Endangered species: playground design and childhood | Part I

.’.. 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...’ – Lady Allen critics on playgrounds design .
Palle Nielsen, The Model. A Model for a Qualitative Society @ Moderna Museet

Palle Nielsen, The Model. A Model for a Qualitative Society @ Moderna Museet

We have started placing playgrounds in a contemporary art galleries. I wonder how long it is going take for the museum to be built so we could bring our children to see what childhood was about. We often complain that todays’ children are growing up and getting mature faster, but who to blame if they are spending more and more of their time surrounded by adults. I will refer to Neil Postman’s essay “The disappearance of childhood’ who asks a question if childhood was discovered or invented: like for instance in the Dark Ages childhood did not existed. The author convincingly argues that children games and childhood itself are among an endangered species. Hide and seek which was played for about two thousand years in a Periclean Athens, has now almost completely disappeared from the repertoire of self organised children’s amusements[1]. The spotlight placed on childhood during the 1970s faded - people somehow realised childhood is no longer a fashionable, promising subject so the child undergoing development had been eliminated. In contrast, the prime target became ‘’ the child as consumer’. Todays’ playgrounds indeed are more likely to be designed for the insurance companies than children * (Paul Friedberg ;1970s). Development of a compensation culture and ‘nanny state’ are the two mitigators for the growth of risk aversion which is the key factor for poor playgrounds design. Claims levels are stable because of two trends that pull simultaneously in opposite directions: claims being made for incidents that historically would not have prompted legal action, and agencies adopting more defensive practices for fear of being sued [2]. Consequently, this is the reason why architects or artists are very rarely (almost never) involved in playground design. However, ‘Play England ‘Design for play: a guide to creating successful play spaces.( p21) states that  'Everyone can imagine a great place to play’.

 Can EVERYONE? With the latter sentence I will have to disagree.

 ‘Play is the highest form of research’ Einstein .

 When I first stated that playgrounds are put in a contemporary art galleries I did not mean to be negative. It is truly beneficial and positive gesture. Indeed, we should place them in a more approachable and prominent locations and there should be a way more of such exhibitions, publications, festivals and events organised. Playground design in early days was significantly more developed: in 1940s art play, education and public space started interact in a new way developing connections and relationship among children, parents and neighbourhoods. Furthermore, involving and helping to develop medical-physic and psychic research. Playgrounds became lively, interactive and imaginative public spaces which provided room for art outside institutions.

 As known, the strongest international impulses for playgrounds came from Sweden , Denmark and Holland before and after the war, where new playground concepts emerged that were based on psychological research and encouraged by the latest development in art, architecture and landscape architecture. The focus was now on free play as children’s fundamental needs.  In late 40s in Denmark first ‘junk playground’ / 'adventurous playground' was established. Later in early 50s Lady Allen brought the adventurous playground movement to England with the emphasis on handicapped children need of free play.

She encouraged the new medical research and prepared the disabled kids to challenge and adapt themselves in a real life situations.  “If they are so overprotected that they are never able to meet these challenges and able to take these risks, I think they will be the poorer for it when they grow up. When they set their heart on doing something which may be beyond their capabilities, they’ll stay at it and stick at it until they’ve achieved it, and this builds up a tremendous sense of self-confidence.” [3]


In 70s the need of playgrounds grew. Artists, sculptors and architects took a role to fulfil this gap. Therefore, most of the playgrounds in 70s were bespoke and site specific. Most importantly, playground was not just for children, it was a meeting place for everyone- for all generations, for people with different ethical and cultural background. It became a public space and a gathering point. The architect Aldo Van Eyck who designed more than 800 playgrounds in Amsterdam was unbeatable in playground design. He dealt with the hardest task- to be never boring to the child. He designed structures that were and still are used by all age groups. What was the secret?

First,  he acknowledged the need of undefined space in playground design because this space will be interpreted differently by childrens and adults. Furthermore, Aldo van Eyck declared that play elements must be  real :

 " A play object has to be real in the way that a telephone box is real because you can make calls from it ... An aluminum elephant is not real.' 

In general, abstract play sculptures took a lead in playgrounds design. The members of another significant playground designers from France- lead by architect sculptor and film-maker insisted that play sculpture should never be a ready-made solution. 1962 play sculpture: an object that could be transformed into a play machine by the child. As a consequence, its members would not design structures without the children’s participation. They tested a wide range of forms and materials to allow kids to connect with their environments.

Group Ludic's spheres on stilts at Hérouville-Saint- Clair, France, 1969. Image ©: – Xavier de la Salle

Group Ludic's spheres on stilts at Hérouville-Saint- Clair, France, 1969. Image ©: – Xavier de la Salle

Researchers like the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) convincingly demonstrated how important childhood is to becoming human. He was mainly interested in the biological influences on "how we come to know'' and thereof playing takes an important role in answering this question. One of the most important elements of Piaget's theory is that it takes the view that creating knowledge and intelligence is an inherently active process. "I find myself opposed to the view of knowledge as a passive copy of reality," Piaget explained. " I believe that knowing an object means acting upon it, constructing systems of transformations that can be carried out on or with this object. Knowing reality means constructing systems of transformations that correspond, more or less adequately, to reality.” What Piaget wanted to do was not to measure how well children could count, spell or solve problems as a way of grading their I.Q. What he was more interested in was the way in which fundamental concepts like the very idea of number, time, quantity, causalityjustice and so on emerged. His simple experiments show that for example most kids do not draw what they see , they draw the concept of that.. Piaget claimed that while playing children can reflect on the existing knowledge they already have. In contrast, Vygotskian theory states that play actually facilitates cognitive development. In discussing Vygotsky's theory, Vandenberg (1986) remarks that "play not so much reflects thought (as Piaget suggests) as it creates thought" (p. 21). Furthermore,  play provides opportunities for observing children's development and learning. Through such observations teachers and parents can learn about children's social interactions, cognitive and language abilities, motor skills, and emotional development.

To sum up, it is important to understand that play takes a key role in child’s undergoing development. Although, it is not always sweet and fun. Playing could be rude, mean and racist. It could be transgressive and manipulative, but so is life. As an adults we take risks everyday whenever we dare to do something and children has to learn this concept of ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ as well as the concepts of ‘friendship’, ‘responsibilty’ and ’tolerance'. Play prepares for the future and unpredictability. Finally, I have to say that as much as playgrounds are necessary for kids, they are crucial for adults. In this post- everything society playgrounds are an educational space for grown-ups where they have to shut up and listen to the children, hear what they have to tell and show. And playground design has to involve materials and tools to allow children construct their own worlds.  


[1]N. Postman (1994)‘The disappearance of childhood” (New York, Vintage Books Edition,p5.)

[2]T.Gill (2007)“No Fear Growing up in a risk averse society” (London, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation , 2007)

[3] Archive: Lady Allen Adventure Playground Chelsea, Circa 1970s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pqMXplAI9Y

X.Salle, V.Romagny (2016)“The Playground Project” (Zurich,JRP Ringier,).

K. Crepeau ‘’Enduring legacy of playground designer Aldo van Eyck ‘ ( London, Impact Design Hub)

P.Nielsen, L.B Larsen ''The Model: a Model for a qualitative Society'' (1968) (Barcelona, MACBA, 2010)

A.Brett , R.C Moore, E.F.Provenzo 1993 ‘The complete playground book’ (Syracuse University Press, )

Kolle 37/Playing for life — Bund der Jugendfarmen und Aktivspielplätze https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Mx_m7ItViM

The Playspaces of Aldo van Eyck with Denisa Kollarova and Anna van Lingen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWgPiW2mYQc&t=3599s