Tear Down the Swing Sets. Here’s How to Put the Play Back in Playgrounds.

Snapshots of life at home.
Jan. 28 2013 3:26 PM

Tear Down the Swing Sets

And the plastic forts. Here’s how to put the play back in playgrounds.

Imagination Playground at Burling Slip, New York, New York.
Imagination Playground in New York

Photograph courtesy of Imagination Playground.

In 1888, the psychologist Stanley Hall published a story about a sand pile. A minor classic, it describes how a group of children created a world out of a single load of sand. These children were diligent, they were imaginative, they were remarkably adult.

More than a century later, at the architect David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground in lower Manhattan, small humans scurry back and forth all day long, carrying Rockwell’s oversized blue foam blocks from self-devised task to self-devised task. These children are intent, they are cooperative, they are resourceful. The scene resembles nothing so much as Stanley Hall’s sand pile—with each grain of sand much bigger and much bluer. (Except for the bits of actual sand, that is.)

More than any playground in recent memory, the Imagination Playground has inspired an outburst of excitement. It’s a hit with the hip parents who take their kids to Dan Zanes concerts, and is just as crowded as one. But it also represents something much more mundane: the triumph of loose parts. After a century of creating playgrounds for children, of drilling swing sets and plastic forts into the ground, we have come back to children creating their own playgrounds. Loose parts—sand, water, blocks—are having a moment.

The resurgence of loose parts is an attempt to put the play back in playgrounds. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of exuberant playground design, culminating in the great Richard Dattner adventure playgrounds in New York City. Then the grownups got skittish. Down came the merry-go-rounds and the jungle gyms, and in their place, a landscape of legally-insulated, brightly-colored, spongy-floored, hard-plastic structures took root. Today, walking onto a children’s playground is like exiting the interstate: Regardless of where you are, you see the exact same thing.

A lot of people agree that playgrounds are now too boring, and for years there’s been talk about how we should make them more challenging, more risky. But so far, that talk hasn’t turned into more interesting playgrounds. The most adventurous playgrounds tend to be singular projects, often built through fundraising, for the rich. (A genuine exception is this amazing project in Philadelphia.) “People talk about making playgrounds more risky,” says Susan Solomon, the author of American Playgrounds, which charts their demise. “But there’s this sense that if you talk about it, that’s enough. There’s this very real reluctance to get involved in anything that might at least potentially cause an injury.”

In Europe, the assumptions are radically different. Even the head of play safety at England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents—a man whom you’d assume would be paranoid about preventing all accidents—has said that “children should be exposed to a certain degree of risk, not because an activity is risky per se but because it is fun, exciting, and challenging.”

As the psychologist Ellen Sandseter has pointed out, the American attitude is a fundamental miscalculation of the risks: Kids who are bored stay inside and staying inside is ultimately far worse for your health than a broken arm. Talk about why we can’t have nice playgrounds here typically begins and ends with lawsuits. But potential legal action is too easy an excuse for not rethinking playgrounds, says Darell Hammond, head of the play-promoting nonprofit KaBOOM!. Change “requires all of us doing something different, not just a few law changes.” In short, it requires all of us to be a little less panicked, and honestly, that’s probably too much to ask, at least in the short term. Which is why loose parts may be the best hope for the future of playgrounds right now.

Rockwell’s playground is still an adventure playground—a construction site with all the splintery edges sanded down. It’s what an adventure playground looks like in a risk-averse culture. And it promotes the kind of play we think children should be doing now: not with just their bodies, but with their minds. The Imagination Playground is a much more cognitive vision of the playground. No one would confuse it with a jungle gym.

Rockwell himself is well-aware of this. At the adventure playgrounds of decades past, he says, “they did things much more dangerous than you could get away with today in a litigious society—working with hammers and nails and actually building things.” (These types of playgrounds do still exist in the United States, but barely.) So instead of physical risk, Rockwell talks about creative risk. At the Imagination Playground, you can dare to build whatever you want—knowing that tomorrow it will be gone. “Part of the impact of the playground is that it is impermanent,” he says.

The rise of the loose parts playground extends well beyond lower Manhattan. In various versions, there are more than 1,000 sets of Rockwell’s blocks out there, and thanks in part to a partnership with KaBOOM!, a lot of those blocks are far from the tax brackets of the South Street Seaport. When I talked to KaBOOM!’s Hammond, he’d just come back from Miami, where the bright-blue blocks are in a low-income child care center.

Of course, loose parts don’t have to be designed by David Rockwell—they can be junk from your basement. Detroit’s Arts & Scraps is a loose parts-focused organization where the loose parts are, well, scraps. Early childhood educators, for their part, adore loose parts for the open-ended, spontaneous sort of play they encourage, which is very much in line with the new orthodoxy of how young children learn. “When you have loose parts, you don’t have the same repetitive pattern of play,” Hammond says. “It’s much a more circuitous path.” And that’s what you want from play. “You want to see kids escape into this zone in which they lose themselves.” In other words, loose parts are perfectly suited to assuage the paradoxical parental anxieties of the moment: We want our children to have time to play but we also want that play to be productive—to be more than play.

Of course, loose parts playgrounds are messier than plasticized fort structures. At the Imagination Playground, there are “play associates” present, partly to tell the parents to sit down, partly to  “facilitate play,” in their words, but also to put out the props and then put them away again. (Playworkers are much more common in England; they’re almost unknown here.) Loose parts require more oversight than a slide. They can walk away.

In New York, however, they haven’t. Until recently, the city spent a lot of time trying to vandal-proof playgrounds, says Nancy Barthold, assistant commissioner for recreation and programming for New York City’s Parks Department. Now the city distributes loose parts around the boroughs in the summer: some sets of Rockwell’s blocks, some hoses, some buckets and cloth, even makeshift sandboxes. Those loose parts stayed loose; they didn’t walk away. “We thought that things were going to get destroyed and stolen and they’re not,” Barthold says. “It’s nice to be able to go back to being able to offer children things that move around and to do it without too much worry.”

And in the end, the blocks might not even be the most important loose parts. “Kids are drawn to sand and water,” Barthold says. “Beyond the blocks, the basics are simply sand and water.”

Stanley Hall’s sand pile, it turns out, isn’t a portrait of the past. It’s a vision of the future.

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.