Also at Tivoli, this playable fish sculpture by Slovenian artist  Vladimira Bratuz Furlan.  A lovely combination of arch, tunnel, resting spot/house, and even climbability that deserves a more sympathetic site!  [source]

Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Playable Sculpture

In writing the post about the new art playground at Nikolaj Plads, I was intrigued by the mention of a previous peacock slide on the site.  Turns out this was a work by Danish sculptor Gunnar Westman (so in a way, the whole art playground thing is hardly a new idea!)  who was also responsible for five play sculptures at Tivoli and two large wooden figures for the Danish pavilion playground at the New York World’s fair in 1964-65.   And apparently also a roller coaster at the Nikolaj Plads site!   I’ve been unable to trace these, so get in touch if you have memories/photos.

The peacock, beloved by the children of Copenhagen, was in such deteriorated condition that it could no longer remain in place, but it was passed to  Gunnar Westman’s daughter Inge Lise Westman, also an artist, and restored through funding from the New Carlsberg Foundation, with plans to reinstall the slide in the Royal Horticultural Society Garden at Frederiksberg where it will have the chance to commune with the live peacocks that roam the grounds.  [source]

[Images of the peacock slide are by Sandra Hoj from her blog Classic Copenhagen which always makes me want to pack up and move to Denmark!]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Playgrounds by Artists

I don’t talk much about the Edible Schoolyard movement on the blog, thought it has obvious and strong overlaps with the Natural Playground movement (yes, there is definitely enough momentum in North America to declare it a movement, even while acknowledging that it is old news to most of Europe).  Many schools who reshape their play areas to include natural elements also include an area for cultivation of food,  similarly to these 1935 schoolyard photos from the Polytechnic Elementary School in Pasadena, California, via the online collections of the Huntington Library.  Are they working or playing?

The Elementary School also had a dedicated play space…note particularly the large wooden boxes (some appear to be hollow?)  the children are playing with in the foreground.  Large blocks are still one of the best solutions for loose parts play (see also this previous post on loose parts).


Posted in 1900-1950, Natural Playgrounds

It has been hard to even think about posting happy-places-for-children lately.  But Paul at Metropolis Magazine has sent me a link to a lovely article there called ‘Modernists at Play‘.  They got in touch with the children of well-known mid-century designers seeking their memories of play; including Tess van Eyck daughter of our-hero-Aldo! She remembers:

“My dad started designing playgrounds in Amsterdam just after the Second World War. He did hundreds of them, but today there are just a precious few left. All those wonderful pieces of playground equipment have also been demolished. It’s terribly sad. The playgrounds dotted all over Amsterdam formed a kind of empowerment for the child, because as the city became bigger and the car was introduced, children were more or less pushed off the street. My dad thought that only when the city is covered in snow does it, for a short while, belong to the child again. When the snow disappears, the kids have to go back indoors or they have to be taken by their mothers to a playground, and most tend to be enclosed and controlled. My dad’s playgrounds encouraged children to discover shapes, forms, proportions, and distances, and develop their imaginations on their own terms. Wherever you were in the playground, you were never on the edge, but always surrounded by something. Either you were in the sandpit or you were climbing or hanging upside down, jumping on something, or going from one place to the other. There was a whole sequence of games you played with other kids on the way, sometimes via the jumping stones or somersault bars.”

And this from Ben Dattner, son of Richard:

“By the time I was born in 1969, my dad had already designed playgrounds like the Adventure Playground in Central Park. My sister and I felt a unique sense of ownership and pride in those playgrounds. He actually took a psychological approach to playground design. One of his innovations was to have double slides, because he had observed kids at playgrounds, and he found that when there was only one slide, there might be a kid up there, hesitating, not ready, fearful, and the other kids might be behind him saying, “Come on, go!” So my dad designed this double slide, so that one kid could take his or her sweet time and build up their courage without interrupting the flow of the rest of the kids.”

Visit Metropolis for more memories and photos of Modernists at Play, including the towering playhouse Hugh Hardy built for his daughter and her friends – image 2, above.

[image 1: Dijkstraat Playground, Gemeente Amsterdam Stadsarchief, Dienst Ruimtelijke Ordening/courtesy MoMA and via Metropolis Magazine. image 2 by Norman McGrath, via Metropolis Magazine. image 3: Richard Dattner]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern

Thanks for your patience while I’ve had to devote myself to science for a bit!  But now back to playgrounds, and specifically to our discussion of this idea of playground preservation.

