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The elusive effective playground

Posted by Anthony Flint  July 6, 2010 03:30 PM

Being a father of three, I consider myself something of a playground afficionado. The job description is actually quite simple. What do the children do when confronted with equipment? How are they engaged? I've often wondered about playgrounds in the context of activating public space -- yearning for something beyond a swingset, a slide, a conglomeration of climbing and bridge opportunities otherwise known as the jungle gym.

In State of Play in the July 5 New Yorker, Rebecca Mead has a nice chronicle of the "imagination playground" concept, popular in Europe, but like a lot of other things, slow to catch on here.

The idea is to give kids loose pieces -- blocks and tools -- and let their imaginations run wild, damming up water features or digging holes and tunnels in sand. Intuitive stuff -- like how a child loves a sandbox with loose toys in it.

Adults, too. The success of Bryant Park in New York comes in large part from the decision to leave movable chairs scattered across the seating areas, for visitors to arrange as they wish.

Litigation and safety concerns have limited playgrounds to a certain cookie-cutter variety in most instances. One exception was the playground at the Boston Water & Sewer facility at Albany Street in the South End -- fixed equipment, but sort of a combination of a three-dimensional climbing wall and something one might see on Wipeout. But that brings us back to the litigation thing.

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About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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