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State of Play: How Architects and Designers are Rethinking America’s Playgrounds

A forthcoming exhibit looks at how new concepts in landscape architecture are changing our playgrounds

Landscape architect Kate Tooke’s route to becoming a playground designer started at school. A former teacher for the public school system in Dorchester, Massachusetts, near Boston, Tooke was animated by many of the same issues that inspire others to take up education as a profession, wanting to inspire students to be healthy, inquisitive and confident. But issues beyond that classroom—decreased access to public space and the outdoors, a lack of room to explore and experiment—caused her to rethink other ways to make a difference.

"I found myself more interested in the urban spaces my students were inhabiting, and wanted to find a way to help them prepare better,’ she says.

Her pivot roughly eight years ago towards become a landscape architect, focused on playspace, could be representative of how a new generation of designers has been approaching an iconic childhood location, the playground. They aren’t just places to go, they’re now increasingly places to learn, experience, and engage.

An exhibit opening next month at the BSA Space in Boston, Extraordinary Playscapes, curated by the Design Museum Foundation, examines how the traditional prefab, cookie cutter approach to playgrounds is undergoing a massive shift towards more adventurous and eccentric public space. Featuring photos, exhibits, and sketches of more than 40 parks across the country and the world, it’s set to be a showcase of creative approaches to environmental design that engages children. It’s also indicative of how big shifts—in education, media, public space, demographics, and design—are shaping and changing play spaces for today’s youth.

"Studies show our grandparents roamed around an area of roughly 6 miles when they were growing up," says Tooke, now an Associate at Sasaki Associates, a firm with a high-profile portfolio including the Chicago Riverwalk and Lincoln Memorial Landscape, as well as parks such as Lawn on D in Boston. "For our kids today, that area is often reduced to the front yard or driveway. That’s put a lot of pressure on our neighborhood parks to make up the difference."

According to Sam Aquillano, executive director of the Design Museum Foundation, the organization started to look at this topic a few years ago, and initially wasn’t inspired by a surface-level look at current parks. But as they dug into the concept more, and looked at research showing how important playgrounds are to a child’s social and mental health, they decided it was the right time to highlight the amazing play environments being designed today.

The cutting-edge playgrounds on display, from PlayForm7 in Singapore, which includes an adjustable play sculpture, to Berkley, California’s Adventure Playground, which contains furniture, wood, boats, scrap metal, loose parts, and tools for kids to build with and create (with supervision), show a widening definition of what play means, and what it can accomplish. While adventure and freeform play may seem like nebulous concepts, research has shown the value of these environments and activities, from helping brain development to developmental and social skills.

According to Rob Adams, an associate principal at Boston-based Halvorson Design, which specializes in urban landscape and design, part of the reason there’s been a shift towards more eclectic and creative urban playspaces is due to a shift in who uses these facilities.

"There’s definitely a renewed energy around urban playground, and a lot of it has to do with changing demographics of parents in cities," he says. "There are more staying here with families, which means more desire for places for kids."

It’s also a shift towards changes in the everyday experience of childhood due to increased screen time with digital devices, as well as the rise in helicopter parenting and closer supervision. According to Missy Benson, a play advocate at Playworld, a recreational facilities company, recent studies suggest children 10 to 16 spend only 12.6 minutes per day engaged in some form of physical activity, and compared to children in the ‘70s, today’s kids spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities.

But much of the shift is due to a desire to improve on more the more staid, regimented playspace that become the standard in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Risk-averse design, due to lawsuits, regulations from consumer safety groups, and the prevalence of prefab parts led to a playground-by-the-numbers design that, while standard and safe, means less play value for kids.

"These spaces are so important to childhood development," says Aquillano, "but oftentimes, we have plug-and-play, standard playgrounds, with the same slides, swings, and jungle gyms. There’s a lot more that can be done, and it’s not just designer’s responsibility. They’re often responding to a brief from a city or neighborhood."

Adams says some of the changes were for the better, in terms of standardizing safety regulations, but the pendulum shifted too far in a conservative direction, and is only starting to move back.

"Being able to play independently in our society has been reduced over the years," says Cheri Ruane, vice president of landscape architecture at Spurr. "With schools focused on testing, there’s less time for creative, engaging play. With the increase in screen time and the decrease in attention spans, I think there’s huge parental support to get kids outside and dirty and in the mix. When you talk about playgrounds, we went through this period where prefabricated play equipment became more manufactured, and a lot less creative."

Ruane’s firm focuses on playground design that physically activates children and challenges them with risky play elements, such as the rock climbing wall at Grimmons Park, in Somerville, Massachusetts. When children are given a chance to learn their own limits, and test out their own fears, they can master them in small increments. Like many contemporaries, they’re looking at a more holistic approach, trying to create spaces with numerous learning opportunities.

While playgrounds have always been viewed as a space for recreation and enjoyment, the current trend away from standardization and towards more unique, site-specific, and engaging design has only been coalescing in recently, picking up steam in the last decade. A forefather of this movement, Gas Works Park in Seattle, a renovated industrial site that landscape architect Richard Haag turned into a public park in 1975, transformed a defunct gasification plant, while leaving the metal ruins as a key part of the landscape. The design, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, provided an early challenge to the idea that everything needed to be sterile and clean.

More recent examples in the United States include Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati, which boasts a waterfront adventure playground, Teardrop Park in New York City, which includes a long slide and sand pits, and Maggie Daley Park, a recently opened centerpiece in Chicago Millennium Park with a rolling landscape, ice skating ribbon, and funky light poles that resemble praying mantises.

While more and more U.S. parks are embracing these new design concepts, the country is still playing catch-up to Europe. The more dense, pedestrian- and health-oriented urban environments overseas have traditionally been more focused on, and invested in, open space, and cities and municipalities have been celebrated for their cultural willingness to push things forward, occasionally in extreme ways. At a Welsh playground called "The Land," an adventure park that encourages risky play, kids can set things ablaze.

Tooke may not be designing for pre-school pyrotechnics, but she sees the spirit of adventure it represents as a guiding force for a new generation of play spaces and landscape design.

"There’s going to be a desire for more challenge, more adventure," she says, sounding like a very excited teacher. "Rocks, boulders, big, fast slides, we’re going to give kids a chance to play, learn, and experiment."

5 Playgrounds That Will Make You Want To Be a Kid Again [Curbed]

10 Parks That Changed America: From Savannah to the High Line, The Country’s Influential Public Spaces [Curbed]