Fully realized landscapes for play (as opposed to sets of equipment) from the last mid-century, whether well-known ones like Richard Dattner’s, or La Laguna Park, or more obscure sites like Fayetteville Arkansas’ Wilson Park, are quite rare.  That means if your community has one you should absolutely be taking pains to preserve it!  But it also means that most communities are dealing with, at most, the preservation of worthwhile vintage play features, rather than entire landscapes, and that’s rather an easier task.

To illustrate, I present to you the case of Tommy the Turtle.

A modernist concrete turtle was one of the play sculpture offerings of the Creative Playthings company in the 1950s and 1960s (in researching this post I was thrilled to find that  Mondo-blogo has posted the entire 1956 Creative Playthings play sculptures catalog online…hooray!)  Designed for durability in reinforced concrete and constructed as a ‘tent’ so that children could play under as well as on it, the turtle became one of CP’s most popular playground features:  its realism was more attractive to buyers than their more abstract offerings, like amorphous climbing stalactites. Note the price:  $350.00 with delivery!

The turtle’s compact size led to installations, including the companion baby turtles, not just in designated playgrounds but in front of stores and restaurants and along streetscapes (a notion of distributed play space that needs to be revived!). And their concrete durability means that many of them have survived into the twenty-first century.

But not enough…a fan of the turtle “formerly in the courtyard of Belair Shopping Center” in Bowie, Maryland has created a facebook page devoted to its memory, to which many have contributed their own photos of present and past “Tommy the Turtles”.

I want to point out, again, that creators of public space must take seriously the accumulated fondness of a community toward features such as these.  Even leaving aside the fact that the Creative Playthings turtles are now bona-fide artifacts of mid-century design, why tear out something that has proven its value for something that people might, but might not, have the same fun with?  And which certainly, won’t have the same  my-mom-played-on-this-turtle-too community memory.

Unless deterioration is simply too far advanced, there is absolutely no reason why a worthy vintage playground feature can’t be worked into a new landscape or playground scheme.  At the very least, they should be relocated rather than scrapped.   In perusing a public google map to track the locations of concrete play turtles, both those that are still in place and those that are just a memory, I was disappointed to find that one had been removed for a new playground by a firm that has been featured on this blog (you know who you are, and I want to know what you did with Tommy!).

If you know of a vintage turtle in your area, please add it to the map!  Raising their profile can only increase their chance of making it through the next 30 or so years, until when they’re a hundred years old we decide that, oops, maybe we shouldn’t have so readily discarded them.

Turtles aren’t the only features that should be preserved of course:  I recently stopped by a defunct park in my own city to photograph this mid-century climber:   

I haven’t had much time to research its origins yet, so if you can enlighten me, please do.  But I’ve added it as the first entry in a new public google map I’ve created  (inspired by the turtle map) of “Playgrounds Worth Preserving”.  If you know of a DNA-like climber or a concrete pipe playground or a vintage rocket-ship worth preserving, do please add it to the map, it’s set so that anyone can edit, and all countries are welcome!

(over time I’ll be adding the vintage playgrounds that have been featured on this blog to the map; if you’d like to give me a hand with this task get in touch) 

I must say it’s a relief to get back to playgrounds after a fierce bout with electrons…more turtle playgrounds on Monday. 

[thanks to reader Mike G for sending me the link to the concrete turtle map, like, a year ago…]



Posted in 1900-1950, Mid-Century Modern

With thoughts and prayers going out to my new, now drenched but apparently all safe, friends on the East Coast (just a week ago it was such a sunny day on the playground!),  I’d like to continue to talk about this issue of playground preservation.

My mail is running about half and half:  half of the respondents are completely unsentimental in this regard, preferring to focus on installation of new playgrounds rather than caring for old ones.  The other half believe that continually ripping out the old to put in the new is at best misguided and at worst a total waste, and are nostalgic for beloved playgrounds they knew that no longer exist.

Certainly not all playgrounds can or should be preserved.  But some should be.

Before removing a site, its significance (is it of genuine significance in some way to the history of its local site or community, or to the more general history of design or of play, or an important example of an architect or designers body of work?)  and uniqueness (Are there any more of these?  Am I replacing a unique play experience for my community with a standardized one?  Can we get a playground like this back?) should be considered.

And I want to add add to that list community attachment.

The bonds that tie a community to a physical site are tenuous, fragile, more easily broken than made.

