Category Archives: 1950s playgrounds

Philadelphia Freedom – Shine the Light on Play

In Philadelphia, the Smith Memorial Playground is a beacon. The space reverberates with tumultuous noise as kids high kick it into discovery mode. After more than a century, this place remains a play haven. However, the Smith oasis is not representative of play opportunities in public spaces throughout the city.

Art of Active Play_process3One of the many activities taking place during Philadelphia’s Play Space

Play Space, a partnership between the Community Design Collaborative and The Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC), is pumping up the volume on the play dialogue. The kidcentric project is active with local and international communities exploring modalities of play that go beyond standardized spaces. This is no off the shelf, prefab play solutions operation.

Play Space‘s 18-month horizon got underway this summer with architect Alexa Bosse leading the project. She’s a program associate with Community Design Collaborative as well as a landscape architectural designer, longtime community volunteer and mother of 3 1/2 year old twins. Alexa has no shortage of reasons to get active and up the ante for play in Philadelphia.

Play Space logo with tagline

We’re helping to bring the value of play to the forefront and underline how much it’s really needed especially in a city where many people don’t have access to a lot of outdoor space.

Alexa Bosse – Manager, Play Space

Play Space is part of Infill Philadelphia which engages innovative design in the revitalization of neighbourhoods. Over the course of the program there is a lecture series, a youth build with playable structures as well as work with educators and home-based child care centres.

Accessible play makes for better communities and stronger families.

Alexa Bosse

Alexa is most enthusiastic about the design competition that will benefit three public agencies – a library, a school and the city’s parks and recreation branch. Although the USA has significant design restrictions, many associated with safety concerns, the dialogue that Play Space is leading is making inroads. With special friends like author Susan Solomon and filmmaker Erin Davis, who screened her documentary The Land, helping to spur the conversation, alternative visions of play spaces are gaining more currency.

Art of Active Play - Balancing Act - Smith PlaygroundBalancing Act, Art of Active Play – Smith Playground

In fact, decision makers from the public agencies were initially very prescriptive in their directions. They have now relaxed the prescriptive directions in the interest of encouraging creativity and attracting a wide range of design teams to the competition. Alexa hopes that the result of this opening up will be finding a balance that emphasizes creativity and innovation while challenging people’s thinking about what a play space can be in an urban landscape. The best case scenario is that the design competition attracts models that can be replicated or adapted for other sites.

My hope is that we’ll attract some international interest in the design competition. We’re so ready for it.

Alexa Bosse

Competition open until November 30

All the information required to enter is here.

Nota: one member of the team must be a licensed professional – architect, landscape architect, or engineer – in the country in which they are practicing. Although not a requirement, Play Space is encouraging multi-disciplinary teams that draw on the knowledge and experience of educators, parents, psychologists and others with a close connection to children.

For Alexa, the Play Space objectives present a winning scenario for a city that is welcoming back millennials with young families.

  1. Encourage innovative design
  2. Improve access
  3. Promote dialogue and collaboration
  4. Build Awareness
  5. Provide prototypical design solutions

While we wait in anticipation for the results of the design competition, let’s turn the clock back to some images of Philadelphia play spaces from the 1950s and 60s. Click on the image below, or its cutline for a selection of vintage play sourced at the Philly History photo archives.

Philly 10Youngsters frolic on the igloo climbers at the Pennypack Playground, Philadelphia – 1958

We’re Goin’ on a Playground Hunt – We’re Gonna Catch a Big One (in Paris)

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Papa and I are up early to make the most of our last full day in the City of Heat. We’re getting prepared for a day of urban trekking. First order of business – sustenance. We head to our regular spot at the corner of Voltaire and Charonne after grabbing a couple of croissants each at the boulangerie across the street. The café au lait at l’Ingénu is just the fuel we need before the morning’s expedition to l’Haÿ-les-Roses gets underway.

We’re goin’ on a playground hunt, we’re gonna catch a big one. Yes, three days in Paris and we’re spending half a day on a quest for a 1950s playscape designed by Franco-Hungarian, Pierre Székely. Can you guess whose idea this is? Papa is very good natured about it and curious too. All we’ve got are screen captures of Google satellite and map views to try and find it. Oops, not as well prepared as I could be several thousand kilometres from home.

birds eye view

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I guess we aren’t exactly the standard father and son duo off on a play adventure. As often as we’d done this in the past, at 80 and 57 respectively, we are a tad out of practice with the old roles. But it turns out that love and the pursuit of play are ageless.

