Central Park, adventure playgrounds and Katamari Damacy
July 13, 2011 5:58 AM   Subscribe

"Better a broken bone than a broken spirit". So said the appropriately-named Lady Allen of Hurtwood, pioneer of adventure playgrounds - play spaces which sacrificed a little security in the interests of imagination and creativity. Her work on adventure playgrounds - along with the sight of young Londoners playing in the bombed-out sites of post-Blitz London - inspired a young Richard Dattner, a New York architect now probably best-known for the Bronx Public Library Center.

His design for the Adventure Playground in Central Park, opened in 1967 near W 67th Street, was a study in concrete, featuring a low stepped wall around an environment intended both to offer "water and sand - the two basic food groups for kids' play" (YouTube link to an interview with Dattner) and to keep parents, mindful of their clothing, out of the area and give the children space to explore and interact without supervision.

Dattner's playground ideology also owed much to the visionary but largely unrealized playground designs of Isamu Noguchi, whose attempts with Louis Kahn to create a modernist playground in New York City's other great park were frustrated by local opposition. The influence of Noguchi's replicable sculpture Octetra can be seen in Dattner's patent for his modular PlayCubes, in action here in San Francisco's South Park playground.

The risk of physical damage was as much of a feature as a bug in the concrete adventure playground - a 1972 feature in New York Magazine notes the presence of a staff on hand to dispense Band-Aids to damaged children. Dattner's playground was given a safety-conscious renovation itself in 1997, as fear of lawsuits made of American playgrounds a softer world (PDF link to CPSC brochure on playground safety).

However, some still dare to dream of dangerous play. While David Rockwell's 2010 Imagination Playground Park serves as an advertisement for his safety-conscious adventure playground kits, in the same year Keita Takahashi, most famous as the developer of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy and recently announced as the latest member of Tiny Speck, offered to design a playground for the city council of Nottingham, England. Presenting his ideas at and after Nottingham Game City, one note gladdens the heart of any fan of the classic adventure playground. Beneath an illustration of what may be Vault Boy running frantically on a human-sized elliptical hamster wheel, Takahashi muses "But this may be very dangerous".
posted by running order squabble fest (63 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Great topic. What are some leads for a computer-savvy 12 year old who's interested in playground design? That PDF of regulations and legal considerations is daunting though.
posted by cogneuro at 6:18 AM on July 13, 2011

Our son's school features a playground with a lot of boulders (all worn smooth thanks to glaciation). Every couple of years a kid will fall off and break an arm or a wrist (it's also hell on jeans as the kids slide down). This being Canada, no lawsuits yet.

Anyway, the playground is one of the reasons why I love the school.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:21 AM on July 13, 2011

When I were a lad, playgrounds were a Darwinian proving ground, designed to weed out the stupid and the brave. One of my favourites from the good old days: The Witches Hat.
posted by veedubya at 6:21 AM on July 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Playgrounds are softer yes, but I would hardly call them soft. There's climbing walls, ropes, ziplines and unfenced high platforms (over 6' at my playground), a kind of one-person-standing-up merry-go-round that does nothing other than make you so dizzy you want to throw up and of course the constant menace of getting whacked by the people in the swings.

And if you tire of manufactured equipment, you can wander over to the river and fall in.
posted by DU at 6:29 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, just noticed the "Lady Allen of Hurtwood". Heh.

Playground design is neat. My dad worked for a time for a company that made playground equipment and I just realized we never got any free samples.
posted by DU at 6:31 AM on July 13, 2011

The playground at the school I attended through 4th grade was set on asphalt. The worst thing about it was how hot it got in the sun (this was in Hawaii, so it was always hot). You usually got a little bloody if you fell off the monkey bars.

At a camp I went to, which had no designed playground, I broke my arm when the log I was standing on rolled and I stuck my arm out to stop myself falling. This was the same camp where the favorite activity - sanctioned by camp owners in an effort to wear us out enough to sleep - was a kind of combined capture the flag and hide-and-seek, played at dusk in the fields and trees. Hiding high in a tree was encouraged. We fell out of trees with some regularity.