They’re difficult to ascertain in focus groups, as any leader of a failed public space construction will tell you. (“We built what they asked for…why won’t they use it?”)

One of those ties that bind is the accretion of history in a place, and the erasure of that history, accumulated carefully and slowly over years, is one reason public spaces fail.  In playgrounds, the accumulation is the memory of fun; of great play experiences tied to that hill, that slide, that rope swing, that a grown-up remembers and brings their child to experience anew.

“I used to love going here as a kid so sad my daughter will never know how good it WAS!!!”

If a community is playing, and playing well, on a site–be it a city park or a self-construct in a vacant lot–then the creation of a new site in that place should respect the accretion of play memory that was already there.  Changes can, and often must, be made.  But the new space should be redolent of the old.

We had a ball there very sad It’s gone and our kids have missed out. They only get to play on the pathetic replacement that is nice to look at but not a patch on the original. It was fun for all ages.”

The quotes and pictures in this post are from a facebook site devoted to the gone-but-never-forgotten Grant Park Playground in Monash, South Australia. (thanks to Alec for the link!) Its amusement-style rides, built by one man, Grant Telfer (who must have been an amazing welder) simultaneously look like enormous fun and a liability-conscious town council’s worst nightmare. 

OMG .. this was just fantastic … drive hundreds of kms to have a day of FREE FUN .. Pity insurance killed it .. wonder how many made a claim when they got injured, doubt if anyone cared .. it was just so much fun :)”

What does it mean for those who make public space, and those who make playgrounds, that the Grant Park Playground– removed for the safety of the citizenry–still inspires such affection?   Does the playground that replaced it have its 300,000 visitors per year or inspire people to drive hundreds of kilometers to play? (note that many commentors on the fb page remember that it was great fun for adults as well as children and the video shows lots of grown-ups at play).

Playgrounds are finally, and justifiably, beginning to be judged and evaluated by the standards of other public spaces, because that’s what they are.  A playground that is not adopted by its community is a waste of time, money, and space.  There’s alot to learn from Grant Park, go ‘like’ them!


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play Heroes

As some of you know from my other, infrequent, blog about garden history, I am also a historian of landscape (having taken a sabbatical from nanotechnology to get a master’s degree in the subject from the UK.  I highly recommend interdisciplinary studies, btw!).   So I have a preservationist bent, and that is what this post is about, inspired by my visit last weekend to some ten  play areas of Central Park.

Central Park, of course, occupies a unique place in the history of the American landscape, but its place in the history of the playground landscape is just as unique.  Because the park is so big, there has been–is–space to try out all sorts of play constructs, and over the years it has assembled a set of play spaces that seem like a museum-worthy collection of urban play thoughts dating from Olmsted’s day until now, though some are only historic shadows of past use.

And that’s what I was thinking about as I was going around the playgrounds of Central Park: about preserving, learning from, such a long history of play.  An ongoing issue in garden history is that public understanding of the need to preserve landscapes lags far behind feelings about the preservation of buildings, and even farther behind the generally accepted idea that other forms of art–objects like paintings, say–are worth taking care of and hanging onto.

And since the notion that playgrounds are in fact designed landscapes–an idea I try to champion here as much as possible–is also pretty new,  it stands to reason that the preservation of worthy playground sites is really just coming into broader discussion (see Playscapes past coverage of the La Laguna playground and the Edgar Miller Animal Court).  Playgrounds typically are built, allowed to deteriorate for 10-30 years, and then rebuilt according to current fashion.   So what does it mean to ‘preserve’ a playground?  Is it even appropriate?

Central Park is a key space for this conversation, about which playgrounds should be preserved, and how, and by what means we adapt them to changing ideas about risk, safety, child development and social goals while keeping them great places for play.

I won’t have time or space in this post to go all the way back to Olmsted (!), though I’m hoping to do some scholarly writing in that vein.  The main focus of my day out in Central Park was the mid-century playgrounds by Richard Dattner and Paul Friedberg, which I’ve pored over in books.

In person, they’re brilliant, with play value as strong as their forms.  Like a lot of people who love design, I fall hard for how a space looks….but playgrounds are for play, and its possible for the most visually compelling of designs to fail miserably if the child is not kept first and foremost.   So I’m pleased to report that on the play-o-meter (which is my proprietary internal rubric for evaluating how kids are playing!) these were places with both great design appeal and great play appeal.

