Danger: Playground Ahead
AMERICAN playgrounds often seem anything but playful. Their equipment is designed not so much to let children have fun as to make sure they don’t hurt themselves. Sure, a simple sandbox and climbing gym are enough to mesmerize toddlers. But what’s to lure older children? No wonder children aged 8 to 12 — the “tweens” — have abandoned playgrounds en masse for instant messaging.
Playgrounds were originally conceived as places to raise future citizens in a social democracy, according to Roy Kozlovsky, an architectural historian, but now they seem geared more toward facilitating easy parental supervision. Well-meaning efforts to reduce the risk of injury have overwhelmed opportunities for self-expression and creativity. The idea of a playground as what Mr. Kozlovsky calls a “pure place” persists, but increasingly, it is also an empty place.
Hope may be on the horizon. We seem to be witnessing, if not a tipping point, then a seesaw tilt in playground design. The slide-swing set-sandbox-seesaw-repeat model is giving way, in some places, to approaches like slickly engineered skate parks, portable performance spaces and do-it-yourself activity centers. Instead of fostering the repetitive motor skills that are essential milestones for a toddler but mind-numbingly dull for a 9- or 10-year-old, these new spaces seek to stimulate the imagination (and the metabolism) by encouraging exploration and free play.
In New York City, for example, the Rockwell Group recently designed an Imagination Playground, which includes the unappealingly named but engaging concept of “loose parts,” a selection of blocks, buckets, shovels and the like that lets youngsters build something, tear it down and start all over again — so that each visit is a new experience. This borrows from the “adventure playground” idea envisioned back in 1931 by C. Th. Sorensen, a Danish landscape architect, after he observed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds he had built. (There are about a thousand adventure playgrounds in Europe but only two in the United States.)
Reimagining a staple of conventional playground equipment, Carsten Höller, a conceptual artist, recently created a cluster of adrenalin-inducing slides, above right, at the Tate Modern museum in London. The work is meant, Mr. Höller has said, to instill in visitors “an emotional state that is a unique condition somewhere between delight and madness.” That sounds just about right for a child on a playground.
Can playgrounds adapt to the expectations of our increasingly sophisticated and technologically savvy youth? “The playground used to be a monument, like a major public building,” said Mr. Kozlovsky. “Perhaps in the 21st century, it needs to be updated every two years or so like a PlayStation.”
With summer about to begin, I asked four people — artists, architects and designers — to imagine playgrounds that could attract the modern adolescent.