I don't think that playgrounds have to be designed to be deliberately dangerous in order to be fun or challenging, but the fun and challenging parts should be the higher priority.
posted by rtha at 6:39 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It makes me really sad that the playgrounds I love as a kid, sprawling four-level-tall things, have been torn down, replaced and otherwise neutered with low, rounded plastic things that are just obviously not as much fun.
posted by mhoye at 6:42 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

We used to play a game called "chicken" where two kids would go at each other from opposite ends of monkey bars, kicking at one another until the loser would fall.
posted by exogenous at 6:49 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

1000 Awesome Things: #980 Old, dangerous playground equipment.
posted by veedubya at 6:55 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Our town pool still has a high dive, and a long, long line to use it. Lots of people in town belong to country clubs with significantly more poolside amenities, but that high dive wins hands down...
posted by MattD at 7:06 AM on July 13, 2011

The Imagination Playground at Burling Slip (essentially the South Street Seaport in NYC) is hugely fun for kids of the right age. If you have kids under, say, 8 years old and happen to be in New York on a nice summer day it is among the best activities in the city for said kids. Bring a book. You're going to be there for a while.
posted by The Bellman at 7:11 AM on July 13, 2011

Fucking regulations. We had real monkey bars. With real monkeys.
posted by pracowity at 7:16 AM on July 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Our son's school features a playground with a lot of boulders (all worn smooth thanks to glaciation). Every couple of years a kid will fall off and break an arm or a wrist (it's also hell on jeans as the kids slide down). This being Canada, no lawsuits yet."

Wow, KokuRyu, I bet I know exactly what that school is, and that it's the same one I went to. I spent half of elementary school jumping from boulder to boulder playing The Ground Is Lava. And yup, bounced my face off a few of those boulders a few times, but nothing too damaging.
posted by Ziggurat at 7:18 AM on July 13, 2011

I can tell you from firsthand experience that human-sized hamster wheels are pretty dangerous.
posted by adamrice at 7:22 AM on July 13, 2011

Fucking regulations. We had real monkey bars. With real monkeys.

Yeah, but who wants a playground full of drunk monkeys? Wait, who doesn't!?
posted by The Bellman at 7:25 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Playgrounds in the U.S. are now built to prevent liability rather than foster adventurous experiences. And neighborhoods are requesting that shade structures be retrofitted over existing playgrounds equipment because Johnny and Sally might get too much sun. I started laughing at a meeting where this was discussed. After looking around at several glaring parents I said, "put some sunscreen on them, point them to the water fountain and let them run and jump themselves senseless."
posted by incandissonance at 7:32 AM on July 13, 2011

I can tell you from firsthand experience that human-sized hamster wheels are pretty dangerous.

Also awesome. Don't forget awesome.
posted by Vibrissa at 7:36 AM on July 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Depends. Are the monkeys in a barrel? I'm told for maximal fun there should be a barrel.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:39 AM on July 13, 2011

Oh, I miss the dangerous playgrounds of my youth - the really tall climbing structures, the merry-go-rounds, the giant geodesic dome made out of pipe, the really big swings that went up high....Oddly, I don't remember too many kids getting seriously hurt. We all fell from time to time - and my friends and I jumped off the swings onto the gravel, which was really fun - but in general we were relatively risk-aware. Also, these playgrounds tended to have adults or older kids around.

Honestly, I remember working up to climbing to the tallest part of the climbing structure, pushing myself to climb the dome, etc. There were a couple of things that were too scary for me - the narrow arch that went higher than a parent's head and had only some little knobs to hold onto as you crawled over the top - but it was a great place for me to push myself a little physically at my own pace.

I do have a chipped front tooth because some genius designed these two vertically parallel "ropes" that we'd inch across, feet on one and hands on the other and instead of making them out of heavy nylon rope or something similar, he made them out of metal cable. A line of kids going across those at recess and swinging them as they went - well, my family couldn't afford to fix that tooth and it's been chipped all my life. But that could have been avoided by a better choice of materials - there's nothing inherently beneficial to kids in using metal cable versus nylon rope.
posted by Frowner at 7:47 AM on July 13, 2011

You're not a kid unless you have battle scars such as:

Pinched/scarred fingers from the chains holding up the swings
Scabbed knees from jumping off the swings and landing on the cement
Ass burn from hell as you slide down the metal slides
Don't forget the rust shavings and the smell of rust on your hands when you came home.

