Category Archives: SMITH the Kids' Play Place in the Park

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

Memorials – London, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.

The dedication of a memorial playground is a great way to commemorate a person’s life. Some honoured in this manner have walked the world stage. For others their influence has been more modest but no less important to those they touched. For all remembered in this way, a breath of magic is released each time a child calls their name. What follows is a snapshot of three memorial playgrounds.


In June of 1964, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. presided over the official opening of a new playground in Washington D.C. It wasn’t just any playground as the plaque unveiled that day attested – “This playground was named by the young people of this area as a memorial to the spirit of youth of John F. Kennedy.” Prior to its opening, there were virtually no recreational services for the approximately 10,000 children that called this part of Washington home. The $500,000 investment in the playground was an almost unheard of sum in the early 60s.

Ebony magazine covered the excitement and pride generated in the community by this new symbol of hope through play. The John F. Kennedy Memorial Playground had all the standard equipment associated with playgrounds and more.

The new play space also had a selection of military hardware and a marine obstacle course that wouldn’t pass muster today except perhaps to be
included in a round up of dangerous playground equipment. The triangular slide, jet fighter and locomotive being clambered over certainly didn’t put a damper on opening day activities. The Ebony photo spread lights up with smile to smile faces, a bunch of happy looking. we’re having fun kids.

John F. Kennedy’s memory continues to be honoured through the community centre at the corner of 7th and P Streets that bears his name. The original playground is no longer there. It lives on though in the memories of thousands of aging boomers who played in that extraordinary space. Play has not been forsaken. There are now two of the ubiquitous, modular plastic playgrounds there but their allure pales in comparison with what was.

In London, England the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens commemorates the life and work of the late Princess. Peter Pan author J M Barrie was the guiding force behind an earlier playground built on the same site in 1906. Land Use Consultants pay tribute to Barrie in their creation that echoes Never Never Land. The memorial playground was officially opened in June 2000 at a cost of 1.7 ₤ million. It was developed in response to suggestions from the public on how Diana’s life could be honoured. There is a good slide show of the playground posted at KaBOOM!

In Philadelphia, the Smith Memorial Playgrounds have been welcoming children for over 100 years. Back then the site was in the country. Now known as SMITH the Kids’ Play Place in the Park it’s run by a non-profit organization and governed by a volunteer Board of Directors. In addition to the three-story mansion playhouse and giant wooden slide measuring 39′ long by 13′ wide, there is a 6.5 acre playground with over 50 pieces of equipment.

Richard and Sara Smith were the original benefactors of this children’s wonderland. As participants in the American Playground Movement they were among the pioneers who advocated and created publicly supported playspaces at the turn of the 20th century. It is through their untiring work that an awareness grew around civic responsibility vis à vis children and play.

To see more of SMITH the Kids’ Play Place in the Park click through to their YouTube channel. Please note, admission is free.

In some way, every playground is a memorial to the unstoppable energy that courses through it, to laughter, friendships, daring feats and shared memories. They are memorials to childhood itself and to the people who made them happen. Long live playgrounds…

Photo credits in order of appearance

    1. Ebony
    2. Ebony
    3. Land Use Consultants

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

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