New York

16 January 2017

On a recent sweltering day in New York City, my three-year-old daughter Alice stacked PVC piping in a rubber tire, crossed a plank over a sizeable muddied puddle and made a bouquet from the weeds and wildflowers growing between the junk.

We were visiting a 14,000sq m experimental playground on Governors Island, a now-public landmass with along and varied history that takes in an original Native American population, military and coast guard bases, and involvement in the 18th-century Battle of Brooklyn. Today, it is accessible by ferry from Brooklyn and Manhattan. Play:groundNYC, as the new site is called, throws cautious, overly prescribed play to the wind, instead taking its cues from a handful of the 20th century’s most innovative and child-centric urban design experiments. Frustrated by how lacklustre playground spaces and equipment (slides, swings and seesaws) had become, some 20th-century designers upended accepted ideas and experimented with new forms, materials and spaces. While their ideas didn’t always stick, a few have become standouts for today’s urban planners, designers and child advocacy experts. By letting kids have their way with a patch of earth, plenty of refuse, and a few tools, the organisers of Play:groundNYC are giving credibility to the notion that play spaces can be spontaneous, ever-changing and even educational.

In progressive educational circles, children are understood as active –rather than passive – learners who thrive socially and cognitively when they are given the freedom to engage in open-ended play. The 20th century’s most prominent educational theorists, from Jean Piaget (whose theory of cognitive development revolutionised the way we understand childhood and the developing brain) to Friedrich Froebel (often called the inventor of the kindergarten), all agree that doing and interacting with things stimulates learning. And as anyone who has spent time with children has probably observed, this kind of learning comes quite naturally. “Children,” the critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1924, “are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked on. They are irresistibly drawn to the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring or carpentry.”

So when the Danish landscape designer Carl Theodor Sørensen observed that “children play wonderfully on vacant lots” in his 1931 book, Parkipolitik, he certainly wasn’t the first to notice. Nor was Sørensen the first to observe that playing with open-ended materials and loose parts could be cognitively beneficial, the way that blocks have been celebrated for cultivating abstract thought. But Sørensen was the first to make free and voluntary child’s play a landscape-design issue: “Perhaps we should try to set up (on unbuilt sites) a kind of ‘junk playground’ in appropriate areas, not too small in size, well closed off from its surroundings by thick greenery, where we should gather all sorts of old scrap that the children from the apartment blocks could be allowed to work with. There could be branches and waste from tree polling and bushes, old cardboard boxes, planks and boards, ‘dead’ cars, old tires and lots of other things.”

Sørensen’s career spanned the rise and evolution of modernism in the 20th century. Working with the majority of the leading architects of Danish functionalism, Sørensen shared their belief that architecture should be spatially and socially useful. So when 900 children showed up on the opening day of his skrammellegeplads (junk playground) in August 1943, in the midst of the German occupation, it was clear that he had hit on something significant. Set within an embankment of trees in Emdrup Vænge, in the north of Copenhagen, the skrammellegeplads was designed as a space for children to express their “primitive” urges in an otherwise tidy and tightly sanctioned city. Bits of building debris and branches were made available for children to use as they wished. Some built houses and forts, others took objects apart or set them alight. Others stacked tires, pallets and crates high into the air, jumping from them and knocking them over in turn. Although adults compared the space to “the trenches of the First World War”, the Emdrup site was an enormous success with children. Contemporary accounts estimated that 200 to 400 came to play daily. A playworker was on hand to help them navigate the environment, supplying them with tools like hammers and saws,and emboldening them to tinker, interact, explore and take risks. Compared to the tidy housing blocks of Copenhagen, junk-filled Emdrup was another world.

As in Emdrup, the organisers of Play:groundNYC transformed an orderly space by bringing in cast-away objects, like broken toys, tires and crutches, and building supplies, including plywood, ropes, piping and pallets. And like Emdrup, this is a child-run space. A small row of trees partially blocks the view, creating a peaceful space for the adults outside and a sense of privacy for the children within. A few play workers mill about. I watch as they hand out hammers and show a pair of eight-year-old boys how to saw a sheet of plywood. Meanwhile, a six-year-old girl jumps between pallets, then joins my daughter and a group of other kids as they fill a stack of tires with bits of plastic and pipe. According to co-organiser Reilly Wilson, a doctoral student and researcher of children’s environments, a major motivation for creating Play:groundNYC was to provide a sense of freedom and self-direction in a tightly managed urban environment. “It is so rare in NYC to be able to let your child take risks and ‘run wild’ without social sanction from other adults.”

Free, spontaneous children’s play is at the centre of the junk/adventure playground concept, but it is also inextricably linked to violence in the adult world. After visiting Emdrup in 1946, Lady Allen of Hurtwood brought the idea back to Britain, promoting it with an article for the November 1946 issue of Picture Press titled ‘Why not use our Bomb Sites Like This?’ (She also gave the idea an image-makeover, changing the name from junk playground to adventure playground.) She proposed that post-war Britain designate some of its bomb sites for children, believing this was a way to transform blighted urban spaces with cathartic, constructive play. As a landscape architect, pacifist and children’s welfare advocate, Allen was interested in helping children redefine rubble – through play they would process and repair the physical and psychological damage caused by war. The first of her playgrounds, built around 1948 and located in Camberwell, London, received extensive press coverage and was celebrated for addressing the growing problem of juvenile delinquency. Likewise, in the 1950s, her Lollard Adventure Playground in Lambeth became a powerful symbol of renewal as children transformed a bombed-out school.