I still remember where I got my elbow scar. I was running and playing tag with the local boys and skidded sideways and sliced open my elbow on the edge of a brick paver sticking out.

Ahhh the 70s/80s.
posted by stormpooper at 7:55 AM on July 13, 2011

I'm sorry for my son, sometimes. When he was three or four, we'd occasionally take him to playgrounds where, inevitably, he would be initially filled with glee and go charging in for some happy fun times, and within about 4 minutes would end up disappointed and bored.

Me, I miss a good merry-go-round. The whole point was to see who could hold on the longest at high speeds, and who would get flung off. Getting it going fast enough that you could hang on with just your hands, with your whole body out horizontal in the air - that was living!
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:58 AM on July 13, 2011

A little light on the Lady Allen part. Interesting woman(scroll down).

Baron Allen was a bold fellow himself. Not easy being a conshie in the First War.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:00 AM on July 13, 2011

City Museum (which I assume is well known among mefites) deserves a mention in any conversation about adventure playgrounds. Worth the six hours (and more) that it took us to get there last weekend.

My wife burned a hole in her pants on the eight story spiral slide (and ended up with some $6 electric pink cutoffs from the thrift store upstairs). I ripped up my shins, hit my knee so hard I almost barfed, added several new knots to my head, and the kids, well they now have a few more cuts and bruises than they did last week...

So yeah, we had an awesome time!

Srsly, that place is a national treasure.
posted by crumbly at 8:21 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is another playground by the same designer (I assume) right next to the Met. The Ancient Playground. 1 2 3. The pictures underestimate danger/fun. Good for a visit after keeping your voice down for an hour by the Renoirs.
posted by shothotbot at 8:27 AM on July 13, 2011

My wife burned a hole in her pants on the eight story spiral slide

Oh god, I thought I was going to do the same thing when I went down that. Thankfully my pants were intact when I hit the bottom. I did, however, later manage to do a faceplant running up one of the half-pipes upstairs, injuring my pride more than anything else. And my knees were killing me the next day from all the crawling around on hard surfaces.

City Museum is awesome!
posted by tocts at 8:35 AM on July 13, 2011


Problem: A castle, made of cartons, rocks, and old branches, by a group of children for themselves, is worth a thousand perfectly detailed, exactly finished castles, made for them in a factory.

Set up a playground for the children in each neighborhood. Not a highly finished playground, with asphalt and swings, but a place with raw materials of all kinds - nets, boxes, barrels, trees, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass, and water - where children can create and re-create playgrounds of their own.

(also, waldkindergärten!)
posted by Tom-B at 8:57 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not really terribly concerned about children finding creative ways to hurt themselves. I think they'll manage.

I'm a bit dubious about concern that the lives of children aren't dangerous enough. I'm kind of pleased with our reduced childhood mortality rate. Children need space to play and to experiment. They need freedom from physical constraints, and from mental. Those are much harder to give them than "risk." There will always be risk.

My angst is saved for lack of green spaces, or communal spaces in general. I spent a massive amount of my youth outside, unattended and running wild, and can't imagine what it would be like to lack that. Maybe it's not possible in some cities, but it's a noble goal regardless.

The best playground equipment grows itself. If you want a heady mix of danger and fun, hornet nests, homemade zip lines, fallen trees and frozen creeks will provide it in spades.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:01 AM on July 13, 2011 [10 favorites]

Yep, nature is the best playground. But I have to say, I am glad my now-grown-up girl was able to spend many happy dizzy hours on those merry-go-rounds before the city finally phased them out. (Oh yeah, I enjoyed my second childhood going around and around, and also watching her learn about centrifugal force in a very direct kind of way.)
posted by kozad at 9:07 AM on July 13, 2011

Stagger Lee, I wish I could give you multiple favorites. The problem isn't overtly safe playground equipment, it's definitely lack of green spaces.
posted by echolalia67 at 9:08 AM on July 13, 2011

The '67 Adventure Playground looks like the kind of place my four year old daughter would adore and never want to leave. The 2010 Imagination Playground Park looks like the kind of place my daughter would fart around in for seven minutes and then ask to leave.

