Playground Project: ′Freedom and anarchy′ for kids | Arts | DW | 13.07.2018
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Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

The playground: What started out as a gathering point has become a vital part of urban planning in many cities, especially in northern Europe – and an important element in children's development.

Playgrounds have become a ubiquitous part of the urban environment in Germany. From red roped climbing gyms to rainbow-shaped monkey bars to tunnel slides painted to look like a dragon's head, play equipment for children can be found in public places around the country – and are often filled with laughing children.

That's not always been the case. A by-product of the industrial revolution, playgrounds first came about in the late 19th century in the US and UK. These areas, often empty lots in the midst of housing projects, initially served both as meeting point as well as a place for the children of immigrants and those living in poverty to interact with the outdoor world.

The Playground Project, an exhibition at Bonn's Bundeskunsthalle traces the development of these common areas as they went from barren urban niches to the adventure playgrounds so frequently seen today.

The Berlin playground Ali Baba and the 40 thieves (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen)

Playgrounds come in all shapes and sizes in Germany

Social reform of the 1900s

The first playground is thought to have been conceived in New York by philanthropic social reformist, Charles B. Stover, who founded the "Outdoor Recreation League" in 1890. The organization aimed to open experimental playgrounds around the city – creating spaces that might help to "save" the street children from life on the mean streets. Rather simple in their concept, these parks used the tools on hand in a rapidly industrializing world – equipping the gender-separated areas with risky climbing frames made of steel pipes and wood. It was so successful in its endeavors that by 1903, the New York Park Department opened the first city-funded playground, Seward Park.

Bringing nature to the cities in 1930s Scandinavia

Although this early play equipment was both dangerous and minimal, the idea caught on in other parts of the world. Carl Theodor Sorensen, a landscape architect in Copenhagen took an especial interest in "natural" children's play. Beginning in 1925, Sorensen worked to replicate the rural environment in the courtyards of Danish housing complexes. In his world, a sandbox becomes the beach, a kiddie pool replaces the sea and grassy areas with bushes and paths serve as areas for children to orientate themselves as if in the forests.

At the same time, he developed the notion of the junk playground, or Skrammellegeplads – a free space replete with building materials and tools that would allow children to creatively complete their own construction projects.

children sliding down handrails (Getty Images/AFP/M. Abed)

Even without a proper play area, kids will find creative ways to entertain themselves

As much effort as Sorensen made to accommodating these areas to the desires and needs of children, the first member of Sorensen's staff, John Bertelsen, explained that these areas were not intended to be educational. "I cannot, and indeed will not, teach the children anything. I am able to give them my support in their creative play and work, and thus help them in developing those talents and abilities which are often suppressed at home and at school."

As a result, there was much greater emphasis on designing the playgrounds to allow for incidental play – as opposed to contrived, adult-directed play with rigid structures. A pro-child environment, Bertelsen believed, required a pro-play physical background. And with that, the notion of play sculptures – like slides designed in the shape of an elephant's head – was born.

The adventure playground and anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s

Sorensen's ideas left an impression on Marjory Allen, a gardener and landscape architect in London who focused on the creation of child-friendly environments after witnessing how happy children were playing in nature. "Outdoor living is as important as indoor living, especially for the children," wrote Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood in her book Planning for Play.

Man testing slide at the playground (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte)

It's unclear at what point kids lose the urge to enjoy themselves on the playground

After renaming Skrammellegeplads to the more palatable "adventure playground," in 1953, Allen traveled the world to bring attention to the necessity of properly planning playgrounds around children's needs. In her book, Allen writes that urban planners should consider such dimensions as the inclusion of poor weather areas – spots for shade from the hot sun or rain – as they design parks. Or the distance young children will walk in order to come upon a playground as well as traffic patterns that will cut off a child's access to the play area. From the pedagogical perspective, she wrote that these spaces always required a mixture of freedom and anarchy for the kids to make best use of their creativity in them.

These adventure playgrounds that Allen was advocating for were quite different from what many parents in Germany were used to and in the 1960s – a decade which emphasized self-empowerment – many citizens got together to initiate community playground projects. In Berlin's Märkisches Viertel, an area that saw rapid post-war growth, residents banded together to create the country's first adventure playground in 1967. Despite initial criticism of these playgrounds as being anti-authoritarian, the idea spread to other industrial areas, including the Ruhrgebiet. Their rapid acceptance and development reflected the activist attitude of the time – if the government won't legislate for these play areas (as they had done in Denmark), parents would take their children's development into their own hands.

The normalization – and nominalization – of the 1980s  

While in Germany, pedagogical activism has carried the parental love affair with the adventure playground through to today – resulting in unusual playgrounds in nearly every corner of the major cities, in other places, like the US, safety concerns have made them much more difficult to design. As a result, playgrounds have taken on a more normalized, homogenous appearance, with natural materials like sand and water traded out for cement and rubber.

Still, all hope is not lost. With the exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle, both the exhibit's curator Gabriela Burkhalter and the museum director Rein Wolfs, aim to showcase what playgrounds can offer – from a design perspective as well as a historical, pedagogical and urban planning view.

"By playing, we begin to discover the world, to understand it and find our way around in it," Wolfs says. "Play puts social conventions to the test, and like art, it is a domain of unfettered creative activity, an end in itself, untrammeled by the twin demands of purpose and utility." And with this participative, performative exhibition – one in which visitors are asked to climb on, in and through the exhibit pieces – that is exactly what happens. Play, unfettered.

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