After seeing a series of photographs of youngsters playing in the severely bomb-damaged and dilapidated East End of London, the English architects Alison and Peter Smithson became fascinated by children’s ability to make connections within existing aspects of the environment. The Smithsons were critical of the prevailing modernist dogma of the rational city with separate functions promoted by the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), and epitomised by the wide apartment blocks and landscaped public spaces in Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse plan published in 1933. Instead, the Smithsons advocated a more organic vision of urban design, guided by “human association”. In 1952, they became involved with the Independent Group, a radical organisation of young architects, artists, writers and filmmakers, and at the 1953 CIAM conference in Aix-en-Provence they presented their ideas in a visual statement titled Urban Re-Identification.The work offered a new architectural vision that paralleled the intuitive spatial connections they saw in the way children played, showing how play linked various elements of the city – homes, streets, neighbourhoods and beyond. It pointed away to a new architecture and urban design, and an alternative to the established modernist stance, which the group believed threatened to create sterile cities devoid of community spirit.

In Amsterdam, Aldo van Eyck also experimented with the improvisatory possibilities of playground design. Van Eyck’s work made use of existing spaces, defining environments without closing them off from the community. Between 1947 and 1978, he designed hundreds of playgrounds in Amsterdam’s derelict and under-used spaces, transforming them with minimalist and geometric equipment that invited children to play imaginatively and physically. Designed to be modular, the equipment added to the ad-hoc feel of the playgrounds; the basic elements – sand pits, tumbling bars, stepping stones, chutes and hemispheric jungle gyms – could be endlessly recombined depending on the requirements of the local environment.

The last century has witnessed this kind of progressive play space spread throughout Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Britain, Israel and even the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, yet the United States has been slow to join the experiment. From the 1950s through to the early 70s,designers like Richard Dattner, Charles Forberg, Isamu Noguchi and Victor Papanek tried in vain to propose alternative designs for US playgrounds, emphasising their sculptural, sensorial and abstract possibilities. But these designs were shelved after critics –among them Robert Moses, the infamous “master builder” of New York– complained that they were too dangerous, dramatic and expensive to be carried out. In 1965, the year that Thomas Hoving became the parks commissioner of New York City, Allen toured the playgrounds along the east coast of the US. She criticised the average American playground for being “an administrator’s heaven and a child’s hell”. In the 1970s, New York’s mayor John V. Lindsay offered a few vacant lots for play experimentation, but they didn’t last long.

Now, decades and a continent away from their original inspiration, the Play:groundNYC group is experimenting with radical forms of improvisatory architecture and play, and the play spaces have been a hit with NYC’s communities. The scheme started as a pop-up in 2014. Play:groundNYC’s organisers repurposed neglected urban spaces, endowing them with a socially progressive, child-centric mission. Before Governors Island, there were several pop-ups, including in Fort Greene Park, in Prospect Park and at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. They rented a truck and gathered materials from the curb at night. The Play:groundNYC organisers advertised their project as away to “foster long term responsibility to [children’s] community and world.”

Roger A. Hart, an expert in children’s play and development and a professor of environmental psychology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in a recent New York Times article that the current enthusiasm for adventure play in New York may reflect a“nagging doubt” about children’s tightly controlled and over-scheduled lives: “There has been a loss of child-initiated activity.” This sentiment crosses gender, economic and racial lines, becoming even more pressing and poignant for children of colour. “I very strongly feel that the over-policing of low-income children of colour warrants junk play spaces for them as much as the German Occupation warranted a space for young people in Emdrup,” says co-organiser Reilly Wilson. “Parents of black and brown children in NYC today share the very real fear that their own children’s play behaviours might be fatally misunderstood by police.”

Even in one of the most visibly violent moments in US history, an ingrained fear of risk remains a central theme in protective, litigious America. Yet advocates maintain that actual danger is just an illusion and it is precisely the risk involved in adventure playgrounds that develops decision-making power, enhances teamwork and gives young people permission to take control. As Allen opined in her 1965 tour of American playgrounds, “It is better to risk a broken leg than a broken spirit.”

With the southern end of imposing, gridded Manhattan in the distance, there is a thrilling (if chaotic) beauty in seeing children build and un-build their own small worlds out of bits that the city chewed up and spat out. “Of all the things I have helped to realise,” said Sørensen, “the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works.” Sørensen was the first to interpret the playground as a collaborative landscape whose aesthetics and formal compositional concerns should largely be left to the child. I watch as Alice brings a bucket to the tire and PVC mound that a group of kids are now calling apartments. A girl takes the bucket and hangs it over a pipe. Nearby, a group of boys looks up. The biggest one opens his mouth: “That’s actually pretty good.”