Playgrounds - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education



Playgrounds take many forms, including sports fields, festival grounds, carnivals, water parks, and indoor pay-for-play venues. The focus here is on playgrounds at schools, child care centers, public parks, and backyards that are intended for children’s creative, spontaneous play.

No part of the world rivals Europe in early philosophical thought about the social, moral, physical, aesthetic, and pedagogical values of playgrounds as supports for children’s play and early development. It was here that Plato, Martin Luther, John Amos Comenius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, and other intellectual giants and reformers called the attention of the world to such values, and their ideas have influenced adult understandings of children’s play and playgrounds to the present time. Guts Muth (1793) developed manuals and games for children’s physical development in Germany during the early 1800s. These works were translated into many languages and were the basis for physical activities in schools worldwide. However, much of the early physical emphasis in Europe was on gymnastics for all ages and limited attention was given to children’s free or spontaneous play. During the mid-1800s, the influence of physical development in Germany was transported to the United States through the “outdoor gymnasia,” or indoor gymnastic equipment used outdoors. These first American organized outdoor playgrounds for children were complemented around the turn of the twentieth century by the introduction of “sandgartens,” a concept borrowed from piles of sand in Berlin, intended initially for the play of very young children.


Child Development Center Playgrounds

During the early twentieth century, playground development in the United States followed two major paths. Playgrounds for child development centers for preschool and kindergarten children were patterned after the work of Pestalozzi, Froebel, and John Dewey, and were influenced by American child development research centers. These playgrounds featured materials and apparatus for several forms of play—dramatic play, construction play, exercise play, and organized games. Many also featured arts and crafts and nature areas. They were intended to enhance total development—social, cognitive, physical, and emotional—not just motor development. The general overall advantage of these playgrounds over those for public parks and schools is perhaps best explained by the training in child development and play value for adult caretakers of the children. As children entered elementary school, the emphasis by educators was increasingly placed on academics and much later on high stakes testing.


School and Park Playgrounds

A second distinct but parallel playground movement was taking place during the early twentieth century, resulting from the efforts of such educational reformers as Jane Addams, Henry Curtis, Luther Gulick, Jr., and Joseph Lee. These “play organizers” were intent on rescuing city children from social and economic hazards imposed on unsupervised children and youth roaming the city streets. These people included educators, psychologists, and social workers who organized the play of children on supervised, municipal playgrounds, initially in large northeastern cities and eventually throughout the United States. Working under the auspices of the Playground Association of America (PAA), organized in 1906, social reformers sought to influence and transform the behavior and moral attitudes of the young, especially the unsupervised and the immigrant, through programs of sports and rigorous physical conditioning.

As manufacturers saw the possibilities for sales of equipment used on “outdoor gymnasia,” designers created steel jungle gyms, giant strides, see-saws, swings, and various other steel structures and outfitted public park and school playgrounds throughout much of the industrialized world. As sponsors intent on reducing maintenance installed asphalt and concrete under and around equipment, injuries multiplied and safety became a major issue. Typical early American municipal playgrounds featured about half a space for young children, with additional space for a wading pool in the center and sand bins around the sides. Separate areas were available for boys and girls, with most space reserved for boys. Additional space featured climbing, sliding, and swinging apparatus; a cinder track; handball and tennis courts; and a ball field that could be flooded in the winter for ice skating. Games fields and exercise apparatus, funded by local governments, and organized as municipal playgrounds spread rapidly. By 1905, thirty-five American cities had established supervised playgrounds supported by courses in play for training supervisors (Cavallo, 1981). By 1911, the PAA was deluged by letters requesting assistance in developing municipal playgrounds and the numbers had increased to 257 cities with 1,543 playgrounds. The official journal of the PAA, The Playground, is a rich source of early playground information.

Because of increasing interest in recreation, the name of the PAA was changed to Playground and Recreation Association of America (PRAA) and its journal was called Recreation. As interest in play declined, modifications and mergers of PRAA led to the formation of the National Recreation Association in 1930 and to the present National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) in 1966. The energy of the early American playground movement declined as the focus on recreation held sway. The virtually indestructible, manufactured playground equipment remained in place during the world wars because steel was directed to the war efforts. This period was essentially devoid of any extensive energy for creating new playgrounds, perhaps in no small part due to the lengthy Great Depression, which was marked by hard work for children and limited economic resources to devote to children’s play.

Following World War II, playground designers created a wide range of novel play equipment patterned after historical and fanciful devices such as animal figures, stagecoaches, and space rockets. Manufacturers reentered the field and began to produce and market these devices and the early see-saws, swings, merry- go-rounds, slides, etc.


Adventure Playgrounds

The concept of “adventure playgrounds” was created by a Danish landscape architect, C. Th. Sorensen, who was inspired by the energy and joy of children playing with scrap materials left on construction sites. His first “junk playground” or “adventure playground,” was built by children assisted by adult play leaders in Emdrup, Denmark, in 1943. Adventure playgrounds spread throughout Scandinavian countries and eventually to other European cities, Japan, and the United States. These playgrounds feature trained play leaders, animal care, construction play using tools and scrap materials, contrived and organized games, gardening, and water play (Bengtsson, 1972).

