The Children’s District

Although the concept of the playground as a purpose-built space for children’s activity did not emerge until the early twentieth century, the Park was carefully designed to accommodate children. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Victorian preoccupation with the culture of childhood contributed to a proliferation of spaces and objects for play and education. The focus on childhood as a physically and emotionally separate realm, combined with concerns about the effect of unprecedented urban growth on the welfare of children, influenced the recognition on the part of the Park’s creators that the needs of children would require special accommodation. In response, they designed an area called the Children’s District in the southern part of the Park at roughly 65th Street (image 3).

At the heart of the Children’s District was the Dairy, a playful, neogothic building designed to provide fresh milk and snacks to children and their caregivers (image 2). In the foreground of the Dairy was a rolling lawn where children could “tumble about when sunshine favors” or play on portable swings and seesaws that were placed in the landscape (image 3).(1) The nearby Kinderberg Shelter, which, at eighty feet in diameter, was the largest and most elaborate rustic structure in the Park, provided shelter and shade for games and picnics. Promotional leaflets described the Kinderberg Shelter as an ideal place for “for toddling infants to practice their first steps” (image 5).(2) Playmates Arch directed young visitors safely under the Center Drive to the Ball Ground (also called the Play Ground) where boys played sports such as baseball or cricket (image 6). Use of the Ball Ground was limited to children and highly regulated to prevent overcrowding as well as to preserve the lawn. By overseeing use, the Park Commissioners aimed to strike a balance, integrating more specialized and active use by children into the larger purpose and unprogrammed landscape of the Park.

Providing areas of the Park for one particular group might seem contradictory to the governing principle of the Park’s creation: that no Park amenity or landscape be created for a single type of activity or person, as this would preclude its enjoyment by all visitors. Mindful of this, the Central Park Commissioners explained the departure from the general rule, asserting that children represented “the larger and deeper interest than any other class.” Places dedicated to children’s play and exercise, therefore, became “general, not exclusive.”(3) By providing recreation for all people, the Park would nurture the development of a great city. Catering to the needs of children—the next generation of citizens—would greatly further this aspiration.