I can only capture a limited sampling of my thoughts without completely boring you, so I’ll focus on just three of the sites our happy little group of playground geeks visited; the three that scored the best on the play-o-meter.  The  first was Richard Dattner’s ‘Adventure Playground’ at  West 67th.  If you’ve downloaded the Dattner book Design for Play (see the sidebar), then you know this well:  short, curving concrete walls, ‘volcanoes’ with brick scramble walls, a stepped wooden ziggurat, a modernist water rill for wading.  In the 1990s the playground was saved from potential destruction but nevertheless elements of the design (the ziggurat, the climbing frames, the treehouse) were made significantly shorter, and tunnels were blocked, to address safety concerns.  I’d like to think that if it was being renovated now maybe the changes wouldn’t be so severe, because there’s a much more sensible conversation happening about risk/benefit on the playground than there was just five years ago.

These alterations are probably why this playground was pulling a much younger audience than the one for which it was originally intended.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find that for those younger children the best imaginative play–children quietly going about creating their own world–I saw all day was here at the ‘Adventure’ Playground.

The beauty of the shaded site certainly contributes, but it’s key to notice that these imaginative moments, of a child utterly lost in play, were occurring as the child engaged not with the large iconic active pieces, but with very subtle elements of Dattner’s design:  short tunnels, a lowered block that invites a child to clamber over a wall, a stepped boundary that becomes a climber, a round platform that becomes a stage.  Dattner wisely puts these ‘play moments’ out of the main flow of traffic, often protecting them within the short walls, which are perfect for a child to feel ‘hidden’ even though they are still visible to an adult.

And they were mostly happening in the sand.  Dattner’s original design was for the base of all of his playgrounds to be pretty much filled with sand, converting the entire surface into playable space.  There’s nothing like sand for play-per-unit-area.  Though it is the original playground material,  sand is increasingly disappearing from playgrounds because of (1) concern over contamination with animal feces, needles, etc.  and (2)  ADA issues…sand is not wheelchair friendly.  But it’s such a loss for play so I’m interested to hear from my readers how you are addressing these issues… do leave a comment with your thoughts on sand.

The monumental forms of another Richard Dattner design, the Ancient Playground, reference the Met’s Egyptian temples housed just behind the glass across the street.  I really felt the lack of the concrete finish techniques seen at other Dattner sites:  strong edges, exposed aggregate finish, and visible form marks (see the Adventure Playground photos).   Without them, the renovated site looks more ‘adobe’ than ‘ancient’.  That’s admittedly a playground geek thing, but it’s a serious issue for design preservationists in other fields.  So is it an appropriate question for the playground, too?   Playground preservation uniquely has to balance original design intent with ongoing playability.

Regardless, there was great play going on here…the Ancient Playground tied for the top in in “best active play”.   Dattner is great at the scramble.  Everywhere you looked there were kids pulling themselves up, and lowering themselves down, tilted surfaces.  The key here is TILTED.  It is important for a child to experience and test the limits of their balance, and the Ancient Playground provides plenty of slanted brick abutments for scrambling:  the rough ones you climb on, and the smooth ones you jump and slide on.   An underestimated loveliness of Dattner’s design is the restful area that grown-ups gather in under a grove of golden locusts–that favorite tree of mid-century modernists–that were glowing in the fall sun.  It is one of too few occurrences of planting inside the playground fence that I saw in NYC.  There were beautiful plantings…but generally on the other side of the fence, and this is an issue the Central Park Conservancy is addressing in their ongoing commitment to making great play spaces in the park.

The last playground I want to focus on (though I’ll do at least one other posting on Central Park with some additional thoughts) is the East 110th Street Playground, on the northern boundary of the park, by M. Paul Friedberg, whose Handcrafted Playgrounds book you can also download here. 

His 1979 Timberform playground surprised me by achieving the highest score for the day on the play-o-meter.  Now it’s an admittedly quirky index, but one that has been honed over years of play observation, and I do normalize for number of kids, differences in social context, etc.  The 110th Street playground had the widest range of ages actively engaged with the play space–it was the only playground that reached into the 11-12 year old range–and the play was very active.  It was also the only site where the players talked to me about their playground and how much they loved it.

So I spent quite a bit of time trying to absorb what made this playground space so successful (other than just the tire swings, which they all adored, and told me so).  But there were things they didn’t know to tell me but that I could see:  like how much they liked the feel of the massive timbers, or how far they could scramble along the horizontal beams between the uprights, or how even a small child could climb the timber ‘mountains’ because there are more-challenging and less-challenging routes up and down and there’s always a handhold nearby (so no need for an intrusive safety railing).
The East 110th Street playground is slated for destruction, to be replaced by a new playground design.

