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!]


One Response to “A brief history of the word ‘Playscape’”

  1. lana said:

    Hello Paige,
    I’m contacting you because we are going to be developing a subdivison with a playground in the next 12 months.
    We would like the playground – or playgrounds (not sure yet will it be 2) to me something creative and unique (for example like the products from company Monstrum) – not some off the shelf plastic item.
    If you are interested to hear about our project in more detail contact me.
    Thanks Lana

    April 03, 2014 at 12:13 am

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