Playgrounds then and now – How playgrounds have changed over time
In interviewing my 75-year-old neighbour I asked her what playgrounds were like when she was small. She told me that living in Montreal, Canada there were very few playgrounds as we know them today. In her urban setting they played in back alleys and empty lots nearby. She told me that often the adults would add unwanted furniture to the spaces and the children could play pretend with them or build forts with them to play in. She recalled one playground with a sand box, bench, and balance beans some distance from her home. She said that they would walk there occasionally when the older children agreed to accompany them. This was her childhood version of a playground.
Canada’s relationship with playgrounds began in Toronto in around 1908. The Toronto Playground Association was formed by J.J. Kelso and at that time Canada had may parks, gardens and outdoor spaces but no playgrounds as we think of them today. (miracle-recreation.com) “There were 11 playgrounds in Toronto by 1915, and the city’s parks commissioner had plans to build 20 more.” According to the blog at Miracle Recreation. As with other urban centers Toronto and growing to other major Canadian cities saw the benefits of playgrounds and began implementing the newest trends and concepts as they arose.
This evolution changed over the years the why and what of playgrounds. From a thought of “reducing delinquency” in the early years by providing a place to play to promoting health and wellbeing in more recent years to also now, providing a social outing in the face of Covid where gathering indoors is either not permitted or discouraged. The need for playgrounds still exists and as our urban spaces become more crowded the percentage of the lucky few who have private outdoor yard spaces to build private playgrounds on is shrinking. Public playgrounds provide a refuge for all the population.
The playground evolution went from the Novelty playgrounds of the 1050s, 60s and 70s that featured rocket ships and dragons to the safety movement of the 1990s. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) created a full and well thought out set of standards for manufactures to follow. This included
“Spacing that might cause the head to become entrapped
Hardware or railings that protrude and might cause lacerations
Inadequate railing or barriers that could allow children to fall accidentally
Slides with gaps that could entangle a child’s clothing” (Miracle Recreation)"
According to Miracle Recreation the later 1990s and beyond saw a large leap in the evolution of playgrounds. This includes the creation of intergenerational playgrounds with equipment and spaces designed for young and old to play together, Accessible playgrounds that aim to serve children and families with special needs, Sensory playgrounds that promote visual, tactile, and kinaesthetic senses to Cyber playgrounds that can use technology like a smart phone to interact with the playground equipment or space.
In the early 2000s when my children were of playground playing age the playgrounds had rounded corners, soft edges and soft bottom surfaces for easier landings should you fall. They were mostly primary coloured and had climbing structures, swings, slides, and a new version of a merry-go-round designed to keep children safer. I notice now, 20 years later that many spaces are incorporating more natural looking playgrounds with tan and green structures and wood chip base layers. They also tend to be open with a lot of grass space or trails and often have a splash pad attached to them. The inclusion of activities like frisbee golf and outdoor fitness equipment has broadened the use of the playground to more people and of more ages. The playground and the park have had a sort of merger.
The playgrounds my neighbour remembers are not entirely different than those of today. It may not seem like it at first but both styles of playgrounds provide a space for children to interact with each other, test limits and try new things and for them to have a small sense of autonomy, even if it is on CSA safety standards play equipment. The difference is in the why of the playground. The version my neighbour described was likely not out of a philosophical or researched idea of helping children grow. It was likely out of the need to keep children occupied so the grown-ups could do grown up things.
“Modern playgrounds can become the epicenter for communities when they are thoughtfully designed. Amenities like picnic tables, bike racks and shade structures can make playgrounds a place to gather and socialize for people of all ages.” (Miracle Recreation) From the “children’s world” of old playgrounds to the “community center” of modern playgrounds the need for many play spaces in our communities continues.
History of Playground Equipment. (2020). Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.miracle-recreation.com/blog/history-of-playground-equipment.