A few years ago, a New Yorker cartoon showed a bunch of children running around a playground wearing equipment that made it look like they were about to embark on a voyage to Mars. "I liked recess a lot better before the safety helmets," one kid complained to his friend.
That sums up the feelings of a lot of educators, pediatricians and psychologists as well. They argue that today's playgrounds and schoolyards, with their heavy emphasis on safety and uniformity, deprive children of important opportunities to learn by taking risks and playing in unstructured ways. As a result, some big changes in playground design are starting to happen. "I would even dare to say that it's an emerging movement," says Kirk Meyer, of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative.
But Meyer and others acknowledge that the new approach is very much in its initial stages. Aside from a few model parks along the coasts, most playgrounds and schoolyards still look like they were designed by committees charged with avoiding legal liability--not creating an atmosphere for fun.
Concerns about lawsuits, as well as complaints from parents about any form of potential hazard, has meant that seesaws barely move, slides incline at low angles and many playgrounds are bereft even of swings. Forget about wood and heat-seeking metals. Most playgrounds today are home to dull, pre-fab plastic equipment. "The term cookie-cutter is used quite often," says Gary Hyden, supervising landscape architect with the parks department in Sacramento. "It is a mold."
Sacramento is trying to break that mold with unique designs and themes for its new neighborhood parks. Hummingbird Park incorporates many elements in keeping with its name, including statuary and a jungle gym modeled to resemble plants and insects, as well as plantings meant to attract such creatures. "Part of the challenge is to find things that kids can envision as many things," Hyden says, "not just a slide."
In Europe, many parks and playgrounds continue to reflect the devastation wrought by bombing during World War II. That's because designers noticed that children enjoyed playing in and with the rubble. It's the same effect that leads some kids to play with boxes rather than their presents on Christmas morning.
About a thousand European parks maintain elements similar to a vacant lot, with pieces for kids to move around. David Rockwell, who is designing an "imagination playground" in Manhattan, says the best parks boast open areas with plenty of loose materials such as sand and water that kids can mess around with, "engaging the mind as well as developing the gross motor skills that most playgrounds already address."
"The importance of this type of play is simply that this is how children learn," says David Elkind, author of "The Power of Play." "When children engage in spontaneous play in areas that are open, it nourishes creativity and imagination."
Some school districts are starting to recognize this. Despite the pressures of standardized tests, there are pilot programs such as one Meyer's group is running in Boston to create "outdoor classrooms," bringing kids outside for writing inspiration and helping them overcome nature-deficit disorders.
Such ideas may be gaining in currency, but there are a lot of forces still pushing safety above all else. Manufacturers like to sell their standardized products, parents remain concerned about any potential boo-boos, and the cost of doing something different--in terms of design, maintenance and liability--argues against experimentation.
Better play may mean better learning--and possibly fewer obese kids-- but it will be a while before plastic equipment faces a serious challenge. "I don't see a lot of change in parks departments unless there's somebody at the local level who really wants to agitate for it," says Susan Solomon, author of "American Playgrounds." "They won't say we need to make massive change because everybody is so afraid of liability."