The older park is clearly for that most glorious of childhood activities, "fucking around." The newer park looks like a science project. No running, climbing, rolling around in The New Park. Feh.

I've been shocked that my town, one of the most lawyer-dense counties (Arlington, VA) in the free world, has decent playgrounds. Not killer ones like the Adventure Playground, but some shit that kids can climb on, run around, and otherwise enjoy. Fucking around is, in fact, possible at these parks. Perhaps the lawyer density is so high they cancel each other out? Or since they're all government lawyers, the "slip and fall and sue yer pants off" gigs aren't necessary? Hm.

Anyway: "Adventure Playground" makes me retroactively jealous of all the kids in that neighborhood in the late seventies, when I could have been playing there. And I wanna build one in my neighborhood. Awesomeness should never be in short supply.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 9:10 AM on July 13, 2011

My kids go play at Grass Lawn Park in Redmond, near us. The playground equipment is really far from boring; that big climbing structure is tall as hell, and there's also a multi-level merry-go-round that's taller than I am. But everything's been very carefully designed so as to maximize the fun/fall ratio. Kids still fall sometimes, because they're kids, but the worst injury I've ever seen was a bloody nose.
posted by KathrynT at 9:10 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shothotbot: There is another playground by the same designer (I assume) right next to the Met.

Yes, sorry - I left this out because the OP was getting too long, but Dattner also did the Ancient Playground, the E 72nd St playground, and the Wild West Playground, and redeveloped the Hecksher playground (the only Central Park playground not based around the edge of the park, fact fans!) and added the Water Playground.

A number of those have been redeveloped for greater safety (mainly limiting the use of sand, softening surfaces and widening/removing tunnels, because parents are worried about children being out of their sight). Dattner consulted on the 1997 redevelopment pro bono - but commented at the time that his inspiration (which I think picks up on Stagger Lee's point) was watching children playing in gutters using sand, water and debris.
posted by running order squabble fest at 9:15 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

dang, hit post too soon.

But in general, I very much approve of the "better a broken arm" idea. My mother could always see the risk in letting us play at the edge of our (and her) comfort zone, but she could never really internalize the rewards, for reasons that I won't get into out of respect for her privacy. She didn't hold a patch on today's helicopter parents, but she definitely wanted to keep us close and safe. Those decisions have had consequences far more expensive, painful, and hard to fix than a broken arm or a scalp laceration.

For my own children, I've had to work hard to remind myself that getting hurt is part of learning, and that ER doctors are really good at their jobs. Obviously I don't want them getting badly hurt -- a depressed skull fracture is a lousy birthday present -- but I've decided to grit my teeth and be willing to accept the occasional broken bone or set of stitches.
posted by KathrynT at 9:20 AM on July 13, 2011

We used to play a game called "chicken" where two kids would go at each other from opposite ends of monkey bars, kicking at one another until the loser would fall.
We did this on the horizontal ladder (which, like all our equipment, was planted firmly atop asphalt) at my grade school, but we called it a "dog fight."

Ass burn from hell as you slide down the metal slides
Don't forget the rust shavings and the smell of rust on your hands when you came home.

And in the winter, throwing handfuls of snow and slush on the slide to make it "faster." Ah yes, uncurling your fingers after gripping the chains for a marathon session on the swings and having them be red-orange with rust.....those were the days....
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:34 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

My father and some other parents helped built a very cool play structure at my coop preschool back in the early 70s with lots of stairs and ladders and ropes and barrels.

Made with discarded 55 gallon drums I hope those weren't filled with horrible chemicals from a local electronics factory!
A homemade slide that seems far steeper than currently allowed!
posted by vespabelle at 9:48 AM on July 13, 2011

I grew up in Minneapolis, land of 10,000 small neighborhood playgrounds. Us neighborhood rapscallions gave each park a nickname, inspired by their unique playground equipment: Spaceship Park, Secret Hideout Park, Chutes and Ladders Park, etc. I have many fond memories of climbing up to the top level of the 5-storey Spaceship and of beating people away with sticks to protect the Secret Hideout.

