A playground used to be a place with a slide and a swing and a sandbox. Kids played there and mothers sat on the benches enjoying the sun until it was time to go home.
But playgrounds have changed. Oh boy, how they've changed! There are still plenty with slides and swings and shouting kids and mothers on benches enjoying the sun. But there are other playgrounds now, and lots of them, with big conduit pipes and geodesic climbers (right), with space stations, fire engines, satellites, sculptured giraffes, concrete octopuses, polyblocks, hexapods, stalactites, strange metal growths that look like cactus forests, perforated shells that kids play under and moon rockets that stand as high as a three-story house.
Even the colors are different. Old-fashioned playgrounds are a sort of mottled green and brown—a grass patch here, a dirt patch there—interspersed with the straight gray lines of the steel pipes that hold up the slides, the swings and the jungle gyms. The new-look playgrounds are wild with color—mustard yellows, burnt umbers, sea greens, candy stripes, brilliant reds and blues, great squares of pastels decorating the sides of service buildings—the whole set off by chalk-white, free-form globs of reinforced concrete that pop out of the ground almost anyplace.
"Playgrounds today look like modern art museums," a sour observer of the current scene recently observed, sourly. And indeed, modern playground equipment is displayed in museums. The orange-and-yellow satellite shown on a previous page was photographed at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, which installed a small functioning playground as an exhibit. Furthermore, David Aaron, president of Playground Corporation of America and a leading manufacturer of contemporary equipment, used to be a sculptor himself.
The old standard playground items—the solid, steady swings, the long, straight slides, the square jungle gyms, the unadorned sandboxes, the simple seesaws—still make up the great bulk of playground material currently in use and being sold. But modern equipment is gaining a larger and larger share of the market as new schools and housing developments and urban renewal projects and even motels and driving ranges and bowling alleys build new or rebuild old playgrounds.
Why? Well, undoubtedly, in part, because it is a fad—it is different, it is intriguing, it is new. (Don't let your town be the last one to put in a rocket ship, for the love of Mike.) But beyond that latest-fashion aspect, the present trend has some solid reasons for being.
One such reason is the cheering fact that most of the new equipment is aimed, designed and built for the child. That is, it is made to stimulate a child's interest and imagination so that he will voluntarily devote more time and physical effort to his playing. Another reason is safety, an old bugaboo of recreational directors. Everyone seems to agree that it is not necessarily desirable for a child to play in a perfectly safe environment; a little danger, a little risk is a good thing. But it is true that moving equipment, like swings and seesaws and merry-go-rounds—things that move while the child holds relatively still—cause more injuries than nonmoving apparatus, things like climbers that hold still while the child moves around. ("You know what a swing is?" a Long Island man said. "A swing is a thing they put in playgrounds to knock kids' teeth out with.")
Most of the modern equipment is non-moving. Of course, no playground object is perfectly safe, says Safety Expert Dr. M. Alexander Gabrielsen of New York University, not even sandboxes. ("Sandboxes get dirty," he points out. "Small children wet their pants in them. They throw sand, too.") And injuries are more than just a question of kids getting hurt. They also mean lawsuits, since people nowadays tend to think of lawsuits before they think of Band-Aids.
Because schools, municipalities and the like operate playgrounds for people and not for profit, the tendency when they get sued by the people they are serving is to close up, close down, fence off, oversupervise. This effectively atrophies the whole purpose of recreational areas. It is the problem facing Dr. Gabrielsen and other students of safety and everyone in the recreation field—how to achieve maximum participation with minimum injury—and it is another strong argument for the new concept of design. The paraphernalia is reasonably safe, and it does attract kids to playgrounds.
Which brings us to attractiveness, another powerful recommendation for the newest playgrounds. According to Robert W. Crawford, Commissioner of Recreation in Philadelphia and the most admired and respected recreation man in the country, "There is absolutely no excuse for our facilities to be drab, dull and unattractive. We have found in Philadelphia that modern, attractive recreational facilities increase attendance as much as 800%. Recreation facilities should be designed along esthetic lines and so constructed that they demand attention. The so-called standard equipment is not providing the challenge necessary for growing boys and girls. While I am not proposing that the conventional equipment be discarded, there is no doubt that a genuine need exists for research and experimentation with apparatus for playgrounds that will open up a new world of stimulating, imaginative and creative equipment."
