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How not to cheat children: Let them build their own playgrounds

“A child must feel he has an effect on his environment. If they cannot create, they must destroy”

Architect Richard Dattner’s plan for the Adventure Playground in New York’s Central Park, circa 1967.
Courtesy Richard Dattner

It wouldn’t be much of a Play Week on Curbed without our resident expert’s take: Critic Alexandra Lange has been all over this beat in recent years, trekking to Noguchi’s last work, a mega-playground in Japan, and highlighting Aldo van Eyck’s progressive Dutch playgrounds. (This summer she also published, ahem, an entire book on the design of childhood, which scales from toy blocks to city blocks.)

Here, we’re excerpting a section from Lange’s book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, that delves into the adventure playground and its history in New York City. That’s right—there was a time in the not-too-distant past when parents let their scamper over concrete ziggurats and build their own play structures with hammers and nails. Intrigued? Read on!

“The next best thing to a playground designed entirely by children is a playground designed by an adult, but incorporating the possibility for children to create their own places within it,” architect Richard Dattner writes at the beginning of his case history for the West Sixty-Seventh Street Adventure Playground, one of five he would eventually design at the periphery of Central Park. Where Kahn and Noguchi failed before him, Dattner and landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg would succeed.

New York was not to be without a park with slide mountains, underground tunnels, sand and water and ancient geometry, integrating topography with play rather than setting equipment out on a cushioned tabletop. In the late 1960s, Dattner and Friedberg, aided by several New York–based family foundations, designed and built a series of public playgrounds in New York City that have become beloved examples of how to play differently, even as they have faced their own preservation challenges.

After the Second World War, thanks to a donation from philanthropist Kate Wollman, the world’s largest outdoor skating rink was completed north of the park’s Fifty-Ninth Street lake. Parks Department architects and engineers would build new structures for the carousel, the Chess & Checkers House, the Loeb Boathouse, and so on, in a style condemned by New Yorker architecture critic Lewis Mumford as “crassly utilitarian.”

The park’s original designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, had been at pains to minimize the architecture in their landscape, and most structures had a fantastic appearance. In 1956, Moses had decided to expand Tavern on the Green, the restaurant on the park’s west side, and to build an eighty-car parking lot north of the building—on the site of a children’s playground.

Roselle Davis, wife of painter Stuart Davis and a park regular, noticed men with surveying equipment and checked out their blueprints with the title “Detail Map of Parking Lot.” She organized a petition, drafted by novelist Fannie Hurst, which attracted the attention of the New York Herald Tribune. Moses refused to meet with the petition’s signers, instead sending in the bulldozers on April 17.

When supporters Elliott and Eleanor Sanger woke up and saw the work going on from their apartment at 75 Central Park West, Davis, Eleanor Sanger, and the other mothers quickly rallied, forming a cordon of women, children, and baby carriages in front of their playground. As Jane Jacobs and Shirley Hayes would later find in their own fight against Moses to maintain their playground and open space at Washington Square, the smallest protesters are often the most photogenic.

The confrontation went on for weeks, until the mothers returned to the site one morning to find park workers had toppled a maple tree. The group sued for an injunction against Moses, and the sympathetic judge, State Supreme Court Justice Samuel H. Hofstadter, commented that, there being no dearth of nightclubs in the city, it wasn’t necessary to have one in the park. A half acre of Central Park was a small thing in the abstract, he wrote in his ruling, but “no foot, or even inch, of park space is expendable in our teeming metropolis.”

West 67th Street Adventure Playground, Central Park, New York, 1967, Richard Dattner Architect.
Photograph by Norman McGrath. Courtesy Richard Dattner.

Moses ultimately backed down, defeated by the mothers, and the playground remained next to a smaller one that was intended to be its replacement. Six years later, both had fallen into disrepair and a new group of users petitioned Newbold Morris, so unyielding on Kahn and Noguchi’s plans for Riverside Park, for improvements, like adding a rubber safety surface under the equipment. He said yes, though it took him about four years.

But in 1965, John Lindsay became mayor and replaced Morris with Thomas Hoving. Thirty-four years old, with a PhD in art history, Hoving saw parks as part of the city’s cultural life, not just as recreation facilities, treating them as stages for public performance and “happenings,” including child-friendly exhibitions with the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Hoving (who would later direct the Metropolitan Museum of Art) was far more receptive to the mothers’ pleas for improvement and, once a donor was found, to a design that presented play itself as a daily happening.