Adventure playgrounds and “city farms” are popular in England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and, to lesser degree, in Tokyo. Presently, about 1,000 exist in Europe, with about 400 in Germany. London has more than seventy scattered across seventeen boroughs. The short-lived American Adventure Playground Association (AAPA), formed in 1976 in southern California identified sixteen adventure playgrounds in the United States in 1977. Throughout the United States, designers and creative adults integrated some elements of adventure playgrounds into traditional playgrounds, but, by 2005, following the closing of the Houston Adventure Playground Association, only three in southern California and one in Berkeley continued to operate. The adventure playground concept failed to survive because of their “junky” appearance, growing concerns about safety, lawsuits resulting from the development and implementation of national playground safety standards, and the low value held for spontaneous play by the American public. The European playground safety standards exempt adventure playgrounds, and the prevalence of court judgments in playground injury lawsuits in Europe is significantly lower than in the United States.


The Playground Standards Movement

Playground injury data and pressure from private citizens led the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to develop and publish national playground safety guidelines in 1981. The NRPA slowly turned attention back to playgrounds but focused primarily on safety. Currently, the major professional organizations concerned with children’s playgrounds include the International Play Association, the Association for Childhood Education International, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and the Association for the Study of Play.

The CPSC published Handbooks for Public Playground Safety: Volumes land II in 1981. These volumes were revised in 1991, 1994, and 1997. In 1993, the American Society for Testing and Materials published Standards for Public Playground Equipment (revised in 1998 and 2001). Collectively, the CPSC and ASTM documents gradually became the “national standard of care” because of their influence in playground injury lawsuits and influenced the present “standardized” or “cookie-cutter” condition of most American playgrounds. Similarly, safety standards similar to the American standards were adopted by Australia and Canada, and the Europeans developed and adopted European playground safety standards. European adventure playgrounds were exempted from these standards.

Several American states enacted the CPSC guidelines into law and playground regulations for child care centers in all 50 states are inconsistent with national guidelines and standards. The number of playground injuries reported by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System through CPSC has almost doubled since the CPSC guidelines were initiated, from about 117,000 during the mid-1970s to more than 200,000 during the early 2000s. The reasons for this increase are not clear but the decline of children’s fitness levels may contribute to their inability to play safely on challenging playgrounds. Collectively, playground safety standards and regulations, coupled with increasing injury litigation, emphasis on academics and high stakes testing, and competition from technology (television, computers, and video games) for recess and free play time is contributing to a rapidly growing incidence of obesity, diabetes, early signs of heart disease, and poor fitness levels of children (Frost et al., 2005). Resistance to these counters to free, spontaneous play on playgrounds is resulting in a growing call for creativity in playground design, more time for free play and recess, and extensive modification of playground standards.


Playgrounds: Present and Future

Thought and action about children’s playgrounds are in a state of flux perhaps unparalleled in history. Sponsors of playgrounds at child development centers for preschool children have managed to retain much of their broad developmental focus and provide both natural and manufactured materials intended to accommodate the broad play forms of young children.

The standardized, cookie-cutter playgrounds of most elementary schools contain a superstructure and swings designed primarily for exercise play with little or no provision for other forms of play. Community parks typically contain these same elements, complemented with games fields, swimming pools, and skate parks, focusing primarily on older children and adults.

Although restricted by safety standards, which are sometimes broadly misinterpreted to apply to natural materials, a growing number of independent playground developers are looking beyond manufactured or standardized equipment. Many of the professionals involved in developing safety standards are themselves having serious reservations about the unexpected consequences of perpetual standards revision and expansion, the power they hold in litigation, and the expansive interpretation of their meaning by designers, manufacturers, playground sponsors, inspectors, and expert witnesses (Frost, 2005).

The Community Built Association (CBA) is an organization of those interested in involving community groups in the design, organization, and creation of their own community built public spaces. Their spaces and works go well beyond traditional playgrounds to include parks, museums, public gardens, and historic restoration. Fortunately, many CBA members work to preserve adventure play elements, involve children in creating playgrounds, and feature natural elements such as plants, water, sand and soil, gardening, tools, and hand-made structures—elements featured on traditional adventure playgrounds. These “natural playgrounds” proponents frequently circumvent the “junk” appearance, opposed by many Americans, by employing professional landscaping and a focus on aesthetics. Meanwhile, children themselves increasingly turn to indoor sedentary technology games and only dream of the days of mud holes, tree houses, kick-the-can, tree swings, and hammers and nails.

Further Readings: Bengtsson, A. (1972). Adventure playgrounds. New York: Praeger Publishers; Cavallo, D. (1981). Muscles and morals: Organized playgrounds and urban reform, 1880-1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; Frost, J. L. (2005). How play ground regulations are messing up children’s play. Today’s Playground, 5(7) 14-19. Frost, J. L., S. C. Wortham, and S. Reifel (2005). Play and child development. Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall; Muths, G. (1793). Gymnastics for youth. 1970 translation. Dubuque, 1A: William C. Brown.

Joe L. Frost