We grab the Métro at Charonne, our home station in the 11e arrondissement, and slip over to Nation. I pull us up street side here for a few minutes to see the two huge 100′ high doric columns each topped with a king. They made quite an impression on me from the days we lived in Paris nearly 45 years ago.

As we make our way around the square, we encounter three kids in a spontaneous burst of play. Already the temperature is heat waving its way to 40ºC. Partially hidden from their dad’s view, the kids are running, dancing, jumping through a sprinkler. They’re happy as he continues to chat on the sidewalk. Each moment is an extension of freedom – getting soaked one drop at a time in this small patch of green.

From Nation we do the underground zip to the end of the line at Ville Juif. Nobody we ask there is familiar with the street names that encircle the playscape. Why should they be? It’s about 2 kilometres away from the station. But really, can you believe it – Rue de la Reine Blanche runs along the perimeter of our treasure? I was beginning to think it was all Alice in Wonderland. I’m ready to throw in the towel but that’s not in papa’s plans – no playgrounds left behind….

We do get some pointers from staff in a café and transit drivers. They set us out in the right direction to L’Haÿ-les-Roses. Once there it’s a like a game of hot and cold. Seemingly we move quickly in and out of range with people looking at us like we’re aliens or saying yes it sounds familar and is somewhere nearby. Two women, a cashier in the post office and young mom pushing her child in stroller, send us straight to the mother lode.

This is what it looks like nearly 60 years down the road.

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What treasures to discover – texture, form, space and Yves Le Thuaut who saved the playground from demolition and is now working with others to restore it. See the more photos right here on Tumblr – 96 degress in the shade: playgroundin’ in tropical Paris. See la gruyère, le labyrinthe, les escaliers, les vagues, les pataugeoires et le corne de brume.


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Truly a successful playground hunt though it must be said I couldn’t get over it, under it, through it. In fact I just wanted to be in it.

Check the smooth dismount from this concrete slide – no damage to my legs, or shorts!

Thanks to the as-tu déjà oublié? crew for introducing me to Székely.

Thanks to you for checking in – cheers from Canada’s far east…….

Popular PlayGroundology Posts Year II Revisited

This is my second and final act of self indulgence vis à vis rebroadcasting PlayGroundology posts from year two. I think each of the four embody the magic and wonderful possibilities of the interweb whether they relate to researching, sharing, or collaborating. I hope you’ll enjoy these offerings. Thanks for visiting PlayGroundology.

Newsreel Playgrounds – British Pathé

Thanks to the assignment editors, producers and cinematographers at British Pathé for this selection of playgroundabilia ranging from 1939 to 1967 in various UK locales.

Click on the image to be taken to the play page. Clips can be played at full screen and each has a detailed shot list. Enjoy and thanks again to British Pathé for making their inventory available for public viewing.

Bolton Schoolyard Playground – 1939 – Runtime: 00:50

In all, there are five vignettes to enjoy. This spring I am planning a guest post on the British Pathé blog about these visual treasures and any others that I can source. More…
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Flickr Blog Features PlayGroundology Curated Photos

Click photo to enlarge

What a pleasant surprise when I discovered that the Flickr blog had featured some photos curated by PlayGroundology in a flickr gallery entitled Swedish Aesthetic.

I never tire of thanking the photographers who post their images to flickr. Curating photos using the gallery function is nothing short of a gift. More…
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Seven Up! meets Adventure Playground

I came across a reference earlier this week to the adventure playground scene in the British documentary Seven Up!. The ongoing popularity of this television documentary made it relatively easy to find on the wonderbox as I sometimes call the internet. The acceleration of the opening sequence is zippingly exhilarting. More…
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ABCs for Play – Call and Answer

Starting this morning and ending on Christmas Day, PlayGroundology will be going through the alphabet one letter per day and asking people to submit their favourite words related to play for that letter.

PlayGroundology will send out a tweet ‘call’ each morning with some of its favourites and wait to receive ‘answers’ from others with their favourite play words for the letter of the day.