When my niece was born in 2000, I was super excited to introduce her to the Spaceship, the Pirate Ship, and all of the other cool parks. I was devastated to discover that they were gone. All of them. (Chutes and Ladders still exists, but most of the slides and ladders have been replaced with smaller, plastic, Safety Versions). I'm sure that people were worried about kids breaking bones or hurting themselves in some other way...and that's why my childhood Lands of Imagination and Awesomeness became sterilized Tot Lots.

Another thing, on that note - the older, now-gone playgrounds kept us kids interested until we were in Junior High. The ones that exist now began to bore my niece by the time she was 8 or 9. I imagine asking her, at age 11, if she wants to go to the playground - and she'd roll her eyes and say "That's for BABIES, auntie." They don't seem to have the same kind of appeal for older kids as they did "back in the day."

Up hill both ways! Barefoot! In the snow!
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:48 AM on July 13, 2011

I shattered my elbow jumping off a swing and then re-broke it while climbing an incredibly dangerous cone-shaped jungle-gym. Good times, good times.

The best playground I can EVER remember was a house near ours which was under construction. The neighborhood gang and I stuck a long, springy plank out a second-story window and then took turns diving off the plank into the pile of sand thoughtfully provided below. It was heaven, and all concerned had clothing dyed orange from the sand when it was over.

I understand the construction people were not happy the next day, and we all caught Hell for the mess we'd made. It was worth it.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:50 AM on July 13, 2011

Hey, has anyone mentioned the wasps that invariably built their nests inside hollow metal swing sets? They'd swarm out and sting just when the swinging got good.

It was so much more exciting to be a child then.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:52 AM on July 13, 2011

My elementary school had 2 playgrounds -- one for grades K-3 and one for the 4-5th graders. The 4-5th graders had all the dangerous climbing structures, most infamous among them was the "rocket ship". It was essentially a tall ladder with a cone at the top.* There was usually a line to climb it, and once you began your ascent, another kid would soon be following behind...

... which made it the unspoken rule of the playground that, once you reached the rocket ship's cone, you were expected to jump down and not hit the kids already on their way up.

As if this were not insane/awesome enough, those of us in the gifted program had a special perk that came along with our weird, extended class hours -- we not only had recess completely to ourselves, we were allowed to play on the "big kid's" playground, despite our age.

A pack of young nerdlings, free of the spectre of bullies and given free reign to go wild on dangerous playground equipment that we were too little for? Yeah, I wouldn't see such drunk-on-freedom recklessness again until college.

* We had similar structures dubbed the "lollipops" that were just a tall pipe attached to a large, bright red sphere. You'd think they would be just as popular, but since they were used in P.E. (taking the place of the stereotypical rope climb -- you had to, instead, climb a lollipop and ring a little bell that was just under the sphere) they were uniformly hated and avoided like the plague.
posted by Wossname at 9:56 AM on July 13, 2011

Oh, I am loving this thread. The merry go round was my favourite thing on the playground and I always remember that wonderful moment when you had to stop running and pushing it and jump on! If I could have one in my backyard, I would!
posted by Calzephyr at 10:43 AM on July 13, 2011

I'm 99% sure that children's spirits reside in their skulls. Perhaps it would be wise to keep them intact so the spirit doesn't leak out.

Overprotective parents produce fearful children. Don't project your anxieties onto them.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:51 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hoboken just opened a new park on their waterfront – the biggest crowdpleaser is a new take on the merry-go-round, a rotating disk set at an oblique angle with enough room for 8 kids (more or less) to sit (or lie) while someone spins them around (usually a kid lying underneath, spinning it with his/her feet.) Even after 40 minutes on this thing, kids have to be dragged away from it, kicking and screaming.
posted by Laminda at 11:47 AM on July 13, 2011

Man, I'm glad I had access to lots of greenbelts and dangerous playgrounds when I was a kid. Not only did we have the metal lawsuit monsters for playground equipment, but there were a number of nearby parks that had insane features like giant concrete "mountains" with hollow caves built into them. Those things must have ruined a million pants from kids sliding down them, and who knows how many chipped teeth from kids trying to skateboard on them.

