel’s painting demonstrates that childhood is a precious time but a complex one. In his work, we find multiple examples of bullying, territorialising, ritualistic dares and risk-taking. Comenius was aware of these tendencies and sought to channel them away from what he saw as destructive outcomes: “In the playground, boys are urged to run, to jump, and to play games with balls, since it is necessary to put the body in motion and allow the mind to rest. Forbidden pastimes are games played with dice, wrestling, boxing, and swimming, since these are useless or dangerous.” Today we very often experience not only risk-averse societies that take the adventure out of youth but ones which also infantilise adults, with the emergence of play, fun and even baby-talk as a distracting component of otherwise hard-bitten corporate advertising and office culture. Less rights, but more beanbags and fußbal.
With the arrival of the conveniently-vague and encroaching 'smart city', these issues will become paramount to our lives. Play will be celebrated, but for what purpose and whose benefit? The advantages we’ve seen in the early augmented-reality phenomenon Pokémon Go – encouraging children to leave the house and explore their cities – must be balanced with a careful and critical consideration of how such programs might be utilised in terms of surveillance and data harvesting. Even as we seem to be expanding, new unseen forms of constriction arrive, whether those are virtual or temporal in terms of the erosion of the work-life balance.
Here we have questions that impact not just children but us all. Play is, after all, not just a form of development, learning or health, as John Dewey observed, but an expression of freedom and a testing of limits. The architect Rem Koolhaas stated: "If there is to be a 'new urbanism', it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence,” and yet almost every smart city proposal suggests embracing these twin fantasies. We might marvel at playful installations and structures like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Floating Piers, Hundertwasser’s outsider architecture or MVRDV’s Stairs to Kriterion in Rotterdam or take solace in AR, while simultaneously losing our place on the streets we inhabit on a daily basis.
This is no small matter, but an even larger one exists, largely out of sight. Right now, children will be scrambling in a toxic rubbish dump in Accra and other locations across the world, scavenging amidst huge piles of digital junk dispatched from the so-called developed world. These are the components of the computers and phones you are reading and I am writing this article on. Play is as radical a proposition and as precious an activity as it has ever been.
Share this article