It was a great participatory game with wordplay and playwords galore. The A through Z results, ranging from 20 to 60 words per letter are posted on PlayGroundology. More…

Sculpted in France – Concrete Art Playgrounds

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for France so I’m always on the lookout for interesting play stories from that part of the world. Our family lived there in the early 70s. I was 12 when we arrived and 15 when we left. It was my gawky early adolescent phase which I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Playgrounds were not a big attraction for me back then – a good thing probably as I don’t recall seeing many of them in the towns or cities where we lived. I was more consumed with soccer, rugby and girls. Who knew you got to give and receive des bises at almost each encounter with girls? One little kiss on each cheek… What a revelation for a wee anglo lad from Toronto. Initially I was a little hesitant but it wasn’t long before I reveled in that custom.

But back to play for the younger set. Even though I did’t see much evidence of them, there were indeed playgrounds in France. Perhaps they were just not as prevalent as they were in North America during the same period. I did come across some actual evidence of original playground design dating back to the late 50s and early 60s just the other day on a couple of French blogs. The designer in question is Pierre Székely who created playful forms out of industrial concrete.

Photo credit: J. Bruchet. Source: Architectures de cartes postales. Designer: Pierre Székely. Cité des Jeux – L’Haÿ-les-Roses, France

Székely was born in Budapest and made his way to France in the post war years. A sculptor, architect, graphic artist and playground designer, his work and play can be found in public spaces and museums throughout France and numerous other countries.

Stockholm’s public art for children inspired Székely’s approach to playgrounds. In the late 1950s he wrote:

It’s in this city (Stockholm) that children for the first time found sculptures installed for them. Even better – there is no one forbidding them to touch. Quite the opposite – all the sculptures were designed so children could climb, slide and run around. The Nordic experience is conclusive – kids are happy exercising outside – Székely

Fifty years later the L’Haÿ-les-Roses slide has lost its original sheen and sports an urban dusting of graffitti. Click through for more historical and present day L’Haÿ-les-Roses images from the As-tu déjà oublié? blog.

I haven’t been able to track down how many playgrounds Székely designed but as you can see in the slideshow there’s certainly a handful scattered about the Paris suburbs that were springing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In the late 60s, Székely made a submission to a playground design competition to create a playscape for the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. His cavernous, earthy design was the winner (slides 12 and 13). The piece could blend right in on the set of the BBC kids’ show In The Night Garden, a perfect home for the rock obsessed Makka Pakka.

Székely made magic with concrete and simple forms – art with a utilitarian purpose. But what a purpose – play, smile, dream. Looking back from our 50 year vantage point, I think his playgrounds had the ability to unleash wonder, imagination and worlds of make believe. Perhaps they still do…

His designs certainly made an impression on Carsten Höller, he of the giant slide installations and mega international venue vernissages fame. Höller made a scale model of the 1958 Cité des Jeux playground in L’Hay-les-Roses and turned it over to two mice.

I’m not sure what statement Höller is making – note the slide in the foreground of the video. Perhaps he’s asking if we’re going to play like mice, or men. From 2010, Mauseplatz was part of the solo show Animals Works.

Primary sources for this post:

As-tu déjà oublié?
Architectures de cartes postales
Catalogue Raisonné des oeuvres du sculpteur

Once Upon A Playground

PlayGroundology allows me the opportunity to speak with many fine people from a variety of countries and backgrounds – artists, designers, advocates and activists, theorists and educators, photographers and psychologists, researchers, nostalgists, parents and beautiful dreamers. All are united in a fervent love of children, playgrounds and play and are mostly in it for the long haul.

I love it when we’re able to keep connected over time and PlayGroundology gets updates of new projects. That happened just today when photographer Brenda Biondo sent me a note about her new book, Once Upon A Playground.

Brenda’s photos were featured in PlayGroundology just after it got out the gates in February 2010. This is what was written back then.

Brenda Biondo is a woman on a mission. Over the last six years she’s clocked thousands of miles on the roads of the southwestern United States. Each time she finds a treasure on one of her expeditions of discovery, she parks her car, takes out her camera and proceeds to shoot frame after frame of America’s disappearing vintage playgrounds. Her eyes and sensibilities are recording the zeitgeist of American public play primarily from the 1950s through the 1970s – the pre-plastic era.
Endangered Species – Vanishing Playscapes

That mission now includes the book noted above. Brenda is offering us a sneak peek before Once Upon A Playground is finally put to bed and released to a broader public.

I went through the more than 100 images this evening and they are a real testament to Brenda’s vision and love of the subject matter. Some photos are breathtaking, stunning and deceptive in their simplicity. But don’t take my word for it, go flip through the digital pages yourself at the companion website, Once Upon A Playground. It won’t be hard to select some favourites. I’ve already discovered quite a few.