The Estée and Joseph Lauder Foundation offered to support the construction of a new playground north of Tavern on the Green. Leonard Lauder, speaking for his parents, said that “the family had first wanted to do this several years ago when many of our friends were fleeing the city because they thought New York was not the place to bring up children. We decided to build several of these to give the city just this little lift.” The reconstruction required in New York in the late 1960s was not in response to war, as in the playgrounds built in Amsterdam and London, but in response to an erosion of public amenities, outdated, under-maintained, and insufficient for the new generation of urban children.

At the time, Dattner had a small architectural practice. One of his first commissions, a Long Island laboratory, factory, and warehouse for Estée Lauder with Sam Brody, had been on the cover of Architectural Record in 1965, and the Lauder family was pleased with their architect. Despite his lack of experience, they selected him to design the park. Dattner told me, “The Lauders said to me, ‘You want to design a playground?’ Which I knew nothing about. My attitude ever since I opened my office was, ‘Anybody asks anything, say yes.’ Meanwhile, my wife was a young graduate student in psychology at City College. She steered me to the books that are quoted in my book, Piaget, Bruno Bettelheim.”

In Design for Play, Dattner recalls the controversy over the Kahn-Noguchi park without mentioning it by name, and it may have been on the Lauders’ minds as well. “Although never built, this playground had a considerable influence on subsequent playgrounds, including the Adventure Playground,” he writes. “In addition to its outstanding design, the doomed project yielded one very important lesson: the community must be fully involved in a project from its inception.”

Park commissioner Thomas P.F. Hoving, left, and Estée and Joseph Lauder, pose in New York on June 8, 1966 with the model for Dattner’s adventure playground. The half-acre project, constructed at 67th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan at a cost of $70,000, was sponsored by the Estée and Joseph Lauder Foundation.
AP Photo/John Lent

Logically, then, Dattner’s foray into Central Park began with a community planning process. After presenting rough sketches to the most active members of what was now known as the Committee for a Creative Playground, Dattner created a scale model of the design out of sticks and clay that could be shown to a larger group. A second meeting, for seventy people, was held to look at the model. At the end of this meeting, the Lauders made a request: Would the community raise funds to pay for a full-time playworker, since they were paying for the architect and cost of construction?

The act of fundraising ended up being an important glue holding the community together during the process of design and construction. Asking for funds for the playworker increased outreach about the park and underlined the fact that parks have to be maintained, not just built. Dattner also presented his designs to children at the local elementary schools, showing them before and after scenarios that, he reported, were met with oohs from his young audience.

But what was the design? The finished plan shows a series of linked play elements built of concrete and stacked cobblestones, most of them curved, arranged around a racetrack-shaped oval. Outside the elements is a paved path ringed with benches, intended to be the domain of the parents (who don’t like getting sand in their shoes). Inside, the surface is sand, split down the middle by a long sculptural water trough, reminiscent of some of the garden designs of Italian modernist Carlo Scarpa. There are circular labyrinths and truncated cones, slide hills, and a fountain encircled by steps. A jungle gym made of logs and horizontal steel bars offers one high vantage point, and a treehouse built around one of eight existing trees offers another.

There is also a boat with a burlap sail that children could maneuver, a departure from other playgrounds that had no adjustable elements. “The main thing wrong with playgrounds is that kids can’t change them,” Dattner told the New York Times Magazine. “A child must feel he has an effect on his environment. I really think that’s why some kids destroy things. If they cannot create, they must destroy.”

The many levels offer degrees of difficulty, of protection and openness, of hideouts and public stages, just like the park that surrounds the playground. Unlike that park, the whole ensemble can be circumnavigated via a continuous path atop thirty-inch-high walls. What’s different is that these mountains, streams, and valleys are man-made, but their symbolism is obvious to even the smallest child.

The south end is designed for physical activity, running, jumping, climbing, and tunneling, while the north end is intended for digging, building, painting, and playing with water. Because of the successful fund-raising for a trained playworker, the playground was designed for supervision, with activities administrated from the hollow stepped pyramid, which contained a storeroom for all the supplies the supervisors might need, along with changing rooms and electrical outlets.

