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Friday, June 24, 2011

Paradise Lost and Found and Lost Again: the Mission of Playgrounds

As a parent of a young boy, I spend a lot of time on playgrounds. I like the rock climbing walls and appreciate a good fast slide. I also really like swings that have really long chains since you feel like you are flying.

My young boy likes the animals or cars that rock on large springs, a large sand box, and the dome jungle gyms. There are a lot of other features which are hit and miss. In general, if my little one can play on most of the equipment without getting frustrated, we're happy. It's a bonus, if I can spend some times swinging on monkey bars and refraining from looking too triumphant if I successfully swing across.

I thought that the societal role and social mission of playgrounds was fairly straight forward and transactional relationship. Until I went to New York City where I learned about the Rockwell Foundation and other architect's mission to transform society and create a future paradise through playgrounds.

Some of the quotes from the linked article (which require a subscription to see the full text) include the 1959 United Nations declaration about playgrounds as "as a place where children, by playing, learn to become non-playing adults." Alternative perspectives include playground development as a substitute for war training. On the other hand, playgrounds that introduce too many repetitive tasks like the 3 S's of swings, slides, and see saws are considered to tools of oppressors to stifle creativity in children.

Architects like Rockwell, Gehry, and others that we have never heard fought these pedestrian playground design and developed "Playgrounds in a Box" and "Loose parts." Children were entrusted with more control over pieces of the playgrounds to encourage the discovery and creativity process. Whacking each other with foam noodles is one example of this process.

Overally, their goals were best summed up with the following quote from the article:
Over the past century, the thinking about playgrounds has evolved from figuring out how play can instill youngsters with discipline to figuring out how play can build brains by fostering creativity and independent thinking. The hope of Rockwell's playground project is that children who have experimented with fitting together oversized blocks and cogs-and who have learned to navigate a place where the social challenges of sharing and collaboration are built into the experience-will be better equipped to handle the complexities of twenty-first-century life.

How did our experience with playgrounds changes through these carefully designed New York City playgrounds. Were my youngster and I transformed in anyway? I am going to answer in repetitive bullet points so you can clearly see that I am a lost cause for these playground architects:

  • We watched slightly older kids take over water sources or fountains and spray other kids who got too close. As the designers intended, kids learn at an early age that sharing is for the weak and they should dominate key resources.

  • A group of kids were digging an elaborate canal system in the sand. Two of them yelled at all the other kids to dig more and dig faster. It was inspiring to see their imagination settling on building their own sweat shops.

  • One two year old was very vigilant about tearing down any block or "Loose Parts" construction that any child built and left alone for more than 15 seconds. Clad in baggy back shorts, a medallion around his neck, and a pot belly, he looked like a little mob enforcer. Actually, he might have been.
It looks like the playgrounds do mimic the work environment quite well. This is New York City.

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