Brenda is also interested in gathering old photgraphs and stories from readers about their play and playground memories to post on the site which is where you’ll also find her contact information.

Don’t wait, click through to Once Upon A Playground and get your sneak peek of this beautiful book that takes us on a photographic journey from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Brenda, thanks for thinking of us.

Newsreel Playgrounds – British Pathé

Thanks to the assignment editors, producers and cinematographers at British Pathé for this selection of playgroundabilia ranging from 1939 to 1967 in various UK locales.

Click on the image to be taken to the play page. Clips can be played at full screen and each has a detailed shot list. Enjoy and thanks again to British Pathé for making their inventory available for public viewing.

Hold on tight, there is royalty, glitterati from both sides of the pond and of course plenty of kids starring in these reels.

Bolton Schoolyard Playground – 1939 – Runtime: 00:50

South Bank, London – 1953 – Runtime: 01:24

Come Out To Play, Reel 1 – 1950-59 – Runtime: 06:11

Come Out To Play, Reel 2 – 1950-59 – Runtime: 06:56

Adventure Playground, Crawley, West Sussex – 1967 – Runtime: 01:46

Popular Mechanics on the Playground Beat

I remember Popular Mechanics as a boy growing up in the 1960s. One of the trademarks was a small font size. They also had wondrous plans, superb graphics and fine photos. Until I stumbled across an old issue, I had never considered it as a resource for playground research. At the turn of the last century, Popular Mechanics had started chronicling the playground world in the United States. Who knew?

Nearly 500 cities now have public playgrounds and about half of them receive municipal support. In 257 cities last year over $2,500,000 was spent on 1,543 playgrounds, and 4,132 attendants were hired.

Popular Mechanics – October 1913

“Providing play under intelligent direction,” was a primary motivator in the development of playgrounds as stated in the October 1913 issue of the magazine (see below). At the time, playgrounds were a relatively new phenomenon. The article comments on a governance shift moving responsibility for playgrounds from the oversight of private citizens to municipal governments.

The same article also relates the story of a New Orleans fly swatting contest. Nearly 4.5 million flies were dispatched in a two week period by 32 boys. Had Guinness been around surely they would have had a record on their hands.

Over the ensuing decades, the publication continued to print articles on do-it-yourself playgrounds, innovative playground design, and the latest trends occasionally going beyond America’s shores in search of examples and stories.

The October, 1924 issue featured a drawing of a revolving barrel worthy of inclusion in any lumberjack competition. It looks like a lot of fun but it’s not the type of equipment that would pass muster by today’s playground safety standards.

In the early 1930s, the magazine offered a do-it-yourself article for a backyard playground with a kid-powered mini Ferris wheel, a roller coaster simulation and a treadmill. In spite of what looks to be a lot of fun on paper, none of these apparently had the staying power to become part of the conventional playground canon.

In their September 1953 issue, Popular Mechanics published a one-page item entitled Junk-Yard Playground.

This photo taken in Copenhagen is an early example of an adventure playground. The concept of a space that is forever being tinkered with, a kinetic design and build studio for kids, went on to become popular in selected communities around the world. The build it approach fit right in with Popular Mechanic’s do-it-yourself focus.

Currently, adventure playgrounds are relatively few in number and in some instances under threat but the passion of their supporters is legendary. A recent example of citizen engagement that saved one adventure playground from possible destruction is in Irvine, California.

In 1956, the publication explored playgrounds with ‘imagination’. Primary examples of this new departure in playground design and equipment were drawn from California – specifically Oakland and San Francisco. It’s a time of experimentation, a time when designs embrace aesthetics and functionality.

Rounding out this PM retrospective is the ‘taking the hurt out of play’ piece from the September 1963 issue. It’s all about safety and reducing the risk of injury.

A half century of playground commentary starting nearly 100 years ago and many of the issues remain in play today. Around the world there is still inadequate space and resources being dedicated to playgrounds. Individuals, community groups and international organizations in North America and beyond are advocating to improve this situation. Design is ever evolving and will continue to bring to light new and imaginative structures and spaces. Witness this year’s inaugural Playable10 competition out of Atlanta. And of course there is the perennial debate around safety.

There are a few more gems left from my Popular Mechanics archival searches. There are some other publications that have printed interesting playground articles over the years too. Stay tuned to read more about them in a future post.

All images and all articles – Popular Mechanics.

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