Evolution of the Park: Why the Playground is the Heart

James C. Gamble
Land Design Collaborative, Inc.

Article appeared in the January 2006 Park and Recreation
Design Issue of elevation:, newsletter of the Illinois
chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects

Historically, parks sold real estate, defined neighborhoods, and provided public access to natural resources. Many community parks contained recreation centers with facilities for gathering, water and court play, surrounded by sports fields, and playgrounds. Parks provided residents with recreational resources the individual could not afford to provide for himself. In many ways the role of parks have changed very little over the years.

Today, as in the past, health problems for children are a concern. However, spontaneous recreation is in competition with computers/TV/video games, and “structured” activities. In May 2005 KaBoom! found that the pediatricians surveyed believed that unstructured play helps build children’s social skills and confidence (96%), helps kids from becoming overweight (89%), and helps kids improve problem solving skills (82%). A number of questions arise regarding the historic role of parks and what role tomorrow’s parks can play in society, health, and recreation. Answers to these questions lie in understanding how parks changed over the past century.

Park Playground the “Heart of the Park”

Playgrounds have been evolving as knowledge in technology, safety, physiology, and psychology increases. Play equipment has been a unique aspect of parks since the 1900s and distinguishes the park visit from all other park play experiences. The playground has become the heart of many parks, encouraging spontaneous play and social interaction. A chronology follows.

1850 to 1920

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a playground consisted of seasonal hand crafted wood play pieces such as swings, ladders, and balance beams. The “Jungle Jim,” a steel pipe play climber, changed the playground from temporary wooden equipment to permanent installations of manufactured equipment and led the way to elaborate steel pipe climbers.

Central Park Swings

1920 to 1950/60

In Denmark and England a new play concept emerged around the idea of a “junk playground” later to become the Adventure Playground where materials and tools were provided in controlled play areas. In the U.S., new play equipment was manufactured with a “theme” that looked like rocket ships, teepees, and bugs. Swings, climbers, and metal slides were lined up on dirt and asphalt pavement. Playground users stopped play, time after time, as they picked the next piece of equipment to use.

1950/60 to 1970

During this period, playground equipment was often custom designed and integrated with manufactured equipment. In addition to steel equipment, manufacturers like Form created figurative sculptural pieces that were designed by artists for use in playgrounds.

Landscape architect M. Paul Freidberg was advancing playground design in the urban setting to be integral with other public spaces and urban life. He used typical urban materials such as recycled granite cobblestones and large timbers to form spaces and play experiences. Friedberg was a defining force in the design of parks and revitalization of this country’s desolate urban environments. His 1970 book “Play and Interplay” revolutionized the philosophy of urban play and design in this country.

1970 to 1990

From 1970 to 1990, play equipment manufacturers took on the responsibility for research and development to create better equipment that provided safer, accessible, and challenging play. In addition to more natural materials and colors in the playground, safety and accessibility became huge factors in the design of playgrounds and play equipment. The days of the individual playground designer custom designing play equipment were essentially over.

The Americans with Disabilities Act brought the rights of access for everyone into the design of playgrounds. Litigation created a heightened awareness of the need for technology and design to address safety issues, such as impact absorbing play surfaces, removal of injury prone equipment, lower heights of play pieces, safety zones, and elimination of entrapment points. Inspections and audits on playgrounds are now performed nationwide by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) trained and certified by The National Recreation and Park Association.

1990 to 2000

During this decade color and height have been reintroduced and safety and equipment accessibility is standard. Playground equipment manufacturers enhanced their equipment with lower maintenance technologies and features providing more play value.

In the late 1980s, the Scandinavian influence changed the image of the playground. Kompan introduced bright colors and figurative themes in their pieces. Their ship and climbing tower brought back bright colors and role playing. Kompan also introduced pieces to address play and socialization needs for teenagers in a new generation of equipment.

Beyond the Year 2000

The future of park design relates to the demands of society. The baby boomer group is healthier, more mobile, and more financially viable than any group before. Gail Sheehy, chronicler of aging and author of Passages, proclaims life begins at 60, with the Age of Mastery between 50 and 75 years. Affluent Baby Boomers are moving to the city and to suburban retirement communities. At the end of the century males are expected to live to the high 70s and women beyond 80 years. Future active recreation will include three and four generations of users engaged in the same activity at the same time.

Certainly, there will be a need to develop safe, healthy, and challenging playgrounds for both children and adults who need to exercise, dream, create, and socialize at their own pace and in their own way. A playground is yet to be defined for seniors but its purpose will be similar to that for children: a safe place to run free and unrestrained.