We also had a rather large park that was about 3/4ths of a square mile in total that had all kinds of great trails, hills and cliffs for biking down at insane speeds. Or skateboarding, bigwheeling or sliding down on cardboard. Last time I was there, though, they had fenced off many of these "unimproved" features, but kids were still hucking themselves off of jumps and finding steep things to go careening down.

More to the topic at hand, though, which is adventure playgrounds. This park had one. It was a small fee to enter but it was worth it. It had a giant mud pond with wood rafts you could pole around, and a rope swing, and a rope bridge over the large muddy pit. It had a mud/water slide that was dangerously fun. You could also build forts with real wood and real hammers and nails. The minimum age was something ridiculously low like 8 years old or something.

And it was fantastic. They had a little "concession" stand where you could buy a snack or a cold drink, but more importantly you could buy nails and borrow a hammer. Or if you didn't want to buy nails they had the brilliant clean-up scheme disguised as a barter system where you could trade in three bent nails for a straight one. It was actually hard to find bent, loose nails in that place despite the fact that there was a 2 acre shanty town being hammered on all the time. The competitive underground economy for nails was so fierce people would raid your structure for superfluous nails to trade in for new, straight ones.

My mom used to take my brother and I there, drop us off and then go visit the library for a few rare quiet hours of alone time. My brother and I were all too happy to be left to our own devices in that place all day. Like most kids I didn't realize until much later that mom wasn't just being nice, she was going off and taking her own vacation - from us.

Four to six hours later my brother and I are exhausted, filthy, caked in mud and dirt, scabbed and bleeding in various places. We'd get hosed off like muddy dogs before getting back in the car to go home.
posted by loquacious at 11:54 AM on July 13, 2011

Why all the mourning for merry-go-rounds? I see them all over the place. I do see fewer metal slides. I do not miss them.

Most of the new or remodeled playgrounds around here have their stuff from Kompan, and it's great. Climbing walls, a million ways to get dizzy, little ropes courses. I do wish there was more variety from playground to playground, though.

My kids and I are on a mission to go to every park and playground in our city this summer. Only one trip to the ER so far!
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:24 PM on July 13, 2011

And neighborhoods are requesting that shade structures be retrofitted over existing playgrounds equipment because Johnny and Sally might get too much sun. I started laughing at a meeting where this was discussed. After looking around at several glaring parents I said, "put some sunscreen on them, point them to the water fountain and let them run and jump themselves senseless."

I don't know where you live, but here in Texas, even the plastic stuff gets sizzling hot when there's no shade over the playground. No reason for my kid to burn off a layer of skin just because he went down the slide.

Are the playgrounds they have now objectively less fun? Because those near us are pretty fancy..towers and rock climbing walls and ropes and plenty of high places to fall off of. I guess we could get a group of kids, have them play on an old-style one and a new-style one, and see how it goes?
posted by emjaybee at 12:28 PM on July 13, 2011

There are some pretty groovy new things, like this spinning pole. While looking for that, I found this. Wtf?
posted by No Robots at 12:36 PM on July 13, 2011

Great post!
Some years ago, I had a group of students check out on the development of the first adventure playground, from 1943. It seems that nowadays, there isn't as much new construction. Modern children aren't interested in projects that last several days or even weeks, and there is also a sense of reverence for the classical structures.
We were working with Kompan at the time, and they are really good people, nice and smart.
My personal interest was mostly in the links between post-war "progressive" playground culture and activist stuff like Christiania and Byggeren.
Maybe I should do that course again....
posted by mumimor at 12:52 PM on July 13, 2011

Overprotective parents produce fearful children. Don't project your anxieties onto them.

Since when is trying to minimize the risk of a head injury being "overprotective?" Protecting you kids from spilling their brains is pretty much your bare minimum responsibility as a parent.

