Playground History at the Design Museum Holon, April 16 – June 07, 2014

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Design Museum Holon will be featuring an exhibit on Playgrounds in Israel past and present until June 7.

““In the Upper Gallery we seek to reawaken in visitors the question concerning the fate of playgrounds”, says curator Galit Gaon. “Why and when did they change in Israel from a place of adventure to a collection of ‘apparatuses’? What should we, designers, planners, parents, and decision makers in Israel, do in order to restore playgrounds to their appropriate place – as a wonderful, imaginative alternative for older and younger children, and parents and children to play together. This exhibition is a call for a candid discussion on our place, on the right to dream, the freedom to experiment and experience, the opportunity to play, and on the alternative of growing up happy. Hana Hertsman once said: ‘Design is an opportunity to learn to choose well’. In this exhibition we invite visitors, designers, city planners and mayors, municipal engineers and safety consultants, parents and educators, young and old alike, to return to the magic of playgrounds for a while and to choose well”.

The Real Estate, Al/Arch, Bat-Yam Israel, 2012

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The ‘vertical public park’ designed by Al/Arch for the dense urban area of Bat-Yam Israel transformed one of those strange edge areas left by thoughtless city planners; in this case an awkward void between the end of a residential street and the freeway.

The surfacing is actually a concrete ‘blanket’, which slopes upwards to a wall with niches whose forms reflect human interactions (single, couple, group), though the kids climbing there don’t care much for the symbology, just for the uniquely textured space!  The choice of material cleverly reflects the site’s previous history as a space for dumping trash, including mattresses.

Inspirational use of the vertical plane…if your playscape has a vertical boundary like the wall of an adjacent building, see if you can use niches to add playable and interactive spaces.

Mountain Gym, Makoto Tanijiri, Tokyo, 2012

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Variations of the traditional gridded playground climber are springing up everywhere…this is the Mountain Gym by Makoto Tanijiri as constructed for Design Touch Tokyo in 2012.   The 5 meter high, 10 meter wide temporary construction was designed to function as a stage for workshops and events (note the sections of the grid that function as seating), for relaxation, and for multi-generational play.  The addition of nets in part of the climber make it more child friendly, allowing movement through the interior of the grid as well as over its exterior.  Beautifully lit for night use, too!  What a great project for adding temporary play to a public space.  

Images via exiteism and Suppose Architecture

Very happy to be on RadioBoston yesterday with Ruth Graham to discuss natural playgrounds…you can listen here!


There’s a new way to interact with Playscapes…over on Facebook Sarah has started a new Playscapes open group page for dialog about design, diy and other topics!  This is to replace the forum that was on the old blog.  Use it to share your own projects, job announcements, queries, news, and tips on DIY projects like the Playhive and Monstrum Car-Caravan!


Did you know Aldo van Eyck used children’s crayons to color in his playground plans?  So nice.  This is the design of the Weesperzijde playground, Amsterdam-Oost, 1953-1954.   From Aldo Van Eyck: the playgrounds and the city.

Hexapod, Found!

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One of the pieces Garret Eckbo installed in that first ‘playscape’ was the Hexapod, designed by Robert Winston for Creative Playthings.  It’s original prototype has been found at Jessica Smith’s Regla De Oro Gallery in Minneapolis!

Jessica is the granddaughter of Bernard Barenholtz, one of the partners in Creative Playthings, Inc during the glory days of playground sculpture  in the fifties and sixties.

Robert Winston was a jewelry designer, and the rounded organic forms of his hexapod have an obvious connection to the lost-wax sculptures he made with precious metals.  Think what playgrounds might look like if more play companies hired jewelry designers!
I’m so appreciative of Jessica sharing the images of her very own hexapod, as well as her mother Susie’s remembrances of the time period, here in its entirety as part of the oral history of that fascinating era.

“My name is Susie Smith. My father was Bernard Barenholtz. He and Frank Caplan were partners in Creative Playthings Inc. Creative Playthings didn’t come up with the idea of sculptured playgrounds, they were all over Scandinavia in the 1950’s. Creative Playthings did pick up the ball and run with it in this country.

