My interest in playgrounds grew out of the open classroom movement where the emphasis was on children learning experientially through interaction with the environment. This lead me to a focus on early childhood and elementary school playgrounds.
So, in the mid-1970’s, I started looking at these playgrounds and I was shocked and dismayed at the level of neglect and unsafe design I encountered. Playground equipment was designed for one age group, children 5 - 12. Young children had to use it to their peril, and I mean that literally.
In the mid-1970’s, I started looking at these playgrounds and I was shocked and dismayed at the level of neglect and unsafe design I encountered.
Not only was the equipment design unsafe, it was often broken. It was not uncommon to see play structures leaning at precarious angles. The thinking seemed to be that if it hadn’t fallen down, it was alright to play on. There was no safety surfacing. Playgrounds were bleak with no shade or plantings. Of course, the worse culprits were the Philadelphia public schools with broken play equipment and yards of asphalt, so sad and depressing!
Fortunately, I was not the only one to witness this appalling condition and I quickly found others both locally and nationally who were becoming active in their concern about the state of play in this country.
The first thorough guideline on playground safety was published by The Consumer Products Safety Commission in 1981. It had some real shortcomings, like not including issues of safety for children under five. But it was a beginning. Some manufacturers and playground owners started paying attention to their basic safety recommendations but it was far from universally accepted.
It wasn't until 1993 when the American Society for Testing and Materials formed a technical committee to write standards for the manufacture of playground equipment that everybody started getting on board with safety concerns.
These standards and guidelines were unfortunately design-restrictive. However, the attention to careful and appropriate design for safety that they created has brought playgrounds miles beyond the dereliction that I encountered twenty years earlier.
[In the '90s] new attention to careful and appropriate design for safety brought playgrounds miles beyond the dereliction that I encountered twenty years earlier.
Since that time the world of playground design has been blossoming. The Last Child in the Woods, published in 2005, sparked the natural playground movement which has turned playground design on its head.
The Trust for Public Lands has brought money and interest to the development of playgrounds for our public schools and parks. Philadelphia Water is supporting environmentally responsible playground design through its emphasis on water conservation. The American Society for Testing and Materials is rewriting the standards to focus only on performance requirements and to leave the design decision making to the designers.
The list of exciting developments in the playground world goes on and on. To me, the crowning glory of all this activity is the Collaborative’s recent Play Space initiative and, now, the William Penn Foundation’s initiative to position Philadelphia as a “Playful Learning City.”
Play Space focused on teaching designers about education and educators about design while emphasizing experiential learning. The Playful Learning initiative is conducting research and piloting several projects to inform the citywide development of a playful learning infrastructure.
Play Space focused on teaching designers about education and educators about design while emphasizing experiential learning.
When I’m asked about what interested me most about Play Space, my reply is that it happened! The Community Design Collaborative managed to put together a comprehensive and creative program around good playground design, an effort that I couldn't have dreamed of even ten years ago!
These innovative efforts have brought the playground story back to where I started forty years ago… and now there is a whole community of people on the same path.
Betsy Caesar is President of Playcare, Inc., a design practice that focuses on creating playgrounds that use commercial playground equipment in enriched design settings. She has advocated for play spaces over a 40-year career as a playground designer. Betsy is a regular Collaborative volunteer and shared her expertise as part of the ad hoc committee for our recent Play Space design initiative.