This isn’t really a fair competition, as anyone with children who has been to northern/western Europe knows that they have routed this competition to the point that it’s almost embarrassing for playgrounds the world over.
But let’s stick with London. This town is lousy with playgrounds. As in NYC every park has at least one, while the larger parks usually have more than one. In London every common, every palace and castle, and most major attractions have playgrounds. And I’m not talking about your dinky ready made climbing structure and a couple of baby swings, I’m talking full on massive playgrounds, the kind that make your kid go WOW! And then they run off completely disregarding any alternate reason you might have had for coming to this space and you lose them for an hour while they swing, climb, explore, imagine, I’m a pirate, I’m a knight, I’m a wizard. The kind where you could easily spend a couple of hours, where there’s room for all the grown ups to sit down and enough space for all the kids to actually run.
These playgrounds have tree houses and aerial slides (which are so cool) and things that spin really fast and make you dizzy and tire swings and rope swings, and climbing structures made out of all sorts of materials and forts and castles and huge sand pits. We’ve seen full sized pirate ships and full sized dragons and garden mazes where we got really truly lost. And all sorts of ways to actively get injured. I’m not saying that’s a plus, just a fact.
Also the real “adventure playgrounds” have attendants and hours, and they buzz you in which means not only are the kids not going anywhere, but also no grown ups without children are allowed in.
Growing up back in the day in Queens, our playgrounds consisted of these crazy tall jungle gym structures built out of 90 degree connected steel pipes that you climbed to the top of and could drape over and swing by your knees, there were usually a couple of see-saws, a carousel thingie that the big kids would spin around way too fast while everyone else held on for dear life and usually made at least someone sick, a couple of slides, always a big kid slide, which meant it was so tall and so steep you would definitely hurt yourself when you came off it, and as a bonus these slides were made of highly reflective metal that burned your ass so bad on a hot day there was nothing really to do about it. And a bunch of swings, also made of metal, also ass burning and that swung on metal chains that you could flip over to make the chain shorter and the swing higher so you could go really high. You would absolutely get hurt on any and all of these pieces of equipment especially as the playgrounds were all built on full on black asphalt. I just learned that these playgrounds were originally designed and built in the 30’s and as such hadn’t changed in forty something years.
Apparently in the 60’s NYC was really into the British and Scandinavian adventure playground concept and built a bunch of highly designed and customized playgrounds around the city. Whereas the original British adventure playgrounds were created out of post-WWII bombed out sites that were deemed unusable for anything.
“In the U.K., such playgrounds arose and became popular in the 1940s, as a result of the efforts of Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood, a landscape architect and children’s advocate. Allen was disappointed by what she described in a documentary as “asphalt square” playgrounds with “a few pieces of mechanical equipment.” She wanted to design playgrounds with loose parts that kids could move around and manipulate, to create their own makeshift structures. But more important, she wanted to encourage a “free and permissive atmosphere” with as little adult supervision as possible. The idea was that kids should face what to them seem like “really dangerous risks” and then conquer them alone.” Hannah Rosin, The Overprotected Kid, The Advocate, April 2014
And so what I remember, one day in the 80’s our school playground went under construction because, we were told, a bunch of kids had split their heads open and the city decided to start installing that black rubbery stuff under all the equipment and eventually took out all the steel and started replacing it with that prefab stuff we all know too well.
“By the 1970s, as playground safety rose in importance, many playgrounds were retrofitted to eliminate hazardous conditions such as hard surfaces and the potential for long falls. With Adventure Playgrounds in particular, many parents began to worry about the possibility of injury in the tunnels and massive play shapes that blocked visibility of their children at play. Some sought to remove altogether the 1960s designs—finding the aesthetic, especially the liberal use of concrete, to be brutal, harsh, and un–park–like, while others thought these designs created arenas for imaginative play. (Preservationists of modernism would later rally to save all or part of these latter–day “landmarks,” especially those by leading designers.) Over time, these playgrounds were replaced by more colorful catalog model equipment with less sand and fewer moving parts.”
Now don’t get me wrong. NYC has some amazing playgrounds, like, whoa, the Brooklyn Bridge Park playground and the David Rockefeller Imagination Playground and I have never been happier in a playground than I am at the Prospect Park Natural Exploration Area. And I’m SO excited** for the Governor’s Island real life Adventure Playground going in this summer.
I’m not even arguing that NYC playgrounds are subpar. They are often thoughtfully designed (although the lack of trees and shade is weird), they can be innovative and exploratory and the water features are always appreciated in the summer and overall I can’t begin to count the hours I have utilized the amazing enclosed spaces that are the NYC parks playgrounds.
Last summer we included on our bucket list to go and see all the playgrounds in NYC, which we didn’t even come close to accomplishing, but we did visit some really great ones.
But then let’s consider the overall sameness of most of them, the icky sticky bathrooms, the ones with the no toilet paper or running water in the sink (and that’s IF your playground is lucky enough to have a bathroom), the ones with sandboxes that you’d really truly rather not think about what goes on in there, because after a couple of years spent observing one particular sandbox and realizing that nobody ever really cleans that thing…well, look, I’m all for germs are good for us, but ew.
And the amazing lack of shade over most of the playgrounds is really alarming. If I’m meant to spend several hours sitting in a spot while my kids run around, is a bench under a tree really too much to ask? Or one of those tented cabana things? On any sunny day you can see all the nannies and parents huddled under the few shady spots. It’s really awful.
So I’m giving this one (obviously) to London. Not only for the (relatively clean) bathrooms at every spot, but also for creativity and originality and consideration of the comfort of parents with ample seating and shady spots. Nice job London.
**SO excited is an exaggeration, I’m pleased, we’ll leave it at that.