There was a sculptured playground designed by Isamu Noguchi, in 1954 or 55, for the United Nations building. The playground was nixed by Robert Moses, the New York City Parks Commissioner. The model for that playground floated around the Creative Playthings showroom for years. As a result of the rejection of Noguchi’s playground, The Museum of Modern Art and Creative Playthings sponsored a sculptured playground competition-I don’t remember exactly what year it was. I think that the idea was that The Museum would come up with prize money and Creative Playthings would reproduce and market the winning pieces. I don’t know for sure whether the hexapod was one of the winners.

The Hexapod was designed by Bob (Robert) Winston, a jewelry maker/sculpture who lived in Scottsdale, Arizona. I don’t remember how they found him. He came to Creative Playthings in New York, I’m sure to discuss the production of the Hexapod. They must have figured out how to make a fiberglass prototype, because that is what is at my daughter’s Regla de Oro Gallery in Minneapolis. I think that this prototype too was in the Creative Playthings showroom at 5 University Place in New York City. It probably went from there to the Creative Playthings warehouse in Herndon, PA. When my parents moved to Princeton, NJ in 1957 the fiberglass hexapod took it’s place in our backyard. It moved to New Hampshire with my father in 1976 and to Minnesota to my backyard in 1990. We had it re-fiberglassed and last year we put it in the gallery.

Since I was a teenager when Creative Playthings established Play Sculpture as separate part, I only know that there were sculptured playgrounds in New York City and St. Louis. Those were the only cities that I went to in those days. The Hexapod and some of the other sculptures were made of steel and poured concrete. They were poured on the spot. The Hexapod was poured in two pieces-top and bottom.”

If you remember any other Hexapod locations, or have vintage photos, please share!


See also Hanna Rosin’s piece on parental fear in the Atlantic, which delves into the origins of playground litigation in the US (though I still blame Kramer vs. Kramer). Glad to see misgivings about the rampant overuse of safety surfacing confirmed by David Ball, risk management professsor: “The advent of all these special surfaces for playgrounds has contributed very little, if anything at all, to the safety of children.”

Very pleased to contribute to How the American Playground was born in BostonRuth Graham’s article in the Boston Globe this past weekend.  Along with Ruth, I’ll also be a part of a segment on Radio Boston next Thursday, April 10, between 3 and 4 ET .   I’d love to have you tune in or call in!

A brief history of the word ‘Playscape’

Now that I have vanquished some Dragons of Science let’s get back to Aldo and the blog birthday!  I am often asked in interviews why I call the blog ‘Playscapes’.  It’s an invented modern word;  a concatenation of playground and landscape that suddenly appeared in the late 1950s to describe places that were playgrounds but yet were different from most playgrounds.  The word playground had come to mean steel jungle gyms, swings and slides embedded in flat asphalt or hard ground, and it didn’t adequately describe the new ideas and new places for play being promoted by mid-century designers.  A new word was needed.

The great landscape architect Garrett Eckbo’s 1960 description of his work at Longwood,  a ‘socially constructive’ urban renewal project in Cleveland,  Ohio, is one of the earliest published uses:

“The central play park became a playscape:  a bowl of contoured grassy mounds and hollows, bordered with sheltering specimen trees, and incorporating a little grove of steel poplars, a family of concrete turtles, a fantastic village, contoured sand pit, saddle slide, jumping platform, and the terraced tile wading pool developed around William McVey’s abstract sculpture…” 

There was equipment, to be sure, but the play area was formed into a cohesive landscape, with a shaped ground plane and a planting scheme and a connection to the surrounding site and architecture.   (And the jumping platforms derivative of our-hero-Aldo’s work in Amsterdam).