Painter Julia Jacquette, whose own father designed another adventurous Central Park playground in the 1970s with his firm Ross Ryan Jacquette, published a graphic memoir in 2017 that skips from playground to playground and includes realistic drawings of the West Sixty-Seventh Street play space. She told Urban Omnibus, of Dattner’s design,

I remember entering that playground for the first time. The utter thrill of seeing this interconnected waterway; the amphitheater-like structure, with the sprinkler in the middle, which then fed into a channel, letting the water flow down to a geometric wading pool. It was so obviously built for us, kid-sized kids, to be able to walk in, and put stuff in. The canal had very low walls. And children were, as I noticed immediately, putting rubber duckies or sailboats at the top, watching them go down this thirty-foot-long channel, and then retrieving them as they bobbed around in the wading pool.

Each element was carefully considered for its play possibilities for both older and younger children. Take the climbing poles, as one example, an improvement on the metal jungle gyms over asphalt that the playground replaced. A fall from the jungle gym had been part of the mothers’ original complaint to then commissioner Morris. Dattner says the sanded redwood uprights are better to look at and to touch than steel, and the design varies the spacing of the rungs so that small children can more easily climb below, but only as far as safety allows. The poles are surrounded by sand, in case of falls, but falls are few because there are plenty of places to step on or grab.

This use reminded me of the soft pine paneling along the walls at the Crow Island School: a material that doesn’t hide wear but embraces it and is not marred by decades of tacks and staples. Friedberg, whose woodsy Billy Johnson Playground (1985) is still a rustic respite in Central Park, would eventually design and license, through the company TimberForm, a modular version of such log-and-steel climbers, making them accessible to playground planners across the country. He wanted to allow park supervisors to customize their climber to their site but found that most customers wanted prearranged models from which to choose, overwhelmed by the tyranny of choice.

Play Panels, West 67th Street Adventure Playground, Central Park, New York, 1967, Richard Dattner Architect.
Photograph by Norman McGrath. Courtesy Richard Dattner.

For his Central Park Adventure Playground, Dattner also designed a kit-of-parts system, based on the Eameses’ modular house. The so-called Play Panels, which were made of half-inch plywood and came in two sizes, 24 x 32 inches and 12 x 32 inches, could be notched together to create walls, houses, vehicles, and platforms. The two sides were painted with diamonds, triangles, circles, and stripes in a variety of bright colors, giving completed structures a harlequin effect. Short matching ladders could be propped against the sides to access the roofs of structures built above the children’s heads.

The pieces were large enough to build forts and houses, while still being light enough for children to lift on their own. The notches meant that no additional tools or pieces were needed for assembly. And at the end of the day, the pieces were gathered and compactly stacked inside the storage pyramid by the playworker. The panels didn’t look like junk, or even off-the-shelf lumber from the hardware store. They looked like toys made for a giant’s children, and as such, offered something that kids probably wouldn’t have had in their own homes. For toddlers, there were nesting wooden boxes and wooden blocks that could be manipulated by small hands and from a seated position.

Dattner’s Play Panels fall into the category of “loose parts,” a term invented in 1971 by architect Simon Nicholson in an essay called “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” Inspired by the junk playgrounds of London, Nicholson writes that “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.”

Children’s environments, he goes on to say, “are clean, static, and impossible to play around with. What has happened is that adults in the form of professional artists, architects, landscape architecture, and planners have had all the fun playing with their own materials, concepts, and planning alternatives, and then builders have had all the fun building the environments out of real materials; and thus has all the fun and creativity been stolen.”

Nicholson argues that children need to be put back in the driver’s seat as active consumers of recreation. He points out that, during the 1960s, educators had emphasized “the discovery method” as central to new curricula. Children learn most easily in a laboratory environment, finding things out for themselves via physical trial and error. If this sounds like Progressive education at the beginning of the century, it should, as all of the education reformers, from Froebel on, emphasized the hand as well as the head.

Nicholson makes an important connection, however, between the indoor classroom and outdoor playgrounds. He envisions a future in which the boundary completely dissolves: “In early childhood there is no important distinction between play and work, art and science, recreation and education . . . Education is recreation, and vice versa.” He proposes extending the flexibility of early childhood to all of childhood, which means scaling up the parts and complexity of the educational environment.

