Why Some Playgrounds Are Amazing, Most Are Lame, And What To Do About It

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This interview is part of Fatherly’s first annual 25 Best U.S. Cities For Kids to Play Outside. To read the full report, click here.

Paige Johnson is a nano technology and materials scientists who also holds a Masters Degree in landscape history. These seemingly unrelated interests find an outlet in her website, PlayScapes, which is a blog about the coolest, most innovative playgrounds in the world, as well as an invaluable resource on playground history and design theory. Anyone with eyeballs can tell you that playgrounds in the U.S. have become pretty lame; Johson can tell you why that is and what to do about it.

Over the past few decades, playgrounds in the U.S. became increasingly uniform and uninspired. Do you see any shifts away from that trend?
In larger, public play spaces, you’re finally starting to see an emphasis on design and moving away from a standardized playground that’s the same in Tulsa as it is in Timbuktu — playgrounds that have bespoke, custom work that takes into account the local context. Like any landscape, a playground should honor its site.

There’s also a separation of the play from the ground, [moving away from] a real estate-based definition of play, where play occurs in a specific place and only in that place. There’s a great author from the 70s, Colin Ward, who wrote a book called The Child In The City, which refers to playgrounds as ghettos. We’re ghettoizing the child by confining their play to this space.

“If the tax code obligates a sculpture, then make it something people can engage with.”

That’s an uncomfortable thing to wrap your head around — designated places for play in the city are great. It says the city wants to provide them, and if it didn’t carve space out for them, it would be built upon. But that leads to the conundrum of children being driven to a play space. Why should you have to drive a car somewhere to get physical activity? There should be playgrounds, I’m glad there are, but I’m happy to see movement that separates the play from the ground and makes the urban landscape playable in other ways.

What does that look like in practice — how do you make the urban landscape playable?
There’s no reason that sidewalks have to be flat pieces of concrete; retaining walls that are purpose-made for kids to walk and hop on them. Sidewalks that pass through parks and change levels, looking like a wave. Bike racks you can turn summersaults on; playable surfaces, interactive surfaces with digital crossover, significantly playable sculptures. If the tax code obligates a sculpture, then make it something people can engage with. Make the city choose artistic elements that are playable, and fund them to do so.

How else do you see the playground evolving?
A place that creates community through play — that’s something we’re not thinking enough about. A beautiful, visually compelling playground drives people to it, where they interact with their neighbors as families in a way that’s lost in modern cities. That doesn’t happen on plastic playgrounds, but it does in an interesting space. Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam does those big crocheted playgrounds that are all over the web, she just did a piece in Rome. As she was taking it down, a woman came banging on the door (it was an indoor playground) and she finally let her in. She wanted to thank them, because the playground had recreated a sense of community that she remembered in that neighborhood from her childhood.

What are some of the consequences of the current pre-fab, plastic playgrounds?
Playgrounds used to be designed to satisfy kids up to 15 years old. As they’ve gotten less interesting and less risky, that age has narrowed, so now they leave at age 8 and seek out things to do with a higher degree of risk. That’s one consequence of making playgrounds boring and dumb. They’re too unappealing to compete with video games, and you get this blaming of the child, “They need to get outside more.” It’s our fault as grown ups for making places so dull.

Presumably, you disagree with The American Society For Testing And Materials, which considers grass an unsafe playground surface?
That’s safety run amok. It’s patently ridiculous on its face, and it’s driven by manufacturers. Surfacing is a third of the cost of most playgrounds — it costs as much as it used to cost for a whole playground just to prepare the ground now. It’s driven in a venal way by people who make safety surfacing and a group that tests safety surfacing for fall heights. They’re on the committee and they drive the conversation. Tim Gill, at Rethinking Childhood, is really focused on the safety and risk element in playgrounds, and he has the latest studies on those springy surfaces. They’re not normal; they’re so springy it will make you fall because we’re not accustom to walking on pillows. That’s not how our bodies function, so we fall and get injured. And now they’re trying to make those safety standards even higher.

“That’s safety run amok. It’s patently ridiculous on its face, and it’s driven by manufacturers.”

We need to equate play risk with sports risk. Parents send a child to play soccer and if they break their arm, it’s a badge of pride, “My kid played so hard, they broke a limb.” There’s an acceptance of risk within sport that’s not translated to play. Play provides the same physical benefits, and even greater benefits in terms of informal team building, negotiating conflict without a coach, learning to share and make a game, building games that you create and structure yourself — that’s as critical as any team sport.

Europe — Scandinavia in particular — seems to have a surplus of really cool playgrounds. Why there and not here?
There was this Victorian Era idea that being outdoors equated to better health, and that was a much stronger current in European culture. The Scandinavians, they go outside every day without fail, no matter the weather. We don’t have that same commitment to outdoor play, and we don’t have the same cultural view of childhood risk as being the parent’s responsibility, and not the site’s responsibility.

They also have more of a focus on bespoke design. America is the land of manufacturing, we make thousands of automobiles on a production line — that’s America’s pride. In Europe, there’s more handmade, artisanal manufacturing and local, community-based building as opposed to ordering something from China.

But there must be a financial element to those decisions, too?
If the plastic and metal playground was a low cost solution, I’d understand, but they run in the mid six figures. They average something like $300,000! For $300,000, local artists or architects could do something wonderful and be happy for the work. It takes more time — commissioning designs, having them vetted, getting feedback — some leaders aren’t interested in that. That’s where individual advocacy comes in, where people make it clear that this is important and form a community around it.

In your mind, is there a “Best City” for playgrounds in the U.S.?
I can’t say any one city really gets it, it’s more in privileged neighborhoods where people have the luxury to advocate for good design. I wish we had a Copenhagen — it’s amazing for play, with everything from small to large, temporary to permanent. It covers a gradient, instead of “We have a place with this type of equipment.” Copenhagen has playful things that are there for a month, a year, are permanent; things that are highly artistic, highly adventurous. It’s awesome and there really isn’t a U.S. equivalent.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8JqU5Df_aw expand=1]

What advice do you have for someone who wants to improve their local playground?
If you’re stuck with a plastic playground, add a zip line. Add some plantings that let smaller children run through tall, waving grasses. Add boulders that kids can play on, or even just a hill — playgrounds should not be flat. Let’s talk about natural elements on a playground and adventurous elements. Also, why can’t we have pop-up installations over the summer that are adventurous and supervised, like slack lines and thinks that are a bit riskier and aren’t there all the time? Loose parts or big piles of sand. Playgrounds should be flexible spaces that change — that’s why kids stop going. When you drive by a playground and no one is there, that’s a place where we failed. We didn’t make it compelling. Great playgrounds are mobbed, they show us what’s possible.

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