Originally published in Kinfolk Magazine, Issue 17


Much like a swirly cone of soft-serve or a book by Roald Dahl, a good playground’s whimsy delights at any age. As the destination of the weekday post-dinner amble and the Saturday settle-in alike, playgrounds acknowledge the value of the small daily pleasures that make neighborhoods feel like home. Although playgrounds have nooks, quirks and specific daisy constellations that make them unique, their basic components are near universal: the sound of collective giggles, the metallic smell that swing-set chains leave on hot palms and the sight of neighbors and neighborhood kids all festively gathered in the fresh air. At their best, playgrounds are the community sweet spot—an anytime locale with as many functions as imagination affords.

In postwar Europe, an abundance of public playgrounds sprung up in previously bombed-out lots, which the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck described as “true extensions of the doorstep”: He transformed many of these formerly derelict spaces into lively hubs of societal healing where neighbors could socialize as their kids scrambled up climbing structures to survey their reclaimed communities.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was installing 658 concrete arenas that somewhat grimly epitomized the playground’s American form to this day: a swing set, a ladder of monkey bars and the stark backslash of a seesaw spaced so far away that it may as well be in quarantine. Without postwar recovery to consider, utility and vandal resistance were Moses’ goals, as was the installation of hundreds of those bossy public signs that preface a litany of fun-sounding ideas (“Clambering into the fountain!” “Roughhousing!”) with a bold, caps-locked “NO.”

Moses’ tenure gave way to a freer approach when Thomas P. Hoving, the 34-year-old former Metropolitan Museum curator, replaced him in 1966. Upon his appointment, Hoving declared, “The old rinky-dink, hand-me-down stereotype of the park is out, out!” His new plan for parks attempted to mimic the European practice of “participatory play,” where kids find stimulation from unpredictable landscapes and movable parts. To help him realize his vision, he invited architect Richard Dattner to design North America’s first rebellious Adventure Playground, which was made up of previously verboten tunnels, pyramids, zip lines and things that squirt water. “A park is like a stage,” Hoving proclaimed, ushering in an era of spontaneous public community events in Central Park, ranging from picnics and parties to midnight meteor viewings. “If you leave it sitting, nothing good is going to happen,” he said.

Half a century later, Canadian playground architect Jeff Cutler dropped by the Garden City Play Environment he designed to find seniors in the skate park doing tai chi. It was a pleasant surprise for Cutler, who defines a playground’s success by the diversity of those who enjoy it. To ensure wide appeal, playground design firms such as Cutler’s Space2place and Portland, Oregon’s Koch Landscape Architecture have begun to collect community input—including children’s—regarding what constitutes fun. For Koch, this process resulted in the installation of a fast and wavy 45-foot (14-meter) metal slide in its 2009 redesign of San Francisco’s Helen Diller Playground. The slide is accessed either by a path or by climbing up a rocky slope and is beloved by parents just as eager to fling up their arms and yell whee! as their kids.

Additionally, ageless design elements such as benches, strategic pathways and picnic tables provide everyone with a sense of belonging. Aligned with van Eyck’s “extended doorstep” concept, the playground’s role as the universal setting for a nice day is best fulfilled when it generously and simultaneously satisfies the needs of many: lounging teens, game adults, and older folks basking on sunny benches as new generations remind them of the past. Then, of course, there’s the playground’s most vital task: providing irresistible channels of delight for children, whose laughter imbues a playground with its soul.

Kids need to play; it’s an intrinsic human behavior with the seemingly paradoxical trait of being at once blissfully aimless and critical for development. Children learn to cooperate, foster relationships and regulate emotion through playing. They develop motor skills, hone their judgment and get healthy exercise. A Canadian study from 2007 on the role of play in constructing the social brain found it strengthens the prefrontal cortex, which promotes self-reflection, creativity and empathy. Plus, kids are reportedly happiest when they’re playing. In hopes of improving childhood downtime and maximizing happiness, modern scholars have taken an interest in how and why kids develop into secure and well-adjusted adults through play. One significant recent finding is that children enjoy the most physical and mental benefits from playgrounds that aren’t as safe as possible, but actually only as safe as necessary.

