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A History of Outdoor Playspaces: From the Natural Environment to Recycled Plastic

By Dorothy W. Hewes

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Playgrounds designated for young children were not developed until the early 1900s, even though their need for playspace has been known since ancient times. Philosophers have pondered over this topic, as when Plato recognized that all young creatures, including humans, like to leap. Ethologists like Jane Goodall have made us familiar with the capers of young pimates. "Animals at Play" in the December 1994 National Geographic described activities such as a raven's repeatedly sliding down a snowbank on its back. Archeologists found children's footprints zig-zagging and circling while adults were plodding sedately along a river bank thousands of years ago. Anthropologists have observed children's activities in cultures untouched by our civilization, noting that they used small rocks for marbles and improvised toys from materials at hand. As one example some young children in Africa were supposed to be herding the tribal cattle but instead began catching locusts that they pretended were cows. They got so involved with building twig pens for them that the real cows wandered away. Few behavioral scientists published serious investigation until the 1960s, as indicated by dates of 71 studies compiled by Bruner and others in Play - Its Role in Development and Evolution (1976). Karl Groos, whose 1898 book on The Play of Animals tried to persuade educators that play is a prepation for later life, is often credited with the idea that children need to run off their surplus energy. He was apparently not very influential, since more than a century later, in December 2001, Surgeon General David Satcher's Call to Action report stated that young children must "get off the couch" and that communities need safe playgrounds.

Comenius and Pestalozzi incorporated outdoor games and nature walks into their programs. Teachers at Owen's Pestalozzian community at New Harmony included supervised outdoor playtime in their children's programs of the 1820s. Some infant schools of the period followed this precedent. Friedrich Froebel's kindergarten plans of the 1840s emphasized that an awareness of the natural environment was essential to the spiritual and social development of children. His sand table of the 19th century kindergartens became the sand box of the 20th century. By 2002, the Sand Art playground at www.lovethosekids.com means no mess to sweep up. In Inventing Kindergarten (1997), Norman Brosterman included Froebel's own plans for children's garden spaces. Those earliest kindergartens had access to nearby woodlands and public squares. There was no need to designate space just for children. As Alice Earle pointed out in Child Life in Colonial Days (1899/1973), no equipment was needed for tag, singing games, hopscotch, and other activities that have been played in the streets and fields for centuries. In Bruner's Play, Alison Uttley explained that, "The fields were our toyshops and sweetshops, our market and our storehouses." However, in America's increasingly crowded urban areas of the late 1800s, outdoor space was not available for kindergartens and many teachers found that the closest they could come to a natural environment was to sprout beans in a jar of water on the window sill.

Community land has a long history, but in 1634 the Boston Common became the first designated public open space in the United States. Other cities followed, but these grassy areas were also used to pasture livestock and drill the militia. The first legislative action to specify a space just for children appears to have been in Brookline, Massachusetts. Celia Lascarides sent me details from their Preservation Commission to document the 1871 purchase ($5,878.50) for their Cypress Street Playground. Jane Addams started a model play yard in 1892 at Chicago's Hull House and soon other kindergartens designated areas for children's outdoor activities. By 1904, Los Angeles established the nation's first Playground Department to provide safe alternatives to games on the streets. Progressive educators and public health authorities became interested in outdoor activities for school-age children. Their concerns led to the 1906 organization of the Playground Association of America, with the original emphasis upon team sports. After changing its name to the national Recreation Association, it slowly began to provide "tot lots" for younger children with the installation of swings, seesaws, climbing structures, and slides - and shaded benches for adults.

Preschool playgrounds equipped for young children came with federal sponsorship of WPA nursery schools during the depression of the 1930s. The NANE (now NAEYC) was influential in their establishment. For example, Christine Heinig's Housing and Equipment Bulletin (1934) gave directions for making simple things like a wooden "rocking boat" to develop large body muscles and facilitate social interaction. This bulletin and NANE publications were guides for federally funded child carecenters during World War II and for 1950s' parent cooperative nursery schools. They gave ideas for equipment that could be made by parents or local handymen using old tires and concrete pipes, or constructed from wood and other common materials. Large wooden blocks, planks, and other items were available for the teachers and children to use for improvised constructions. The adoption of metal slides, swing sets, and jungle gyms seems to have begun in the WWII Lanham Act centers that were operated by public school districts.

Our NAEYC publications of the 1950s and '60s are replete with accounts of experiential learning about the natural world, even when it was about something so seemingly insignificant as the metamorphosis of the caterpillar on a weed growing under the slide, as a San Francisco director reported in 1966. Katherine Read Baker's Let's Play Outdoors (1966) was widely read. Frost and Klein reviewed theories of children's play and illustrated typical equipment in Children's Play and Playgrounds (1977). They emphasized safety factors, noting that climbing equipment was often placed on cement slabs and that swings with heavy wooden seats were dangerous. Their inspection of several hundred playgrounds found that most were "hazardous, inadequately equipped, and inappropriate to the development period" of the children they served (p. 55). This concern was not limited to the United States. After the first mandatory Playground Safety Standard was adopted in West Germany in 1975, Kompan decided to market only approved equipment. By 1983, their Danish company had started a worldwide comparative study of standards. Other manufacturers soon followed, with the added threat of injury lawsuits influencing the shift to safer commercial structures. By 2002, this threat has also led to legislation restricting children's access to the remaining segments of the natural world or to playing in the neighborhood streets.

One probable factor in the move to recycled plastic was legislation developed with input from the preschool associations in the late 1960s. Its goal was to provide federal funding to support a nationwide network of child care centers. By the time it was vetoed by President Nixon in 1971, manufacturers had been alerted to the potential profits of the "child care industry" and the coincidental development of recycled plastics guaranteed not to split, rot, or need painting led to a colorful new phase. (We might theorize that the "recycled" tag also has made it seem more ecologically acceptable.) At the same time, corporate child care centers appeared on the scene and they introduced business methods designed for profit. Outdoor equipment made to look like dinosaurs, mushrooms, or other fanciful creations not only impressed parents with their "cuteness" and bright color combinations but fit into the preconceptions of young children who had been watching television since infancy. Another factor emerging in the past few decades has been the threat of massive insurance settlements, with commercial plastic structures placed upon rubberized padding being much safer than those previously used. It might be questioned that this negates the need for children to learn to be careful of themselves and others as they climb and slide in the preconfigured yard. However, one result has been to restrict public land access for play.

Within the past few years, there has been a trend toward plastics in neutral wood colors. Across the nation there is renewed interest in old Froebelian ideas about children's garden plots and in the Reggio Emilia system. The Froebel Foundation model school in Grand Rapids, scheduled to open in 2003, will feature extensive natural environments. The new London playground built to honor Princess Diana has no plastic materials and is designed to allow for children's creative ideas in a peaceful natural setting. Growing interest in feng shui, the ancient Asian practice of creating harmony in the environment, may contribute to changing the appearance of young children's outdoor playspace. Kaleidoscopic bright colors typical of recycled plastic are stimulating, according to this belief, while a more serene natural atmosphere would lead to cooperative learning and physical health.

When considering the benefits of outdoor play, we must distinguish between games with adult rules and play that is unrestricted except for safety and a few other boundaries. Observers have noted that children learn to distinguish between make-believe and reality. They develop rules and codes of behavior, internalizing the need to restrain their impulsive behavior and gain practice in coping with the tasks of life ahead. As Karl Groos wrote more than 100 years ago, after describing the biological significance of various young animals as they practiced behaviors that would help them survive in the wild, perhaps the very existence of childhood is to give time for outdoor play.