Do I wish this playground had some plantings, and some topography and a better connection to the wider landscape?  Sure.  But should this playground be preserved?  I tend to think so, and I’m interested in your thoughts.

I’m generalizing here, but preservation is basically about significance and uniqueness.  There are things that are significant but not unique and things that are unique but not significant, and things that are both.   The massive timbers of the East 110th Street playground do mark a significant design point in play history, and near as I can tell from my research it is one of few Timberform playgrounds left. Central Park has appropriately retained a classic Robert Moses era-type playground–metal jungle gym and all–in its open-air museum of play, and I’d like to think there is room for a Timberform playground too; room for children to experience a unique type of playground that will soon disappear completely from the urban landscape.

That is not to neglect material issues…wood of course has different preservation considerations than metal or plastic.  But they’re not insurmountable.

And this may win an award for my longest post ever on Playscapes!  From time to time I feel bad when well-meaning people advise me that any truly successful blogger posts multiple times a day.  But  I like to think we’re having a conversation here, and conversations don’t happen that fast.  So I’m going to leave this post sit for a few days, and I hope you’ll add your thoughts on playground preservation, and specifically on the East 110th Street Playground; I really want to hear them.

[image of adventure playground (then) via dwell and adventure playground (now) via the Central Park Conservancy]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play Heroes

I had an amazing weekend amongst the playgrounds of New York City, and was pleased to meet many of you readers!  Detailed posts about the MoMA symposium and assorted playground visits are in preparation, but in the meantime, enjoy these ‘Recraforms’.

That’s what Mary Preminger–artist, sculptor, designer and wife of filmmaker Otto Preminger–called her mid-century play constructs, at least two of which were installed (below, pictured in San Diego) though many more were planned and not executed.  I’m excited that what we know about mid-century play sculpture–of which the best documented points are the works of Noguchi and the contests held by MoMA and the Corcoran gallery–keeps broadening to include things like the Czechoslovakian play contest and these beautiful pieces.

Mary’s work was in danger of being forgotten;  she believed that Otto had her blacklisted in the art world after their divorce, and many of these photos were in storage and narrowly escaped being discarded.  Her  legacy is now being preserved online, and you can see more drawings, sculptures and recraforms at, where her art ‘bubbles to the surface’.

[Thanks to Mike for letting me know about these, and watch for more of Mary’s play work in future posts, thanks to her web archivist!  If you know have additional information about these lovely pieces, please get in touch. ]


That’s some fast slidin’….even for a “merry health giving exercise”!  Found at the Kansas Memory Project; the slide was produced in Kansas by the Parker Amusement Company for installation at the Golden Gate playground in San Francisco, California.

Posted in 1900-1950

I’ll post a full summary of the interesting conversations from London Open for Play soon (including tales of those hardy souls who braved a tour of Islington’s regenerated play spaces in the driving rain), but in the meantime it’s back to our regular programming!

In searching for more information on the intriguing satellite-inspired play structure by Zdeněk Němeček featured at the MoMA Century of the Child exhibition I found some fascinating references to a play design contest  “Děti ve městě“, organized in Czechoslavakia in  1960.  Was this the Eastern bloc’s answer to MoMA’s 1954 playground sculpture competition?

The results of the contest, full of space-race references and biomorphic forms taking advantage of new plastic materials, were published in the Czech magazine Tvar a Domov, and are reproduced at the blog expo58, from which all the images and captions in this post are sourced.

I’m particularly intrigued by the one playground that doesn’t fit in either the sputnik-y or  plastic-y modes, a design kit for a modular playground by Viktor Fixl.  It proposes a kit of loose parts well ahead of its time.

And were any of these designs ever realized for Czech playgrounds?  According to the author of expo58, the Nemecek sculpture was not only installed but was restored in 2009, and the sculpture by Olbram Zoubek and Eve Kmentová is intact at experimental housing complex Invalides in Prague.

If any readers have more information on these designs, or copies of the relevant source material, please get in touch!

