The History of Play: Part 2

June 8, 2017 | | View Comments

To kick off the launch of our Design & Play Kickstarter campaign we’re taking a look back at the history of play and its role in our society! Haven’t seen our Kickstarter yet? Check us out here!

This is the second part of two blog posts about the history of play and playgrounds. If you missed part one, just click here!

1940–1950s: Adventure & Junk Playgrounds

Children have a long history of playing in junk yards, building forts, and creating their own games. The concept of an organized “junk playground” was first proposed by Danish landscape architect, Carl Theodor Sorensen. The central idea of these playgrounds was to allow play to come from the imagination of the child. The first of its kind opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943. In 1946, Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited Emdrup and brought the idea to London, calling them “adventure playgrounds.”

Emdrup Adventure Playground, or “skrammellegeplads,” in Denmark, 1943.

  • 1940s–1950s: Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck used playgrounds to improve daily life in Amsterdam after the war. He viewed children as integral members of society and incorporated the needs of young people into his broader quest of enriching city life.
  • 1945: Lady Allen of Hurtwood introduced junk playgrounds to the UK in 1945 and coined the term “adventure playground.” She established several adventure playgrounds for children with disabilities, and influenced many accessible playgrounds for all. She is known as one of the most prominent figures in the history of children’s play in the UK.
  • 1950: The first adventure playground in the US was located in Minneapolis, and lasted for just one year. It was followed, however, by several “vest-pocket parks,” an American idea for using vacant city space for play.

1950–1970s: Fantasy and Novelty Playgrounds

The “novelty era” of play emerged as an effort to compensate, complement, and substitute for playgrounds with paved surfaces and traditional equipment. Designers created imaginative sculptures, such as climbing forms, animal-shaped swings, and equipment designed for specific age groups to exercise children’s imagination. Popular materials included steel, plastic, and wood. Equipment was made lower in height and installed in gravel and bark pits for safety, yet designs did not often predict the development of safety guidelines and standards soon to come in the 1980s.

Rocket Ship, Boulder, CO. Photo by Brenda Biondo, from the book “Once Upon a Playground.”

  • 1954: A playground design competition sponsored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art inspired a new generation of creative equipment. Fantastic Village, the winning design by Virginia Dortch Dorazio, consisted of seven reinforced concrete panels with cutout abstract designs, ladders, and poles that could be arranged into multiple varieties of 5 foot hollow cubes.
  • 1964: Russian psychiatrist Lev Vygotsky argued that children are at their highest level of development when they are at play. Valuing social interaction, he believed that mixed-aged environments were vital to successful play and learning.
  • 1966: Architect M. Paul Friedberg created the first adventure-style playground in New York City at the Jacob Riis Houses. Friedberg removed chain link fences, asphalt, and standard playground pieces to introduce a “total play environment.” The site included a tree house, tunnels, blocks, swings, and paths linking various features within a unified space to encourage discovery, experimentation, and cooperation.
  • 1969: Richard Dattner, an influential force in playground design and advocate of adventure playgrounds, published Designing for Play. Highlighting psychologist Jean Piaget’s research, he emphasized the connection between play and learning. His design aesthetic was heavily influenced by Lady Allen of Hurtwood and the belief that children benefit from chances to experiment and make mistakes.

1980–1990s: Standardized Playgrounds

The “standardized playground” era began with the re-design of manufactured playground equipment and a shifting focus to safety regulations, guidelines, and standards for playgrounds. New designs centered around the four S’s of playgrounds: swings, slides, seesaws, superstructures. Hard surfaces, much like those seen on typical American playgrounds throughout the 20th century, prevailed at this time. This movement developed simultaneously with concerns about playground injuries, increasing lawsuits, and the formation of task forces to prepare national standards for playground equipment safety.

Kolb Elementary School, Dublin, CA. Courtesy of

  • 1970s–1990s: Developmental theories increasingly emerged about playgrounds and childhood learning. The UN proclaimed that 1979 would be the “International Year of the Child,” and urged governments to recognize the importance of play in learning about and adapting to environments.
  • 1981: The Consumer Product Safety Commission published the “Handbook for Public Playgrounds Safety.”
  • 1990s: Heightened safety concerns led to the shrinking size and height of new equipment, fewer climbing opportunities, and an increase of guardrails installed on playgrounds.

2000s–Present: Modern Playgrounds

Building slowly during the late 1990s, the modern focus on play has grown into a full-blown play and playground movement. This is demonstrated by demand for playgrounds to extend beyond standardized equipment. The term “playground” is taking on more meaning to include spaces for people of all ages, all abilities, and both natural and built environments. Scholars and professionals are calling for more free and creative playtime, as well as playgrounds within walking distance of homes to encourage play, learning, and health for all.

Terra Nova Playground build day in Richmond, Canada. Courtesey of Hapa Colaborative and City of Richmond.

  • 2000s–Present: Playgrounds are increasingly designated as “playscapes” as they expand to accommodate broader purposes and more diversified play materials and experiences. Designers and architects aim to create total play environments that are integrated into community life and serve as social centers for entire neighborhoods. This diverse age of play includes standardized, natural, electronic, accessible, “challenging,” and intergenerational designs.
  • 2011: The Trust for Public Land released data on city park systems from the US, showing that the 100 largest cities added more than 120 parks in the past year.
  • 2012: The federal government made access to play areas a civil right under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To learn more about play, check out the Design Museum Foundation’s first book: Design and Play!