The Play Environment, Part 2: The Evolution of Public Places to Play

Posted by Gregory Miller on November 21, 2017 9:03:37 AM MST
Gregory Miller

To read more about Play Environments go to Part 1 and Part 3.

the-woodland-gate-by-nathaniel-currier springfieldmuseums_orgPlay is not only inherent to our human nature, but is actually a key process responsible for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development in many animal species, including humans.

This might not seem like a profound statement to many, but it's something that is increasingly overlooked in the modern age of lawsuits and digital screens. 

Play is Natural

There’s no clear definition of play - it can be structured or free, it can include equipment (balls, board games, built structures, and electronics) or be completely imaginative. We play in groups and by ourselves, and enjoy watching others engaged in play. 

The notion of play is clear in our minds (we think we know it when we see it), yet we often find ourselves striving to answer elusive questions that validate or justify our decisions as parents, designers, and policy makers.

If play is  natural, why do we feel we have to investigate, program, and design the mechanism of play? Have we lost our focus and as a litigious society come to think of play as scary and undesirable?  Does play shape our future, or does it reflect who we’ve become as a society?  

I seek answers to these questions because I sense that play may have swerved on to a path that will not advantageously serve our future generations. I feel strongly that some level of intervention will help us return to the time when play wasn’t organized by checklists and schedules.

The Evolution of Play Area Design

For millennia, there was no such thing as a play area.  The notion of a designed space dedicated to play first started in our post-industrialized cities. It paralleled the public parks movement that had designers and planners promoting the need for open recreational space within an increasingly urbanized society. 

As people raised children in increasingly urban environments, the need for dedicated children's play areas grew. Childhood was recognized as a distinct and precious time of life, and playing in the streets and vacant lots began to give way to more protected and designed places.

Early Public Play Equipment 

Early play equipment was hand-built locally, often using easily available materials such as wood timbers and metal pipes, allowing imaginative and challenging designs to emerge. These designs were personal and one-off and became less common in the post-war era.

Manufacturers recognized that there was a market for prefabricated equipment that could be mass produced. This led to cost-effective production, but also to cookie cutter design. 

Further developments added imaginative structures like rocket ships and airplanes to a more standard palette of climbers, swings, merry-go-rounds, and slides.  

The 1960s and ‘70s brought about a renewed awareness of the social and emotional benefits of play environments as demonstrated through the work and writing of landscape architects like M. Paul Friedberg,  an early leader in bringing social justice to community playgrounds.

The age of the play area had arrived and communities embraced the idea that these deliberately designed spaces were critical parts of public parks and school grounds.

At the same time, concern for the safety of children started to influence design. Simple, off-the-shelf designs proven to be benign appeared in isolated areas specifically created for play.

Formal adoption of national play area safety guidelines in the 1980s established clear design criteria that could be tested.  These guidelines recognized that standards could never be created that would eliminate all risk of harm, but strove for significant reduction in the incidents of severe injury.

Eventually questions started to be asked - are these playgrounds TOO safe? Do they create a false expectancy that life will have no risks,  leading to either total risk aversion, or wild risk seeking behaviors? Are there challenges and learning experiences? And what about all the kids that have difficulty, for physical or developmental reasons, utilizing these standard play areas?

The Advent of ADA

In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination in, among other things, public services and public accommodations. Designers and  equipment manufacturers responded by adding  features, materials and surfacing that allowed equal access to play opportunities, with a focus largely on children with physical disabilities. 

While these additions did comply with ADA, there continued to be a struggle with qualifying and quantifying the success of integrating accessibility. Over the past decades, the definition of disability has continued to expand, with greater understanding of emotional, social, sensory, and cognitive disorders.  

Beyond ADA

The first playgrounds dedicated to children with disabilities have appeared to great excitement in recent years. The efforts to create these places are often driven by parents, who feel their children are not offered crucial social and physical developmental opportunities. Explicitly made to accommodate disabilities, the new playgrounds allow unimpeded access to all equipment and allow children to participate where once they stood to the side.

But Evolution Continues!

Landscape architects are increasingly aware of the huge spectrum of human abilities, and that people do not necessarily fit easily into categories. We understand so much better the importance of socialization and the many different ways people interact with their environments.

We also recognize that the natural world is becoming hard to find in urban areas, and that people are becoming isolated in their own digital universes. If we choose to, we may never meet anyone different from ourselves.

Play Environments

The paradigm of "play environments" seeks to create a holistic approach to recreation that breaks the boundaries of categories. Graduated challenges allow children to assess risk, and learn from others how to tackle and accomplish difficult tasks that may have previously seemed impossible. Less programming and more imaginative fun allow for creativity and foster social interaction. Features that encourage side-by-side, cooperative play help build social skills and greater understanding of differences and similarities.  And activities, materials and scale are mixed to create richer sensory experiences. Adults and caregivers are given due consideration as users as well, encouraging intra-generational interaction.

To read more about Play Environments go to Part 1 and Part 3.


Tags: News, playgound design, inclusivity, parks, sensory play, nature


Greg Miller


Immediate Past President of ASLA National and little league baseball coach.  If he wasn't mixing art and science as a landscape architect, he'd be mixing ingredients as a chef.