Bruise-Proofing your Playground, 1963


David Aaron features in this September 1963 article by Morton Golding in Popular Mechanics, whose rather sensationalistic treatment of playground injuries (“A child’s playground can be decorated with danger”) prefigures the modern hysteria that has led to an emphasis on ‘risk-only’ rather than ‘risk-benefit’ analysis and to playgrounds so dumbly safe that they become unsafe as children attempt to create their own challenges.

As president of the Playground Corporation of America, Aaron weighs in with a recommendation that there be no ‘moving’ equipment on the playground, and proffering modern playground sculptures as an alternative.  This is fascinating to me because I’ve tended to read the history of mid-century play innovation as mostly about artistic exploration of new forms, not factoring in this very practical concern to which play sculpture was an ‘answer’.

Some of the article’s recommendations are now routine:  replacing the traditional wooden swing with the softer rubber ‘belt’ style swing was seen as “the greatest safety advance in many years”.  Soft surfaces–tanbark and early resilient surfacing–are just beginning to be promoted.  In 1963, netted ‘play webs’ are completely new, and bright colors are a welcome change:  “the equipment is no longer painted a staid black or ‘playground green’ but is finished in bright colors”.  That particular trend has now, after decades of garish equipment, reversed itself.

It’s remarkable how contemporary some of the discussion seems: “some authorities believe that new ‘creative’ equipment is designed mainly to please the eye of the parent”, but ‘”attractiveness gives…a better safety value.  A better looking playground draws more adults…” and even with the safety concerns raised in the article, “It is important not to take the adventure out of play”.  But as for the reference to the “playground men” quoted in the article (and they are all men)…well, change is good.

This is not the earliest playground safety document I’ve seen, but it is an excellent summary of the beginnings of the modern playground safety conversation, and particularly how it related to the avant-garde sculptural forms being promoted by both Aaron and Creative Plaything’s Frank Caplan.  What remains an open question for me is whether the rise of play sculptures was driven by the safety concerns, or whether the safety concerns were just another way of justifying and marketing these ambitious new creations for play.

Worthwhile reading for the play historian!  [All images from google books]

2 Responses to “Bruise-Proofing your Playground, 1963”

  1. Jay Beckwith said:

    David Aaron was a fierce critic and very influential on my thinking. I can say from personal experience that safety was what was used to sell more “creative” designs and products. The pattern was repeated as the idea spread around the world. One of the dynamics that goes under appreciated is the role of lawsuits, or threat of them, which forced the removal of all the old “unsafe” equipment. Add in the concept of linkage or “continuous” play and you have what we see on nearly all playgrounds today.

    September 17, 2013 at 11:08 am

  2. Meagan said:

    I know safety was one of the more interesting arguments I’ve read (probably read on this blog) for natural playgrounds. The idea that natural “irregular” organic structures force closer attention and concentration than regular, engineered structures really struck a chord with me.

    September 16, 2013 at 10:09 pm

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