I grew up in Philly in the 70s and have absolutely no nostalgia for the playgrounds of my childhood. They were just awful, nonsensical, half-assed parcels of danger. There were those odd, giant metal things that looked kind of like solar panels. I think they were supposed to be for climbing on maybe, but they were always, always too hot to touch. And the awful metal merry-go-rounds that were fun for a little while until someone's Piel's-drunk dad decided to show off his strength by whipping it as hard as he could. All the kids with too-tiny hands would lose their grips on the thick metal bars and come flinging off one by one. It always seemed to take the parents far too long to distinguish between squeals of delight and shrieks of terror. And this would all take place on hard, hot asphalt. If you were lucky, there might be some kind of rubber mat or something under the monkey bars--but that was only useful for a year or two before it got dried up and brittle and the toddlers would break it into pieces and eat it.

I do not begrudge my kids one pellet of protective mulch, one well-capped screw, or a single inch of safety rail. Every day they're not nursing a concussion or sporting a cast is another day they can go out and have more fun.
posted by jrossi4r at 12:54 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

We opted for an "adventure backyard" over plain grass, on the theory that as kids, we both spent more time playing explorer in the bushes than using the neatly-manicured grass. (Plus, we have playing fields within a couple blocks of the house, if the kids DESPERATELY need some flat grassy areas. It's not like most parks lack flat grassy areas.)

We put in an "island" of prairie plants, grasses and flowers, about 40 feet in diameter, with a (traditional) grass path ringing it. Along the edges of the yard (other side of the path), there are sunflowers, apple trees, espalied fruit trees on one fence, grape vines on another fence, strawberries, raspberries, a compost pile in the corner; in the shady corners where nothing wants to grow, there's a small swing set and a hammock. By now (mid-July), the prairie plants are taller than I am. To toddlers, it's a literally endless running path. Bigger kids go bushwhacking through it and race around it and jump out at each other. They all try to flip each other on the hammock.

The other parts of the yard include a raised bed veggie garden (with a bed dedicated to the spawn, the larger of whom currently mostly gives himself dirt baths in it), and a patio with some more "formal" garden beds around it, but even those tend to be a bit more fun, with herbs and a butterfly garden and a "stream" that carries the gutter and sump water away from the foundations to a rain garden, and a garden with night-blooming vines ...

tl;dr: You can make your yard (if you have one) a more fun and interesting play space than "just grass," although you have to steel yourself to having some plantings destroyed by little people.

(As a general thing, once these beds are established, they take less work than a lawn; a weekend for spring and fall cleanup of the prairie beds, occasional weeding for the more traditional beds. But I'm only willing to water and regularly weed plants that produce food, so they mostly take care of themselves other than spring and fall clean-up.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:57 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since when is trying to minimize the risk of a head injury being "overprotective?" Protecting you kids from spilling their brains is pretty much your bare minimum responsibility as a parent.

Evolution has done most of the work there already. While I don't want playgrounds to be obviously unsafe, nor do I want kids to be helpless in the absence of safety features, or to be panicked by minor injuries. People like that tend to be rather useless in the event of an accident or emergent situation, because they've never learned to cope with risk or danger as children. In my experience, it's also harder to get them to follow good safety practices because they're not used to getting themselves out of trouble. YMMV.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:09 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is what sucks about parenting:

Group A: Stop crushing your childrens' spirit with your neurotic fears! Turn them loose in the world, preferably with sharp tools, and don't check up on them too much!

Group B: (the minute a child is injured) OMG YOU CARELESS HEARTLESS MONSTER. Your child is being abused and you should be forbidden from breeding again!

Most infuriating? There is often significant overlap between group A and group B.
posted by emjaybee at 1:16 PM on July 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

There's a playground in Seattle with a zip line, which is about the coolest thing ever.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:24 PM on July 13, 2011

A friend had an exhibit at the maker faire that was basically a big teeter totter. It turned out non of the kids who came by had ever even SEEN a teeter totter before.

Won't somebody think of the physics teachers?
posted by small_ruminant at 1:27 PM on July 13, 2011

Here is what sucks about parenting:

You left out group C, who complain about children being put at risk before anything bad has happened, thus implicitly questioning the quality of others' supervision/instruction. Suggesting that childrens' spirits are at risk of leaking out of their skulls is insulting, doubly so to anyone who has watched a child's fontanelle closing up over several years.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:42 PM on July 13, 2011

Suggesting that childrens' spirits are at risk of leaking out of their skulls is insulting, doubly so to anyone who has watched a child's fontanelle closing up over several years.

posted by small_ruminant at 2:17 PM on July 13, 2011

One of my favourite childhood playground experiences was pretty much this huge (to a kid) climbing rope structure the council had put up at a lake near my house. Good times.

