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A playground used to be a place with a slide and a swing and a sandbox. Kids played there and mothers sat on the benches enjoying the sun until it was time to go home.
But playgrounds have changed. Oh boy, how they've changed! There are still plenty with slides and swings and shouting kids and mothers on benches enjoying the sun. But there are other playgrounds now, and lots of them, with big conduit pipes and geodesic climbers (right), with space stations, fire engines, satellites, sculptured giraffes, concrete octopuses, polyblocks, hexapods, stalactites, strange metal growths that look like cactus forests, perforated shells that kids play under and moon rockets that stand as high as a three-story house.
Even the colors are different. Old-fashioned playgrounds are a sort of mottled green and brown—a grass patch here, a dirt patch there—interspersed with the straight gray lines of the steel pipes that hold up the slides, the swings and the jungle gyms. The new-look playgrounds are wild with color—mustard yellows, burnt umbers, sea greens, candy stripes, brilliant reds and blues, great squares of pastels decorating the sides of service buildings—the whole set off by chalk-white, free-form globs of reinforced concrete that pop out of the ground almost anyplace.
"Playgrounds today look like modern art museums," a sour observer of the current scene recently observed, sourly. And indeed, modern playground equipment is displayed in museums. The orange-and-yellow satellite shown on a previous page was photographed at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, which installed a small functioning playground as an exhibit. Furthermore, David Aaron, president of Playground Corporation of America and a leading manufacturer of contemporary equipment, used to be a sculptor himself.
The old standard playground items—the solid, steady swings, the long, straight slides, the square jungle gyms, the unadorned sandboxes, the simple seesaws—still make up the great bulk of playground material currently in use and being sold. But modern equipment is gaining a larger and larger share of the market as new schools and housing developments and urban renewal projects and even motels and driving ranges and bowling alleys build new or rebuild old playgrounds.
Why? Well, undoubtedly, in part, because it is a fad—it is different, it is intriguing, it is new. (Don't let your town be the last one to put in a rocket ship, for the love of Mike.) But beyond that latest-fashion aspect, the present trend has some solid reasons for being.
One such reason is the cheering fact that most of the new equipment is aimed, designed and built for the child. That is, it is made to stimulate a child's interest and imagination so that he will voluntarily devote more time and physical effort to his playing. Another reason is safety, an old bugaboo of recreational directors. Everyone seems to agree that it is not necessarily desirable for a child to play in a perfectly safe environment; a little danger, a little risk is a good thing. But it is true that moving equipment, like swings and seesaws and merry-go-rounds—things that move while the child holds relatively still—cause more injuries than nonmoving apparatus, things like climbers that hold still while the child moves around. ("You know what a swing is?" a Long Island man said. "A swing is a thing they put in playgrounds to knock kids' teeth out with.")
Most of the modern equipment is non-moving. Of course, no playground object is perfectly safe, says Safety Expert Dr. M. Alexander Gabrielsen of New York University, not even sandboxes. ("Sandboxes get dirty," he points out. "Small children wet their pants in them. They throw sand, too.") And injuries are more than just a question of kids getting hurt. They also mean lawsuits, since people nowadays tend to think of lawsuits before they think of Band-Aids.
Because schools, municipalities and the like operate playgrounds for people and not for profit, the tendency when they get sued by the people they are serving is to close up, close down, fence off, oversupervise. This effectively atrophies the whole purpose of recreational areas. It is the problem facing Dr. Gabrielsen and other students of safety and everyone in the recreation field—how to achieve maximum participation with minimum injury—and it is another strong argument for the new concept of design. The paraphernalia is reasonably safe, and it does attract kids to playgrounds.
Which brings us to attractiveness, another powerful recommendation for the newest playgrounds. According to Robert W. Crawford, Commissioner of Recreation in Philadelphia and the most admired and respected recreation man in the country, "There is absolutely no excuse for our facilities to be drab, dull and unattractive. We have found in Philadelphia that modern, attractive recreational facilities increase attendance as much as 800%. Recreation facilities should be designed along esthetic lines and so constructed that they demand attention. The so-called standard equipment is not providing the challenge necessary for growing boys and girls. While I am not proposing that the conventional equipment be discarded, there is no doubt that a genuine need exists for research and experimentation with apparatus for playgrounds that will open up a new world of stimulating, imaginative and creative equipment."