History of Playground Design

History of Playground Design

With playgrounds we recognize both intelligent design and evolution as supportive of each other in the development of new ideas. We often find ways to marry form and function. Initially, playgrounds were developed by landscape architects looking to create public spaces that would bring communities together. Artists moved in to exert their influence and in the process more creative forms for playgrounds began to be explored.

So how did we get here? Today’s traditional “post and platform” design wasn’t always the norm.

By 1900 playgrounds appeared in major American cities and consisted of a sandbox and a cubist metal climbing apparatus known as a “gymnasium”. By 1912 New York City decided these gymnasiums were unsafe and were removed from all parks. By the 1930’s landscape architects took a serious interest in playground design and sculptor Isamu Noguchi introduced abstract concepts that helped give the modern playground a push forward.

After WW II the Baby Boom demanded more playgrounds. Most postwar urban playgrounds were designed for combined use between schools and parks. But throughout the fifties playground designers were split into two camps: recreational movement (fitness) and art. Play was a structured affair. The idea of unstructured play had not yet hit home. Safety surfacing development was slow, at best. The playground was limited to a sandbox, see-saw, slide and swings. During the 1950’s attention was given to the “handicapped”, ironically the result of wounded warriors from WWII and Korea arriving at the playgrounds with their children. Noguchi’s famous 1952 design for the United Nations was rejected by Robert Moses and touched off a heated debate. The design was revolutionary but not understood and it never got built.

By the 1960’s play components started to link together. Composite structures were being explored along with massive climbing structures made of wood and stone. The idea was to make playgrounds interesting and draw kids to them or else they would be back out on the streets – presumably up to no good. Not all playgrounds were post and platform. Adventure Playground in Central Park is a wonderful look back to this transitional period where art and play came together. Water moves down lengthy channels and collects in a basin where it drains – no standing water. There is sand, water, and climbing structures. Every Landscape Architect should make a pilgrimage to this historic park!

By the 1970’s we entered the Age of Litigation. Suddenly the City of New York and Chicago found themselves in multimillion dollar injury settlements and parks began to close. Property values plummeted if they had playground equipment on them. Some NYC coops closed down. New York City eliminated see-saws and they remain on the blacklist. Insurance company premiums were so high that some cities decided to self-insure. By the 1980’s this debacle started to calm down when the CPSC formed guidelines and NPSI (National Playground Safety Institute) set up a certification program for playground designers. Safety-engineered playgrounds followed the new recommendations or guidelines and now some states are mandating CPSC code.

Playgrounds came back stronger with creative climbers that encouraged children to use different muscles. Slides had enclosures at the top and higher sidewalls. It got safer in a hurry – it had to. By and large playgrounds became better and better and by 2004 what we had was a playground so safe it was hard to say “no way.” At then end of the day we still get broken bones but they usually are with children who fall 2-3 feet or trip when running. Their bones are weaker and let’s face it, there was always one or two kids in the class who were prone to wearing a cast. You can’t blame the playground

Isamu Noguchi may be the father of the Natureground. His concepts are in use today: molded forms of earth create hills, slopes, curves from which playground equipment can be positioned around. Research shows when playground equipment is placed in a natural setting around trees, plantings, berms, boulders children use them more often and for longer periods. A playground dropped into a box or rectangle looks more institutional and is less appealing. Even children seem to possess an aesthetic sense and we designers notice these things.

We design consultants have to keep up with all these developments because it’s our job to know these things. Sometimes we are the ones who bring things up to the manufacturers and they do listen to us. We might not get any credit but we have a hand in shaping some of the things you see out there.