The idea of an outdoor toy that works like cleaned-up junk has proven to be a fertile one, more marketable, in many cases, than just playing with junk. Charles and Ray Eames’s The Toy could be used outside, but it wasn’t really made to get dirty or for the wear and tear of public use. Patty Smith Hill’s blocks required cooperation, but also some small specialized parts. More recently, architect David Rockwell teamed with play-advocacy group KaBOOM! to create the Imagination Playground in a Box: big blue parts made of lightweight foam in shapes ranging from long bendy poles to round cogs, stackable bricks to scooped-out channels. One can see the shadows of many previous building toys in their array of forms, from Tinkertoys to unit blocks to marble runs and Erector Sets.

Rockwell came to the project as a frustrated parent. As Rebecca Mead writes in the New Yorker, just before the first Imagination Playground opened on Manhattan’s Burling Slip in 2010, “like many first-time parents, particularly those belonging to the urban upper-middle class, Rockwell was nostalgic about the free play of his youth, and lamented the more constricted opportunities that were available to his offspring.” She even nods to the Eameses’ Carton City, and the discovery that “the box in which a toy is delivered is often of more interest to a child than the toy is.”

At Burling Slip, the blocks are kept in an oval-shaped head house, with a bathroom inside and adult-size stairs up to a viewing platform. The site is managed by playworkers who were initially trained by Penny Wilson, author of the Playwork Primer. Without the blocks, the playground, also designed by Rockwell, can feel rather desolate, like a stage without players.

But play is a delicate thing: I’ve been to the park several times with my own children, and the experience varies. Once there were no blocks, and no sign of life within the house. Once the playworker doled out the blocks in dribs and drabs, frustrating the kids who wanted a whole pile to work with. Once the playworker watched as teams and raiding parties developed, undoing the work of my eight-year-old and his temporary friends as fast as they could build. Should he have stepped in? As a parent, I thought yes, as tears persuaded my son to leave the broad, wood-floored building plain. As a historian I thought no; kids need to work things out between themselves.

Since their introduction, I’ve seen the blue blocks at children’s museums and pop-up parks; a set was purchased by the PTA at my children’s school and another set donated to their preschool. For the children of the urban upper-middle class, the blue blocks have become ubiquitous and, in their ubiquity, boring. Junk, like the weather, is always changing, but the blue blocks remain the same, putting them at the same risk as a fixed playground of becoming static.

Reilly Bergin Wilson, of play:groundNYC, says there’s something wonderful about working with loose and inexpensive materials. It need not only be productive—that’s our makerspaces talking—since sometimes kids just need to wreck. Loose parts theory arises out of an interest in anarchy rather than order. Whether designer loose parts actually fulfill this mission is unclear. The Toy, the Play Panels, the Imagination Playground blocks are perhaps too clean, too easily lofted and joined. In the adult design world, constraints are a creative opportunity, but these loose parts intentionally minimize the degree of difficulty.

In Nicholson’s loose parts essay, he points to the community involvement of parents in organizing new forms of recreation as an unintended, highly positive consequence of the adventure playgrounds movement. “In terms of loose parts we can discern a natural evolution from creative play and participation with wood, hammers, ropes, nails, and fire, to creative play and participation with the total process of design and planning of regions of cities.”

The process of learning about, proposing, funding, and finally playing in these new parks becomes an exploration of administrative loose parts for adults. Liability insurance isn’t really that expensive. But how do you collect enough junk to last a summer?

The adventure playgrounds of Central Park provide just one example of this, from their inception in a request for better maintenance to their recent rehabilitation for a new age, spurred by kids who grew up climbing the pyramids and now have kids of their own. Baby carriages lined up to save the playground at West Sixty-Seventh Street from demolition echo those lined up downtown to save the Washington Square Arch—a protest that helped spur the book about looking at cities from the ground up, and watching where people want to be: Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Alexandra Lange writes the Critical Eye column for Curbed, covering design in many forms: new parks and Instagram playgrounds, teen urbanists and architectural icons, postmodernism and the post-retail era. Her latest book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, was published by Bloomsbury USA in June 2018.