But almost as soon as the word playscape was invented, its use diverged.   Landscape architects continued using it to mean playgrounds-that-are-designed-landscapes.    Retailers like Creative Playthings and the Playground Corporation of America  used it to refer to assemblies of their modernist play sculptures, which to be fair were indeed designed to be sited within plantings, though that didn’t always happen.  The Girl Scouts used ‘playscape’ in 1967 to describe what we would recognize as nature play:

“What Is a Playscape? A playscape is a child’s adventure world. It’s a compact play area where the basic equipment is the child’s conception of rocks, trees, and shelters. “

All  of these usages have made it into the current era.  Some people reserve the word ‘playscape’ for  natural spaces, some manufacturers co-opt it to differentiate their products from their competitors, but most, I think, use it as I do here at the blog: to denote  a cohesively designed environment for play.  Something more than just a set of equipment, different from the status quo.    That’s admittedly vague, and ‘playscape’ is to a certain extent in the eye of the beholder:    I would go beyond Eckbo’s definition to include interior and artistic spaces like those by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Numen in my personal definition of what a playscape is.

But I like to think that I’m honoring the midcentury  idea, and indeed that’s what prompted me to pick the blog’s name six years ago.    The word ‘playscape’ should, and does, still describe a place for play that is somehow different from the norm, that breaks established patterns to showcase new ideas; an ‘alternative’ playground.  That’s how a reporter recently described what I present here in this digital space that I call Playscapes, and it seems to fit.

{Sources:  The Eckbo quotes are from Landscape Architecture, Spring 1960, pp. 140-141, in an article entitled “Longwood:  Antidote for Pomposity”, by Garrett Eckbo.  Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single photo of the playscape to accompany this post.  The entire blighted complex was torn down in 1998, though the landscape had probably been compromised long before.  If you know of any photos, I’d love to see them!]



Thank you to everyone who submitted a play space to be part of the potential Playscapes TV series…we’re in the final throes of decision-making!  You should hear from me by Friday April 4.


The Playscapes Correspondents are celebrating Aldo van Eyck’s birthday, too…don’t miss Maier Yagod’s post on van Eyck’s influence in Israel, or Daryl Mulvihill’s photo tour of  remaining van Eyck playscapes in Amsterdam, or Boston-based Erica Quigley’s musings on Aldo and urban narratives.


Happy Birthday Aldo! Happy Birthday Blog!

Aldo van Eyck was born March 16, 1918, which would have made him 96 this year.  And this blog is six.  As always, I like to give you a present, dear readers, on our very own saint day.  A big thanks to our friends at Monstrum this year for letting us release their ‘car and caravan’ plan here at Playscapes.  Now you can have your own Monstrum playground in the backyard!

“The car and caravan is packed and ready for the kids to go on vacation. The car has room for 4 children, and the rest of their friends can go in the caravan. So there is room for everyone to come along and visit new and exciting places.”

Oh, the places you’ll go, when you start a blog about playgrounds.  It has been six years of constant surprises.  I’m glad I’m still here, and you’re still here, on this caravan, and that playgrounds are way, seriously way, better than they were six years ago.   You’ve been a part of that, and I thank you.

Happy Birthday Aldo!  Happy Birthday Blog!

Download Monstrum’s Car and Caravan here!

Download "Car and Caravan Guide"


Artists I want to see on the Playground: Marc Fornes

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Had a great conversation with a reporter from the Boston Globe yesterday and one of the things we talked about was the importance of keeping artists engaged with play to keep seeding the playground ‘space’ (both literally and metaphorically) with new forms. The 1980s and 1990s, when standardized playgrounds ruled, are notable for the low degree of innovation and also for the absence of artists involved in play. We need to keep pushing the boundaries of what is playable in order to keep spaces for play vibrant and relevant and supported. And that’s why Marc Fornes is an artist-I’d-like-to-see-on-the-playground.

Adventure Playground Videos, London Play

Staying in London, don’t miss the wonderful videos of adventure play, both modern and contemporary, that the great organization London Play has been uploading.  My personal faves are below: c 1960s footage of the Notting Hill adventure playground, a 1970s view of Lady Allen of Hurtwood at a playspace in Chelsea, and a modern survey of London Adventure playgrounds by the BBC from just last month!