State of Play

Few psychologists would argue against the idea that play is important for a child’s development. The tricky part is deciding which kind of play is best. That’s where the playground designers come in.

WORDS Hunter Braithwaite
October 2018

A blue-heron slide is one of the star attractions at Gathering Place's Chapman Adventure Playground

Against the red brick wall of a disused building on New York’s Governors Island, a small crowd of children has built a shantytown out of wooden pallets and old couches. A ravaged boat hull juts out of the debris, as does a tangle of mannequin torsos. A boy, perhaps 8 years old, climbs a ladder atop a wooden fort, triumphantly raising a golf putter above his head. From where he stands, it’s a 12-foot drop to the ground, and for a wobbly moment it looks as if he might fall. But then he grins, king of the castle, and clambers down to join his playmates below. 

This chaotic landscape of shipping pallets, old tires, tarps and tools is known as The Yard, an “adventure playground” run by the nonprofit play:groundNYC. Kids get to decide what to do with the junk at their disposal, while a hand-painted sign on a wire fence reads “Children at Play. Do Not Disturb.” It looks like every helicopter parent’s nightmare, but unstructured play areas like this are gaining traction, after several decades of sanitized, rubberized playgrounds where health and safety concerns took precedence over raucous fun. 

Psychologist Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, has spent his career researching the benefits of play and what happens when kids don’t get enough of it. According to Gray, true play is imaginative, self-directed, done for its own sake and guided by mental rules rather than formal ones. In other words, activities that often pass as play, such as organized sports, do not offer the same psychological benefits as, say, teetering atop a ladder with a golf club in your hand. 

Children push an old tire at The Yard

Children test the limits of their bodies and minds through play, teaching themselves how to navigate the physical world and to socialize. Most crucially, play helps children to develop what psychologists call an internal locus of control, a deep-seated belief that people are responsible for their own successes and failures. With it, we are confident and resourceful; without it, we are prone to anxiety and fatalism. “And how do you develop an internal locus of control?” asks Gray. “Play is the place where children are in control.”

Since the mid 20th century, there has been a worldwide drop in the hours and freedoms available for play. In the U.S., students are now in school five weeks longer than in the 1950s. Afternoons and summers are often taken up with structured extracurricular activities and homework. Combine that with the belief that hands-off parenting equals negligence, and we have a world where 56 percent of children spend less time outside than do maximum- security prisoners. 

At the 2018 World Economic Forum, a group calling itself the Real Play Coalition issued a statement arguing that play not only makes children happier and healthier, but also equips them with “the skills necessary to tackle humanity’s future.” So playground design, once an after-school afterthought, might be key to a healthy society. 

First appearing in Denmark in the 1940s, adventure playgrounds were a reaction to the rubble of World War II—a way to utilize wasteland and toughen children up—and soon became a staple across Europe. By the 1970s, there were about 20 of these spaces in the U.S., though the country’s increasingly litigious, safety-obsessed culture hasn’t been thrilled about free-range children among sharp edges and blunt objects.

Rebecca Faulkner, executive director of play:groundNYC, has witnessed firsthand the generational differences in how people approach the random and sometimes riotous play that characterizes spaces like The Yard. “What we often find is grandparents coming by and saying, ‘This is how I grew up playing,’’’ she says. As for the parents, well, that’s who the “Do Not Disturb” sign is for.

“If we let them in, many parents would be telling the kids how to do things,” Faulkner says. “We want to provide kids with an opportunity to play freely.” The only adults allowed into The Yard are playworkers trained to stimulate free play—and, if need be, administer first aid. 

Playing with scraps of wood at The Yard

The day I visit, a group of parents are camped in the shade outside, simultaneously chatting and looking on as the kids tinker, wander, hammer and—in one instance—teeter at the top of a makeshift fort. The majority of the stuff being played with was donated by local organizations: tools from a hardware store, a plink-plonk piano from a non-profit called Materials for the Arts. “Last year, we had a coffin that featured for a long time in some seriously deep play,” says Faulkner. “Kids got really into being buried and having funerals.” 

The new Sweetwater Playground at Domino Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looks nothing like The Yard, but it shares a dedication to self-motivated exploration, albeit in a more structured and risk-averse way.

Designed by Brooklyn-based artist Mark Reigelman, the space, which opened in June, harkens to the industrial history of its location, the site of the former Domino Sugar Refinery. The factory, which looms over the park, operated from 1882 to 2004—processing 60 percent of the country’s sugar at its peak—is now being converted into rental apartments.

“The goal is to have that weird experience of urban exploration, almost for kids to be like, ‘Am I allowed to be in this old factory?’” says Reigelman, whose projects routinely blur the line between art and architecture. His team repurposed the factory’s floors to form a play-cabin’s wood siding, and included replicas of valve wheels. The monkey bars resemble piping hanging beneath a catwalk. The checkerboard windows mimic the broken panes of shuttered factories. 

Domino Park's Sweetwater slide

Kids enter the playground through Sugarcane Cabin and continue through a freewheeling interpretation of the refining process, from Sweetwater Silo, which has internal netting that allows children to climb up 26 feet, taking in a view of the river and Manhattan before sliding down, and then along a catwalk to a final cylindrical play space, Sugar Cube Centrifuge, and out, via one of two slides or a tube of monkey bars.

