Adventure-Style Playgrounds

Beginning in 1966, a new park administration worked to transform and upgrade the Moses-era parks that had deteriorated and were increasingly perceived as both dangerous and dull. On taking office, Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving declared, “The old rinky-dink, hand-me-down stereotype of park is out, OUT!”(13) Hoving and his successor, August Heckscher, aimed to reconnect people to parks and recreation through new programming and experiments in design; they viewed the transformation of public space as essential to contend with a period of serious economic and social instability in New York. In Central Park, they organized numerous events, allowed large political protests and concerts to occur on the lawns, and closed the Park to automobile traffic on summer Sundays. They also created vest-pocket parks—small parks constructed on vacant building lots, often in neglected neighborhoods.

New ideas about playgrounds were influenced by these approaches to public space as well as earlier design innovations. Commencing in the 1930s, sculptor Isamu Noguchi had initiated a new approach to playground design by presenting playgrounds as sculptured environments in a total composition. Noguchi eschewed standardized play equipment for abstract shapes and forms (image 21). European adventure playgrounds (also known as junk playgrounds) were another precursor to experimental American playgrounds. Inspired in part by the way children played in the rubble of buildings destroyed during World War II, these playgrounds were created in urban lots and contained scrap materials such as wood, nails, ropes, paint, metal, and dirt (image 22). Children were encouraged to build with, and manipulate, these materials under the supervision and guidance of a play leader. Adventure-play advocates believed that self-directed and creative activity enabled children to more freely and imaginatively express themselves.

In the mid-1960s, the landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg and architect Richard Dattner combined aspects of these trends, designing custom, site-specific playground environments that they hoped would encourage a similar play experience to the adventure playgrounds in Europe. According to Dattner, “The next best thing to a playground designed entirely by children is a playground designed by an adult but incorporating the possibility for children to create their own places within it.”(14) In 1965, Friedberg designed New York City’s first adventure-style playground (image 23). It was built for the Jacob Riis Houses, a public housing complex on the Lower East Side. The play area was created within the existing community open space, which was entirely redesigned to also include an amphitheater, terraced plaza spaces, and a garden as a multi-purpose environment for adults and children. The playground itself, conceived as a “total play environment,” was surfaced in sand and defined by interconnected play structures.(15) More traditional equipment, such as slides and climbing bars, were incorporated in the granite-faced mounds and pyramids and wood structures, which were set close to one another or connected, forming a total composition. 

Between 1966 and 1972, seven Central Park playgrounds were rebuilt in what is now termed the “adventure style.” The first was Adventure Playground, designed by Dattner and built in 1966 within one of the original Moses-era playgrounds located near 67th Street and Central Park West (images 24 & 25).(16) Several factors influenced the development of Adventure Playground: advocacy by neighborhood parents who pressed for a safer and more exciting playground for their children; a responsive city administration open to experiments in urban design; and the influence of private philanthropy. The playground was funded by the Lauder Foundation, which had become interested in the adventure playground movement in Europe. Dattner’s design explored the idea of linked play articulated by Friedberg at the Jacob Riis Houses and included similar forms and materials. It consisted of a pyramid, water channels, winding walls, tunnels, and a tree house, many of which were linked to one another. The main materials were granite block, concrete, wood, sand, and water. Traditional equipment such as slides or climbing bars was limited, and when present was integrated into the constructed play features. Expanses of sand replaced asphalt, providing a safer surfacing material as well as a medium that children could manipulate.

Adventure Playground introduced a new generation of playground design to the Park. As with each generation before and since, efforts were made to design a play environment that was both more inventive, and safer, than those of the past. The environment created by the abstract forms and interconnected play structures was intended to encourage exploration and imaginative play. Originally, the playground included materials for children to use and manipulate, although never the “junk” of the original adventure playgrounds. Dattner designed interlocking, modular panels with which children could build, and play leaders provided books, art supplies, and toys, which were stored in the pyramid. Consistent with the model of European adventure playgrounds, the play leader distributed materials and safeguarded children, aiming to facilitate play, not direct it. While the playground leaders of the Moses era were employees of the Parks Department, those working in the Adventure Playground and subsequent adventure-style playgrounds tended to be privately funded, often through community involvement. As a result, this program was short-lived. Dattner went on to design six additional playgrounds in Central Park during this period, all of which were privately funded. Philanthropic support made these playgrounds possible in an economic climate where they would have been difficult to create; however, it did not provide for their long-term maintenance.(17) While the adventure-style playgrounds represented a striking departure from the Moses era facilities, they were still discrete places that did not directly relate to the larger Park. Each was constructed entirely within the original footprint and fence line, and there was little investment in new infrastructure. These were individually designed environments intended to encourage a more holistic and interactive experience. Like playgrounds they replaced, they had little relationship to the Park, except perhaps as a refuge from it in a time when the Park, like the larger city, was deteriorating at an alarming rate.

Other playgrounds in the Park also received attention in this period. In some, older equipment was replaced by newer versions influenced by a short-lived movement to create mass-produced play apparatus inspired by abstract sculpture (image 26). In the late 1970s into the early 1980s, playgrounds were also reconstructed with TimberForm, a modular play system designed by M. Paul Friedberg and composed of wooden logs and decks, metal bars, swings, and slides, which could be configured in a variety of ways (image 27). Friedberg recognized that the adventure-style playgrounds were difficult to build and expensive to maintain, and responded with play equipment that permitted the creation of an interconnected system of play elements that evoked the adventure-style playgrounds.(18) These piecemeal interventions included very limited upgrading or rebuilding of infrastructure.