American artists were a force in playground design in the 1950s and 1960s, but when patrons began to choose equipment based on whether it would reduce their liability, artists disengaged from design. Architects, landscape architects, and visual artists in Europe, Australia, and Asia, however, have remained engaged. In these locales, artists have fashioned natural materials into play spaces; located play in nontraditional settings, most of which expand public space; and developed play areas and skate parks that have revitalized urban life. In the process, they have shifted play from tightly contained playgrounds with limited play value toward more generalized, interactive playscapes. Their work has led to recently designed play spaces around the world—including a few projects in the United States—that are both artful and fun.

Playing with Nature

Postwar American playgrounds and schoolyards had strong ties to nature. M. Paul Friedberg devised wooden “post and deck” systems in the 1960s to simulate play in rural streams and hills. In the 1970s, landscape architect Robin Moore transformed the asphalt schoolyard at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., into the “Environmental Yard,” an oasis of earth and water. These pioneer efforts later gave way to companies who market inert post and deck structures and to seismic retrofitting that ripped out the plantings in the Berkeley yard and returned it to a dead, man-made plane.

Meanwhile, natural playgrounds in other parts of the world—particularly Scandinavia—have continued to thrive. For more than two decades, Copenhagen-based architect and landscape architect Helle Nebelong has led efforts to include nature in schoolyards and children’s quarters of parks. In places like the Nature Playground in Valbyparken (2001), she has created lively, intergenerational public domains, open 24 hours per day, where, she says, “children have to use their full bodies and minds to explore and manage their surroundings.”

“Denmark has a long-standing tradition for letting children play freely using their own imagination,” says Nebelong. “The junk playgrounds—later called adventure playgrounds—that emerged in my country in the 1940s inspired me a lot. Using leftover building scraps, kids have opportunities to experiment and manipulate materials, to socialize, and to embark on fantastical journeys. Children train themselves in dealing with and triumphing over unpredictability. I try to accomplish the same thing using water, sand, soil, stones, plants, terracing, and hidden spaces among natural growing materials.”

Susan G. Solomon is president of Curatorial Resources & Research. The author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space (University Press of New England, 2005), Solomon consults and lectures on innovative playground design. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Featured in Public Art Review #45.

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