We might think that the playground is the natural place for children to play: swings, slides and roundabouts are widely seen as the essential features of a public play space for children. Nonetheless, the present-day playground is the culmination of over 150 years of debate about where and how children and young people should spend their time when not at school or work. For much of the last century, the principle that children need dedicated places to play has been broadly accepted, but the physical form of the ideal playground has changed a number of times in response to changing social and environmental anxieties.
Some of the earliest dedicated public spaces for children appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. In Britain, the first public parks in Manchester and Salford included gymnastic equipment for children, providing space for structured, health-promoting exercise. However, children were hardly central to the design of these green spaces. Both the girl’s playground, which provided space for skipping and shuttlecock, and the boy’s playground, with climbing ladders, bars and ropes, were hidden in the shrubbery on the boundary of the park, to prevent them from spoiling the view of the picturesque landscape or interrupting a genteel stroll. In other cities, mid-nineteenth century parks rarely included specific facilities for children. Even Charles Dicken’s involvement in a mid-century Playground Society in London was not enough to ensure its success and it only lasted a few years before disbanding.
But by the late-nineteenth century, things were starting to change. The Metropolitan Public Garden, Boulevard and Playground Association had considerable success in promoting and creating children’s gymnasiums. Working in London from the 1880s, it created an increasing number of children’s gardens, equipped with gymnastic apparatus, in an effort to encourage children to take part in physical exercise and to interact with plants and flowers. However, its activities were motivated less by an innate concern for children’s needs and more by the perceived impact of urban life on the strength and vigour of the working classes. It was thought that providing facilities for physical exercise would ensure that poor children developed into strong adults who could serve the British Empire as workers at home and soldiers abroad. Such spaces also embedded conservative social values into the fabric of the city, segregating playgrounds by age and gender and locating them in the poorest neighbourhoods.
The emphasis on structured and segregated playground provision was, however, challenged from the early twentieth century, most notably by the philanthropic industrialist Charles Wicksteed. Inspired by radical town planning and progressive education, Wicksteed created a garden suburb with a public park and children’s playground at its centre in his hometown of Kettering. He adopted a permissive approach to park management and created a large playground open to girls and boys, children and adults.
Wicksteed’s vision was for a play space that promoted freedom, playfulness and pleasure, and he designed and installed play equipment inspired by the thrills and names of amusement park rides. The popularity of the Jazz Swing and Joy Wheel, to park administrators and children, meant that similar playful equipment was soon installed in other green spaces and housing estates across the country. The number of equipped playgrounds increased significantly in the interwar years, as part of wider efforts to provide new public leisure facilities and to address the increasing number of children being killed and injured by motor vehicles while playing in the street. By the late 1930s Wicksteed’s company had supplied over four thousand playgrounds, while competitors also promoted slides, roundabouts and, most copiously, swings. Large and small parks would often include forty or fifty swings, leaving little room for plants and trees or alternative forms of children’s play.
Interwar criticism of this new approach – and the domination of manufactured equipment in particular – paved the way for alternative visions for play space design that sought to reclaim the playground as a space for childhood self-expression and interaction with nature. Experimental ‘junk’ and ‘adventure’ playgrounds, as well as debate among child activists, landscape designers and History Workshop participants, were part of the battle for ideas that marked mid-twentieth century playground discourse.
However, it is hard not to agree with the feeling of Iona and Peter Opie, the noted folklorists who spent six decades observing, recording and publishing the day-to-day experiences of children from the 1950s to the 1990s. The Opies saw the playground as something of an irrelevance to children’s play, finding that children were perfectly able to organise their own playful activities and adapt to a range of environments. That’s not to say that playgrounds weren’t used by children, but rather that they were just one of many places where children spent their time in the city. For the sociologist Vere Hole, writing about high density housing estates in 1966, the use of playgrounds by children displayed similar patterns of behaviour to adult use of the local pub – a fun place to socialise with friends but far from the only space where this took place.
This ambiguity about the purpose of the playground, and its value to children, continues to inform present-day debate about the provision of public places for play in art exhibitions and the media. On the one hand, if children have long been able to develop their own playful activities wherever they happen to be, then why do we provide specific places where play is meant to take place? Alternatively, as cities have become increasingly hostile to children, particularly as automotive movement has been prioritised over play and other communal street-based activities, then the designation of specific child-focused sites for play perhaps represents an important way to signify that children and young people are valued members of society. However, if that is the case, then we need to revisit our vision of the ideal playground, as it continues to be dominated by the products that Charles Wicksteed developed one hundred years ago.