Reigelman, who has an infant daughter, based much of his park on interviews with local kids: They wanted monkey bars, swings and slides—the bigger the better. (Playground Design 101: Kids love heights.) Those visions, meanwhile, needed to be tempered with safety regulations, such as the requirement that a rubber composite cover any surface that a child might fall onto, turning their crack into a bounce. (The Yard gets around such regulations by requiring a signed waiver of liability and assumption of risk agreement, the same used at skate parks and summer camps.)

Faulkner, for her part, feels that overly prescriptive playgrounds can lead to bored children looking for ways to shake things up. “They climb up the slide the wrong way. They climb to the top of the swing set, and then they fall and hurt themselves,” she says, claiming that there are fewer accidents in adventure playgrounds than regular playgrounds. “Kids are really stimulated here,” she says of The Yard. “Even if they’re working with a tool they’ve never used before, they’re really good at risk- assessing themselves.”

As Reigelman watches kids shoot down a slide at Sweetwater, he admits that his philosophy doesn’t suit everyone. “European designers would look at this and say it’s a little safe,” he says. In Germany—home to some of the best playground designers in the world—the basic principle is, according to Reigelman, “If a kid breaks their arm, we accept that. What we don’t want is a kid to break their neck.” Reigelman puts it slightly differently. “Children are going to get hurt. They’re going to bump their wrist, their knee, their legs. It’s expected, and it’s not an unhealthy thing. We want kids to be testing their limits in a place that’s designed for that to happen.”

A group of children play with tools at Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma

However, as The Yard demonstrates, the undesigned space often works just as well. And what is more unplanned than nature itself? This is the philosophy behind natural playgrounds. A limitless sources of inspiration for children, these idyllic escapes from everyday stresses also emphasize the importance of ecological stewardship. At 100 acres, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s brand new Gathering Place is quite an escape. The park, which stretches down the Arkansas River, was designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the landscape architecture firm behind some of the country’s most beloved outdoor spaces, including Brooklyn Bridge Park and Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park. 

Gathering Place’s five-acre Chapman Adventure Playground has an array of choices. Some sections offer real flights of fancy, like the fairy-tale city of seven medieval towers, with places to climb, slide, and hide. But there are also more naturalistic sections open for interpretation, including Skywalk Forest, where treetop forts interconnect via climbing nets and suspended pathways. The skywalk, along with other elements of the park, was created by Richter Spielgeräte, a Bavarian playground designer and manufacturer. There’s also an area inspired by wildlife along the river, with handcrafted wooded animals designed by the Danish firm Monstrum. Imagine stalking through oversized blades of grass to find a 21-foot blue heron, or scaling the back of a giant paddlefish—a prehistoric creature that still swims in the river. Nearby, rock outcroppings echo local geology and all but beg for hide-and-seek. As with Sweetwater and the sawing and hammering at The Yard, play here connects children to the world around them.

Playing outdoors is as old as play itself, but it’s only been in the past few decades that designers have begun incorporating natural elements into their playgrounds. This line of thought inspired Richard Louv’s 2005 bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, which addresses the “nature-deficit disorder” children face when raised indoors and in big cities. Fittingly, recent playground design integrates not only trees to climb and ponds to splash in, but also “loose parts” like sand and sticks that can be used as tools, toys and props that encourage higher level, imaginative thinking. 

A similar line of thinking informed an earlier MVVA project: Manhattan’s Teardrop Park. Though it is based around the rudiments of a playground—a slide, sandpits, water—what has made Teardrop Park so popular for New Yorkers of all ages is its seamless integration of nature. Once in the park, the towering buildings of lower Manhattan are mostly obscured. Rock walls look stratified, as if formed by natural processes. The slide sits on rocks that appear to have been left by glaciers. “You know you’re doing a good job when people ask if any of this stuff was here when you started,” says MVVA principal Matthew Urbanski with a laugh. “That’s usually a sign of success for landscape architects, when they think God made it.”

A child explores Sweetwater Playground

Another basic principle: Kids love to get wet. At Gathering Place, they have plenty of chances. There’s Mist Mountain, with paths moving through ponds and spurts of water passing overhead like flying fish; there’s the water maze, with jets shooting up in changing patterns; and then there are dams and streams ending in a giant sandbox. Besides providing relief from Tulsa’s brutal summer heat, water’s ever-changing forms—its bursts and rivulets—promote the open-ended, creative play proven to be most psychologically healthy. And, as Urbanski sees it, there’s a bonus if you can throw in a little sand and mud. “There’s an obsession with keeping kids from getting dirty,” he says, “which is so wrong.”

Urbanski, 55, sees Gathering Place as a return to an earlier time. “I would leave the house when I was six and be out playing in a dirt pile,  in the woods or in a creek, and I would show up for dinner at the end of the day,” he says. “My mother didn’t even know where I was. I was absolutely filthy; she thought that was great.”

Gray agrees. “We need more natural playgrounds. The best place to play is out in the woods or in a spring—in nature. You can do whatever you want. We need fewer manicured playgrounds and more natural spaces for children to play where nobody cares what they do and they can get muddy.”

For those living in cities, this is easier said than done. Meghan Talarowski, the founder of Studio Ludo, a Philadelphia nonprofit devoted to improving play, sees it as a balancing act. “Public space is a finite resource,” she says. “We have to figure out whom it’s programmed for” and how it’s structured. “Has the pendulum swung too far towards safety? The way kids learn is through pushing their boundaries and taking developmentally appropriate risks. How do we provide those kinds of opportunities for kids? The conversation is definitely growing.” While adults continue to have that conversation, children will continue to play. They already know how, and though they may not save humanity one day, at least they’ll have some fun in the meantime.


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