History of Playground Design

By: Naomi Heller


The concept of play as part of human development did not emerge until the end of the nineteenth century. Children were required to work in fields or factories and were not given designated time for play as public playgrounds did not exist.

The First Public Play Space 

Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the first kindergarten, introduced the idea of public play spaces in Germany. He built upon the work of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and educator Johann Pestalozzi. He recognized the importance of having a stimulating environment and how it could positively impact children. Promoting the value of free and nature play, he emphasized the need for contact with natural materials such as sand and water. In 1889, it was Froebel who popularized the sandbox as we know it today.

So, how did sandboxes make their way to the United States? In 1886, Dr. Marie Zakrewska, a Berlin native, mimicked the sandboxes she saw in her home city and built the first one in the city of Boston. The number of sandboxes and kindergartens rapidly increased.

Giant Stride ca. 1910-1915 as would be seen on a Model Playground.
Giant Stride ca. 1910-1915 as would be seen on a Model Playground.

The “Model Playground”

In 1906, The Playground Association of America was established to promote the importance of public playgrounds to communities across the country. Supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, the association officially established the necessity for public playgrounds and outlined their standard design and activities. However, this was not free play. Perhaps the first “PE” teacher originated from this organized play structure that encouraged physical competition.

The birth of the “model playground” included the following:

  • Separate play sections and athletic fields for boys and girls
  • Shelters, toilet/bathing facilities, shaded spaces, garden plots, and swimming pools
  • The “four S’s”: swings, seesaws, sandboxes, and slides
  • Merry-go-rounds, and other twirling contraptions

The model playground concept was spreading rapidly and by 1917 could be seen across the United States. Schools were setting aside periods of play for young children and even certain factories and industrial plants were building playgrounds for employees’ children.

The Lollard adventure playground on the site of a bombed school.
The Lollard adventure playground on the site of a bombed school.

Adventure to Novelty Playgrounds

During the Great Depression, a number of Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers were responsible for building playgrounds. World War II, however, resulted in metal equipment being sold for scrap to build war essentials, and the manufacturing of playground equipment virtually ended. Many playgrounds suffered from a lack of maintenance and fell into disrepair. Oddly, post-WWII bomb sites all over Europe created incredible opportunities for play, allowing children to experiment with lighting fires, building structures, and manipulating the materials left over from demolished buildings.

The realization that this sort of free-spirited play allowed children to fulfill their innate urge to explore, experiment, and invent led to the establishment of adventure playgrounds. In the mid-1940s, landscape architect Marjory Allen, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, petitioned for the first adventure playground to be opened in London. Her petition brought about the building of adventure playgrounds throughout the UK, established in a land of little or no economic value.

Instead of the traditional metal swings, slides, and roundabouts of model playgrounds, adventure playgrounds featured an abundance of unconventional structures, discarded household objects, and loose materials. Beyond an ingenious use of otherwise unusable land and a concern for the developmental needs of children, adventure playgrounds were also an acknowledgment of broader social issues. WWII left many people with pervading questions of human morality and the inherent goodness of society. Responding to the horrors, adventure playgrounds were seen as “little models of democracy.” Children would learn how to collaborate and build together and attempt to create a more just and socially conscious society through children’s play.

In this post-war spirit of rebirth, questions of more creative play were widely discussed. In Amsterdam, the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, appointed as an architectural designer for the public works department, was charged with building a public playground in each of the city’s neighborhoods. As a playground designer, Van Eyck’s leading consideration was to nurture children’s creativity. His playgrounds were woven into the fabric of the city parks, squares, and derelict post-war sites. With no sharp boundaries separating the playground from the city, he hoped to provoke social engagement amongst the children.

A rocket slide at a playground in Iowa, United States.
A rocket slide at a playground in Iowa, United States.

The first part of this brief history of playground design concluded with the shift from more standardized model playgrounds to the more open-ended, imagination-focused play of “novel playgrounds.” The novel playground was intended to replace the model playgrounds, which were considered unimaginative. Designers began to create novel, fantasy sculptures such as robots, vehicles, and animals. Massive concrete climbing forms with tunnel mazes and a wide variety of shapes and spaces were also used, with the aim of exercising children’s imagination. Beginning in the 1960s, in response to the Cold War, these novelty playgrounds took on spaceship-themed structures.

During this period, the manufacturing process for playground equipment also advanced. Originally constructed by hand or assembled from kits, novelty playgrounds shifted to more elaborate and standardized pieces. In addition, large firms specializing in designing, building, and maintaining playground equipment began to emerge.

Standardized Playgrounds

At the end of the 1970s lawsuits began to arise. This created a need for playground safety regulation. Thus began the era of the “standardized playground,” with the codification of safety regulations and a re-design of manufactured playground equipment. In 1981, the Consumer Product Safety Commission published the Handbook for Public Playground Safety, which has since been adopted across the United States. The new regulations led to the shrinking size and height of new equipment, fewer climbing opportunities, and more guardrails installed on playgrounds. The regulations also addressed safety materials and specified hard plastic or splinter-free wood equipment, vinyl coating, rounded edges, and rubber safety surfaces.

Standardized playground equipment
Standardized playground equipment

In addition to the regulations, the increased use of plastic in standardized playgrounds was due to the newly developed rotationally molded plastic, which allowed very large equipment pieces to be fabricated at relatively low prices.

Although the codification of safety regulations was important, the proliferation of identical-looking playgrounds incited public criticism as well as a decline in the use of public playgrounds. As a result, major efforts were made in the 1990s to fund play research to redefine the goals of the modern playground. The demand emerged for playgrounds to extend beyond standardized equipment and to include spaces for people of all ages and abilities, with both natural and built environments.

The Modern Playscape

This trend towards more inclusive play led to a shift towards designing ‘playscapes’ rather than playgrounds. The term was originally coined by the sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, whose playscapes blurred the line between fine art, landscape design, and childhood play. Noguchi’s play sculptures were born from his desire to bring fine art into the context of everyday living. He believed that environments should challenge and inspire their users and created playgrounds to foster imagination through their beautiful designs.

The modern version of a playscape, known as a nature playground, focuses less on the sculptural and artistic qualities of the pieces and more on using natural materials to design site-specific equipment that is built into the landscape. The landscape itself often becomes a playing piece.

The number of natural playgrounds built increased sharply after Richard Louv introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The book describes the negative effects of the modern child’s total disconnect from nature, such as diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher risk of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. The idea that nature should be an integral part of a child’s play space was further popularized by Robin C. Moore.

Kids playing at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, MA
Kids playing at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, MA

The modern playground is not only concerned with access to natural elements, but also strives to create customizable, modular, and flexible equipment, giving children the freedom and autonomy to imagine their own play space. Playground designers have started to question the fixed plastic equipment of traditional playgrounds, asking what if these could be replaced with movable pieces with undefined functions? Cas Holman, the founder of the toy company Heroes Will Rise, is a contemporary toy and playground designer best known for her role in the design of the Imagination Playground. This playground equipment system, first launched in New York City, uses different-sized foam blocks which can be configured and reconfigured in endless ways. Holman’s work is rooted in the belief that imagination is an essential part of childhood. Her toys and playgrounds encourage exploratory, unstructured play.

Looking back at the history of playgrounds, it is evident how greatly their design has been impacted by political events, technological advancements, and the influences of developmental psychology. Some concepts and design considerations can be seen reappearing at various times throughout playground history, while others disappear from the world of playground design forever as new ideas take hold.