I've never seen one like it again... in my mind I've always blamed it on the increasingly safety conscious society.
posted by xdvesper at 4:24 PM on July 13, 2011

Ooh, I've played on those in the past few years, xdvesper. Keep looking and you'll find one.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:28 PM on July 13, 2011

Yeah, that's what the giant climbing structure at the park I mentioned above is like. It's awesome, because it's very easy to climb and remarkably hard to fall off of.
posted by KathrynT at 4:31 PM on July 13, 2011

What are some leads for a computer-savvy 12 year old who's interested in playground design?

Well, IANAE... but at 12, maybe a good thing to start with might be Google Sketchup? It's not super powerful, but it's free, it runs on fairly basic computers and there are lots of objects available for download - including playground equipment - see this video of building a playground design on Sketchup... and a bit of a grounding in 3D design could come in handy even if interest in playgrounds fades.

The classic text, at least for those who believe that playgrounds should move back towards custom applications from modularity, is probably Susan Solomon's American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, but it might be a bit dry for a 12-year old.

A far better and more detailed answer could probably be solicited from Arcady, the curator of Playscapes - her email address is on the page.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:06 PM on July 13, 2011

There was a great metal slide at the park playground when I was a kid. About 8 feet high (it was roughly 1.5 moms high) and a good 15 feet long. When mom would take us to the park, she'd bring a can of pledge and a rag. We'd spend a few minutes polishing the heck out of that slide, and by the time we were finished, that slide was frickin' supersonic. We'd tuck in, point our toes, going for maximum speed like we were on a luge or something.

Summer days kind of sucked though, cause this was the era of short-shorts (and striped tube socks!), and the absolute worst was getting halfway down that slide, and your shorts would hike up a little, and your thighs and ass cheeks would make this god-awful squealing noise for the last few feet, and you'd eventually skid to a stop just before the bottom, hopefully with some skin still left on your butt. Every kid on the playground would cringe, knowing the pain that some poor schmuck just suffered.

Now there's some weak-ass plastic thing there that is maybe four feet tall, and kids have to practically pull themselves all the way down. :(
posted by xedrik at 6:14 PM on July 13, 2011

What are some leads for a computer-savvy 12 year old who's interested in playground design?

Your kid might be interested in Landscape Architecture as a future career path. Lots of playgrounds, and the parks and spaces they live in, are designed by LAs. It's what I wanted to do out of high school, but I had no idea the field even existed. LA Foundation. American Society of Landscape Architects.
posted by BinGregory at 6:21 PM on July 13, 2011

After coming off two weeks of a toddler with a sprained ankle who couldn't walk? I am ALL for some modicum of safety. Because injured children are kids who can't walk, cant really go and have fun the way they want. It was heartbreaking to sit next to the (kid safe, indoor, super padded) playground while my daughter tried to navigate it by either knee walking or crawling. Since she's two, and it was packed, it was a failed experiment. The park is one of her favorite things and she missed out for close to three weeks because of one careless moment on a trampoline. It sucked for her, it sucked for me, and if a little rubber bark prevents it happening again, I'm all for the rubber bark.

And yeah, if you think sunscreen and water is all that's needed to make a playground 'fun' in summer, please don't design anything in Australia. Even the plastic slides get hot enough to hurt in summer, if they're in full sun. Our local park is fully shaded by trees so it is useable all year round thankfully.

But yeah, I let toddler anachronism on the big kid slide, up on top of the big kid climbing thing - I do that because she can do it, wants to do it and there are enough safety parameters in place that a simple fall out of the thing, or too rapid descent, won't be breaking things and taking us out of the park and into convalescence for any real length of time.

Although last week she tried to come down a sliding pole one handed...I was not comfortable with that. Not so soon after the two weeks of pissed off toddler confined to the house.
posted by geek anachronism at 8:05 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yup, I've been to that playground, KathrynT. It's great. Except for the remarkably uptight parents we ran into, who yelled at us.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:57 PM on July 13, 2011

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