Recreate: New Grounds for New York’s Playgrounds
Playgrounds can function as important meeting places for people of all ages and backgrounds, and should be considered an important architectural element within the city.
Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, contends that just as museums were the commissions of choice for architects at the end of the twentieth century, the coveted assignment of the future could well be the urban playground. While New York gave the country its first permanent playground in 1903, over the last century the city went from playground pioneer to philistine. Now, with architects like Michael Van Valkenburgh, David Rockwell and Frank Gehry turning their attention to Manhattan’s swing set, New York may be poised to prove Thorne right. The timing couldn’t be better.
Just as a society’s approach to education is visible in the design of its schools, and its ideas about nature can be read in the character of its parks, the attitudes of Americans toward children’s play are embodied in their playgrounds. Around the country, monolithic pipe-rail and plastic units moored in seas of rubber matting languish, no longer able to compete with the dynamism of today’s virtual play worlds. The playground—with its slide, swing, seesaw and sandbox—emerged at the beginning of the 20th century when improved child labor laws suddenly afforded children an abundance of playtime. A century later, playgrounds seem to speak more to the past than to the future, no longer equipped for the realities of modern childhood.
Susan Solomon, in her definitive book American Playgrounds, assigns much of the blame to McDonald’s. In Solomon’s eyes, the more than 8,000 cookie-cutter playgrounds that decorate its restaurants nationwide represent the low point in post-World War II American playground design. While the mid-twentieth century saw artists such as Isamu Noguchi and Egon Möller-Nielsen spark a brief period of interest and innovation in the field, when it comes to playgrounds Americans have long since sacrificed creativity at the altar of safety. As many a baby boomer blossomed into enterprising lawyers, the playground gained an elaborate set of safety standards. With standards came standardization so that today playgrounds are no longer built so much as ordered from a catalog.
The result, exemplified by the McDonald’s model, is playgrounds that are safe but spiritless. In banishing unpredictability, such designs also succeed in prescribing play to such an extent as to render it boring. What began as an effort to serve children, has homogenized playground design and eliminated risk so successfully as to also eliminate interest. Sensitive playground designs have been exchanged for the metal and plastic contraptions now the paradigm of contemporary playgrounds. While total safety has undeniable parental appeal, psychologists and specialists in early childhood education believe that for play to be valuable, it needs to possess not only creativity, but also an element of danger. Educators argue that these totally safe environments lack the important elements necessary for meaningful play: variety, challenge, complexity, flexibility, adaptability and risk. Appropriate challenge adds the possibility of failure, which fuels both learning and enjoyment. Just as currents in contemporary society conspire against the playground, the argument for its importance grows. As competition for children’s attention proliferates, the perils of such designed predictability must be recognized.
Just as children’s play environments have become more structured and predetermined, so too has children’s play. American culture in the 21st century has constricted child’s play as never before. Technology, educational shifts, increased pressure to compete and parental fears have combined to affect what David Elkind, professor of Child Development at Tufts University, describes as “the reinvention of childhood.” As the growing popularity of phrases like the “professionalization of parenthood” reveals, preparing little Quinn for Kindergarten has become a full-time occupation. While the world becomes smaller and the steeplechase to Harvard faster, many parents are exchanging playtime for résumé-building activities. There is simply no time for the chaotic, unstructured fun of the local playground. Indeed studies show that today’s children play an estimated eight hours fewer each week than they did a decade ago. “Kids are victims of this changing perception of what good parenting is,” reports Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “Good parenting has suddenly become about signing your kid up for many different activities; about making sure that they get into the best college … When this happens, childhood changes: it becomes parent-driven and adult-driven, rather than child-driven.” Increasingly, psychologists lament that overscheduled kids have no time left for the real business of childhood: idle, creative, unstructured play. “I think that parents, for all the right reasons, have started to do things that ultimately are not in the best interest of kids,” remarks Susan Magsamen, Co-Director of the Neuro-Education Initiative in the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “In America, we have a very Puritanical work ethic, which is ‘if you just work harder; if you just push harder; if you just do more’—this is a fantastic ethic, but it has caused us to lose play.” And yet, increasingly scientists are revealing that it is precisely this type of child’s play that provides the social and intellectual abilities needed to succeed in life. Not only does play provide opportunities to practice new skills and functions, encourage autonomous thinking and environment building, promote flexibility in problem-solving, and develop creative and aesthetic appreciation—it also shapes the brain. Contrary to the widely held belief that only intellectual activities build a sharp brain, it’s in play that the cognitive skills are most acutely developed. Play hastens the development of the brain’s executive functions and stimulates the very neural centers that allow kids to exert control over attention, regulate emotions, and control behavior. By thriving on complexity, uncertainty and possibility, play provides essential preparation for life in the 21st century. It prompts us to see the world in new ways. As Psychology Today’s Editor-at-Large, Hara Estroff Marano, quips: “Play is the future with sneakers on.”
The future may have its sneakers on, but all too often, it is told to stay indoors. Schools that eliminate recess in favor of more class time to “teach to the test,” parents who fear “stranger danger,” the rising popularity of organized activities and the lure of technology are all laying siege to the sandbox. Over the past 50 years, the increasing primacy of television and computers in children’s lives has transformed their activities in what play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith sees as a shift from a “manual” involvement with objects and places to a “symbolic” relationship with information and amusement. Increasingly, reality is exchanged for a simulation of reality, and our bodies are left behind in pursuit of the visual and the virtual. From early life through adolescence, young brains undergo a process called “pruning,” during which time 60 percent of the synaptic connections between the brain cells are pared away—never to return. “How a young person spends their time and what they expose their brains to will have a profound effect on what they will be like for the rest of their lives. In her TED2010 talk, Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development for the Institute of the Future, reported that among countries with strong gamer cultures, today’s average youth will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. What—wonders Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center—are the effects of this increasingly technological world on the developing brain?
In their July Newsweek feature, “The Creativity Crisis,” writers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman revealed that for the first time in 50 years American creativity scores are falling. While technologically enriched environments continue to make children’s IQ scores rise, creativity scores have been in steady decline since 1990, with the trend most pronounced for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. The Newsweek study goes on to report that the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment is three times stronger for childhood creativity than IQ. In the book To Play or Not to Play: Is it Really a Question? author Doris Bergen suggests that play sculpts the brain and that it is crucial to understand that playful minds are as much created as they are born. “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it,” remarks renowned innovation consultant Sir Ken Robinson; “or rather, we get educated out of it.” “From education to play consumption, we have unknowingly created a society of more game players than game designers,” Richardson notes, “and that’s an important distinction.” How, then, can we foster a young generation of designers rather than players? Fundamentally it starts with empowering children to be the architects of their own play.
Inextricably linked to creativity and innovation, play is vital to preparing a society capable of dreaming up—and meeting the challenges of—the world of tomorrow. The cityscape, with its abundance of unplanned and unpredictable social encounters, provides a perfect stage to foster playful, spontaneous and creative behavior. Playgrounds can function as important meeting places for people of all ages and backgrounds, and should be considered an important architectural element within the city. By fostering play, relaxation, education and community interaction, such spaces can re-envision the urban experience and energize the public realm.
Martha Thorne, Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, contends that just as museums were the commissions of choice for architects at the end of the 20th century, the coveted assignment of the future could well be the urban playground. While New York gave the country it’s first permanent playground in 1903, over the last century the city has gone from playground pioneer to philistine. Now, with architects like Michael Van Valkenburgh, David Rockwell and Frank Gehry turning their attention to Manhattan’s swing set, New York may be poised to prove Thorne right. It is time we put play back in our cultural crosshairs.