In her 2011 thesis, “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences,” Norwegian professor Ellen Sandseter suggests hyper-harmless play spaces and an exaggerated focus on safety encourages “delicate blossom disorder” in today’s chronically overprotected kids. She says that when children are given the opportunity to experience exhilarating, stimulating play and the relatively benign dangers of heights, scrapes and sand-to-eye flinging, they may avoid phobias later in life.

Dr. Mariana Brussoni, an injury prevention expert at the University of British Columbia, also insists on the adaptive value of risk: “Because standardized playgrounds are so uniform, children don’t need to think as much and challenge themselves to play,” she says. “For example, climbing a ladder with equally spaced rungs is very different from climbing a tree where you have to think about whether you can reach the next branch, whether it’ll hold your weight and whether you can jump or get back down.” Risk and intrigue—whether found in vertiginous climbing structures, fast slides or movable elements—foster creativity and a sense of adventure. A good playground inoculates against fear with a preventative dose: The kids who climb the highest have progressively developed the assuredness to do so, and the kids who pop their bubble wrap realize they’re not so fragile after all.

Brussoni’s use of the tree as an example of playground equipment dovetails with another increasingly important element of modern playground design: nature.

The desire to run wild like mini Tom Sawyers is very good both for children’s health and for that of the planet. Lack of access to natural play spaces results in “biosphere estrangement”—something a 2014 Stockholm study thoroughly examined in its analysis of 134 uniformly funded preschools. The study showed that the more time we spend as kids sinking our feet into soft moss, obscuring ourselves in lilac thatches, ripping up root beds and accidentally killing tadpoles by trying to “save them” from nothing and then crying over their tiny alien-sperm corpses, the more likely it is that we’ll form a spiritual, emotional and cognitive connection with the natural world around us.

It’s every generation’s responsibility to foster a love of nature in its children. This can be easily accomplished by invoking three magic words: “Go play outside.”

Adam Bienenstock runs a design company that uses natural materials to build custom playgrounds that reflect his clients’ nearest wilderness, be it with climbable boulders of locally occurring granite or region-specific foliage. By creating these structures, he strives to make nature accessible to all. “If modern kids are typically spending one hour outside and seven hours a day looking at screens, we’d better make sure that one hour connects them to something important,” he says.

Given their shared enthusiasm for encouraging children to get outside, Canadian environmental luminary Dr. David Suzuki collaborates with Bienenstock through his foundation. In his most recent memoir, Letters to My Grandchildren, 79-year-old Suzuki urges his youngest family members to seize their youth by playing in puddles and parks, just as he once did. He hopes this will inspire a lifelong passion in them to safeguard a world where there will always be ladybugs to cup in hands and leafy branches to transform into the scepters of make-believe wizards. But as Suzuki explains, there’s even more than environmentalism at play. “Aside from the exposure to the outside—which I feel is really critical—what playgrounds do is provide a gathering place,” he says. “I have a seven-month-old grandson, and it’s wonderful when I babysit because we go to the neighborhood park, I push him on a swing and I chitchat with the other children’s parents. There’s a real sense of community. That’s what we need: chances to get to know the people around us.”

Playgrounds can transform cold, calculated city life into a warm environment where all are welcome. These spaces encourage and delight, designed as if a blueprint-wielding architect surveying their grounds had murmured, “The arch of this jungle gym must evoke a rocket ship, this tiny nook is the perfect size for a mud-pie bakery, elders will keep a watchful eye on the sandbox from here and these blackberry patches will produce just enough fruit to stain a sweet-tooth violet.” A playground is a riotous oasis reflecting our sweetest, simplest value: that whether it’s in a skate park or soft grass, with a tall slide or a tree stump, we all need to have a little fun.
© Adrienne Matei 2017