[image 1: Viktor Fixl: Design kit for multipurpose playground, 1960

image 2: Zdenek Nemecek: functional sculpture Model for playground, 1960.

image 3: Jirí Novák: Functional sculpture for playground, 1960, a special prize in the competition “The kids in town.”

image 4: E. Rebmann: Laminate sculpture for playground, 1959-1960

image 5: Josef Soucek: Carousel, part functional sculptures for a children’s playground, 1960, a special prize in the competition “The kids in town.”

image 6: Unknown author: Plastic model playground, 1960

image 7: Unknown author: Plastic model playground, 1960

image 8: Unknown author: functional sculpture Model for playground, 1960

image 9: Unknown author: Plastic model playground, 1960

image 10: Olbram Zoubek and Eva Kmentová: Functional sculpture for playground, experimental housing Invalides, 1960]

If you don’t know the play sculpture of Hungarian Pierre Szekely (one of Simon and Tom Bloor’s inspirations below), the definitive source is the comprehensive online catalogue assembled and maintained by Pierre Karinthy.  

It can difficult to navigate as it includes all of Szekely’s work (and he was prolific), but I have extracted the play constructs that I know of–all are located in France–and arranged them in chronological order to show the progression of his playground thoughts. It is particularly interesting to observe how he moves back and forth between round biomorphic forms and sharp, angular geometries…ending up with the monumental Lady of the Lake, the first permanent climbing wall in France, opened in 1975 but now quarantined as ‘unsafe’.

Karinthy lists, but has no photos of, play sculptures Pierre designed for disabled children at centers in Brest and Cambrai.  I’d love to see these; if you have any information on them, or indeed on any of Szekely’s other play works do get in touch; it’s a shame there has been no monograph of such interesting ideas.  All photos are from Karinthy’s site except where otherwise noted.

  • 1957 – Playground; model Petit-Clamart, Hauts de Seine; View of the Petit-Clamart playground via the charming blog archipostcard, which celebrates modern architecture as shown in vintage postcards
  • 1958 – City of Games; L’Hay les Roses, Val de Marne; source: archipostcard
  • 1958 – City of Games; L’Hay les Roses, Val de Marne; source: archipostcard
  • Contemporary view of L’Hay-les-Roses from the great astudejaoublie blog
  • Contemporary view of L’Hay-les-Roses from the great astudejaoublie blog
  • 1960 – Circus; Residence Manera, Vaucresson, Hauts de Seine
  • 1960 – Circus; Residence Manera, Vaucresson, Hauts de Seine
  • 1961 – Great form of games; Champagne sur Oise Oise (now destroyed)
  • 1961 – Well the birds; Champagne sur Oise Oise (now destroyed)
  • 1962 – Castle games; Verneuil sur Seine
  • 1962 – Castle games; Verneuil sur Seine
  • 1967 – Universe Games; Grenoble, Isere – restored in 2008
  • 1967 – Universe Games; Grenoble, Isere – restored in 2008
  • 1973 – The Extraterrestrial Massy; Massy, Essonnes
  • 1973 – The Extraterrestrial Massy; Massy, Essonnes
  • 1973 – The Extraterrestrial Massy; Massy, Essonnes
  • 1975 – The Lady of the Lake; Evry, Essonne
  • 1975 – The Lady of the Lake; Evry, Essonne [source]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Playgrounds by Artists

William H. Whyte – Social Life of Small Urban Places from Robin van Emden on Vimeo.

William H. Whyte’s film “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” is an urban planning classic.  Whyte moves through the mid-century plazas of New York City in a direct, shoe leather observation of why some spaces work, and some don’t; complete with old school charts and graphs.

You really should watch the whole thing (it’s 58 minutes)–the architecture and people are a delight–but pay particular attention to the footage of Harlem street play and kids in an adventure playground, at 1:30 – 2:40, and Whyte’s surprising observation that the playground space was actually under, not over, utilized.

Every designer of outdoor space should be required to watch Whyte’s discussion of the characteristics of a good bench, and many of his observations apply to playgrounds just as well as plazas:

“The number one activity is people looking at other people, but it is a point that is overlooked in many many designs”

“Visual enjoyment (of a site from the street), this secondary use, is every bit as important as the primary use.” 

“The ‘corner’ is a sociable space.”

“People don’t like to talk in the middle of a large space.  They like to find places like steps, edges, flagpoles.”

“The places that people like best are those which open to the action but are slightly recessed, slightly protected. You get a caving feeling.  Just a few honey locusts overhead will do it.” 

“To make a place like this work, you must unfence it!”