David Aaron of Playground Corporation agrees. "Play is important to kids," he explains. "Play is important to adults, too, but it's a respite, a release, an escape from the principal business of life. But for kids, play is the principal business of life. They're always learning, always developing physical and mental skills.
"Now, you take a slide," Aaron continues. "Kids go up the ladder and they slide down. After a while one kid—usually the biggest—goes up the ladder and stops on the top. He's the king. And nobody slides until he's ready to go. It's a take-turn piece of equipment. Swings are, too. If you have eight swings, eight is the maximum number of kids who can use the swings at any one time.
"What do you do on a swing? You swing back and forth. What do you do on a slide? You slide down. It's a lot of fun, but after a few minutes kids want to do something else. One starts to twist the swing to make it go in different directions, and someone gets hurt. Another gets bored sliding down the slide, so he turns around and decides to walk up. Now, I like the kid who decides to climb back up. He's imaginative. He's thinking. He's testing himself and the equipment he has at hand. He's finding out things. But when he walks up the slide, nobody else can slide down. Or else somebody tries to come down and falls off the slide.
"What we're trying to do is develop equipment that will stimulate the child who wants to climb back up, who wants to get up on top, but equipment that will also allow the smaller child, or the less experienced or slightly scared child, to climb around the bottom while the aggressive kid is climbing around the top. Take our space station, for example [see color]. A coordinated, aggressive kid will climb right up the side, crawl over the top and drop down into the shell. Now, another kid figures he can't climb like that; he's new; he doesn't know how. But he can crawl up through the bottom and there he is, right there with the other kids. Then he gets brave—or experienced, which is sometimes the same thing—and climbs a little higher, and there he is, on top of everything. He's learned, he's learned a lot of things, about himself and other people. He's used a lot of different muscles. And he hasn't kept some other kids from learning."
All well and good, but a big argument against geodesic climbers and space ships and the like is that they are expensive. David Aaron's space station costs almost $1,000. His "playscapes," which in effect are playground packages, cost from $1,700 up. The Jamison Manufacturing Company's moon rocket, an impressively imaginative climbing and sliding device, costs more than $2,000. But for less than $1,500 a playground can buy a whole mess of old-fashioned stand-bys from a company like J. E. Burke—a little kids' swing and a big kids' swing, a baby slide and a big slide, a merry-go-round, a couple of horizontal ladders in different heights and a triple turning bar.
"The question is," says Dr. Gabrielsen, "whether the modern stuff, fine as it is, is worth the extra expense. Most recreation departments operate on a limited budget."
Some communities, like Maplewood, N.J., have beaten the cost factor by building their own modern playgrounds out of good ideas and cheap materials—mazes made of railroad ties, for example, or climbing forts of logs. But the best answer right now can be found in Philadelphia. Although many cities around the country, large and small, are sprucing up playground facilities, Philadelphia, under Robert Crawford's dynamic and imaginative direction, is the bellwether, the leader. It spends money. Manufacturers with new equipment try to sell Philadelphia first. If they sell Philly, they have a better chance of getting some other city to buy.
Crawford will sometimes accept a piece of equipment on consignment, so to speak, install it and test it to see how children like it and use it. If the kids don't go for it, or get tired of it too quickly, out it goes.
Philadelphia designs and builds a lot of its own equipment, too, assigning various recreation projects to different architects to avoid stereotyping playgrounds. One Philadelphia playground will feature a spiral slide, another a series of concrete castles, a third a modernistic crawl-through caterpillar. Because children like to run through water sprayed from hoses or fire hydrants, Philadelphia has sprays (below)—especially designed and constructed—in various playgrounds. Crawford also tries to integrate playgrounds into neighborhood recreational centers that adults will use, too.
Although Philadelphia budgets more money for its recreation department than other cities, the results so far have been so rewarding in terms of appearance and participation that other communities have been taking notice. Sophisticated New York, which loves jokes like "I went to Philadelphia last Tuesday but it was closed" or "I spent a summer in Philadelphia one weekend," has egg on its face when it compares its limited and constricted playground facilities to those in the quieter city. But to New York's credit, its leaders are writing letters to Philadelphia asking for suggestions and advice.
Thus, expensive or not, modern-museum or not, the new look in playgrounds is spreading. You look around and you see signs of it everywhere. Maybe even in your town.