Read more about William Whyte at the Project for Public Spaces

Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Resources

Longtime Playscapes readers know that the playground began with the sandbox.  This historic example (1922) of a backyard sandpit is from the photography of Frances Benjamin Johnston in the stunning new book Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935.  By Sam Watters in collaboration with the Library of Congress, published by Acanthus Press.

Posted in 1900-1950

The Netherlands have Aldo van Eyck, but other countries have their playground heroes as well:  Lady Allen Hurtwood in England,Theodor Sorenson in Denmark, Empress Frederick in Germany…and Switzerland has Alfred Trachsel, champion of the ‘Robi’ or Robinson Crusoe playground.

I’ve been hoping  to bring his 1959 book “Creative Playgrounds and Recreation Centers”  to you but have been unable to locate his heirs; if you know who they are please do get in touch!  For  now, there are still some copies available on amazon and etc., and you should get one while you can.

[I also want to take the opportunity to point you to an amazing site devoted to the history of children’s playgrounds: architekturfuerkinder by Gabriela Burkhalter.  Playscapes brings you as much history as I can, but Gaby’s site is devoted solely to the topic, and is comprehensive and well-informed.  Don’t miss it! ]

Trachsel’s approach to the playground is unique for being so utterly inclusive…he called his Robi sites “a playground for all age groups” and he meant it:  from babes in arms to the elderly, all gathered together in one play space.    Robinson Crusoe playgrounds are sometimes said to be synonymous with adventure playgrounds, but this isn’t historically accurate, according to  Trachsel and coauthor Alfred Ledermann’s own definitions.  They saw the classic self-built adventure playground concept as too limited, and wanted to add to it artistic, competitive, and team endeavors as well as social engagement for all ages.

Trachsel’s designs were of playground-as-community-centers, specifically embodying the idea of the ‘village tree of old’, and incorporating permanent buildings for communal activities.  This concept continued to influence public park design well into the 1970s, and community buildings alongside playgrounds are still often seen in Europe but less commonly here in the US.

Trachsel included ‘building areas’ ala the classic adventure playground, but also added hard surfaced areas for ball games, wading pools, villages of playhouses and swings for small children, and areas for theatrical and musical performances.  And check out those community chalkboards!

Alfred Trachsel was also the first person (near as I can tell anyway!) to make a play feature out of a natural tree trunk laying on its side in a sandpit, now a common element of the modern natural playscape.

Does your country have a playground hero?  I’d love to hear about them…leave me your ideas in the comments!


Posted in Play Heroes, Play History

There are a series of urban playgrounds in Singapore surfaced with square mosaic tiles more reminiscent of bathtub than a playspace; a unique material I haven’t seen applied anywhere else quite in this way.

This past January they were the subject of a photography exhibit called “School Of Hard Knocks” by graphic designer Stanley Tan and his wife Antoinette Wong, owners of the Little Drom Store, who started  started taking pictures of the playgrounds about four years ago. They were designed by Mr. Khor Ean Ghee of the Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the 1970s.  Now 76, he said in an interview that ‘We wanted to create something that was distinctive. My boss said to me that all the buildings along Orchard Road were not designed locally. So at least, our playgrounds should be.’

He doesn’t elaborate on why the mosaic tile technique was chosen, but I hope it won’t be lost…newer playgrounds in Singapore should honor this special local tradition.  Tan regrets that now “no matter where you go, it’s the same old thing. We’ve lost a little of our identity, with the same safe playgrounds manufactured overseas, all over Singapore.”

Justin Zhang of CNNGO points out the reason:  “a decade of local playground design came to an abrupt end in 1993. Just months after the local papers ran an exposé about the public playgrounds’ poor state and lack of safety standards, a five-year-old boy’s thumb was severed while playing on a faulty slide. The boy regained the full use of this thumb, but that marked the end of the play areas. Foreign safety experts were flown in to inspect our playgrounds, which were subsequently declared unsafe.  A massive upgrading exercise was carried out. Concrete structures in sandboxes were replaced with plastic modular ones sitting on rubber mats. The HDB also stopped designing playgrounds and bought them from international suppliers instead.”

To celebrate these unique places, the Little Drom Store made playground pins depicting the distinctive structures (I love this idea…the world needs more playground jewelery!)  There’s a tiny mosaic dragon, and an elephant, a pelican and a watermelon….all available on their website.

[First two images by Justin Zhuang for CNNGO, others from the Little Drom Store.]

Posted in Play History, Playable Sculpture