Play in the Park

Despite the compartmentalization of the playgrounds, children have amused themselves in the greater Park for more than one-hundred-and-fifty years. In an 1863 report on the naming of the Park’s entrances, the Commissioners described what they believed to be the Park’s purpose, and how children fit in:

Although the Park is intended to afford ample opportunity for personal relaxation and repose to all the hard-working and energetic representatives of manly labor, it has another class of individuals to provide for, whose contributions to the prosperity of the metropolis are no less valuable, and whose claims to a loving welcome are equally deserving. . . . It aims to provide within the city limits an extensive rural play-ground, and a country experience generally, for the whole domestic circle, so that, in future, "The Boys,” "The Girls,” "The Women,” and "The Children” may all have an opportunity to escape, at intervals, from the close confinement of the city streets, and to spend pure and happy hours in direct communication with the beauties of nature.(1)

The Children’s District was designed to include specific amenities for children and their caregivers in the mid-nineteenth century. But children were also included in the broader public served by the Park’s fundamental purpose. The experience of a more natural and scenic environment was provided to improve the health and well-being of all urban dwellers, including children. This experience was not specific to one Park area or facility. Despite changes to its landscapes and use throughout history, most visitors still use the Park as it was originally intended, and they appreciate it as a scenic counterpoint to the city. A survey of park users completed in February 2011 indicates that most visitors (85%) use the Park for what is called “passive recreation,” which includes activities that are primarily relaxing, contemplative, or social, such as walking, sightseeing, and picnicking. When Park users were asked what they appreciated or enjoyed most about the Park, 31% responded that they appreciated the Park’s scenic character: its openness, landscapes, and natural features; 27% responded that they most appreciated how the Park functions as a retreat from the city.(2) Although children were not interviewed, they were counted, and their family members and caregivers were interviewed, providing a sense of how many children visit the Park and what their activities include. It is estimated that about two million children visit the Park’s playgrounds annually, out of about five to six million total visits to the Park by children under twelve. In addition to playground visits, the main activities children participate in are walking, wandering or sightseeing, and relaxing or socializing.

As illustrated by images and written descriptions of the Park throughout its history, children have always interacted with its landscapes. They have taken walks, climbed on rock outcrops, gone sledding and sculpted the snow, played games and relaxed on lawns, and observed the natural world. The character and quality of the landscapes typically determine the type of play that occurs in them. Lawns encourage social play; rock outcrops attract more physically challenging play; and woodlands invite exploration and observation. Organized activities for children have evolved over the years. The goat-cart rides of the nineteenth century and May Day parties of the early twentieth century have been replaced by treasure hunts and basketball clinics. Yet model-boat sailing, team sports, educational programs, and performances ranging from music to storytelling continue as timeless traditions in the Park.

Attractions and educational activities are an essential part of many children’s experience of the Park; however, they are not exactly play. Child development experts typically describe play as having five essential characteristics: Play is intrinsically motivated, freely chosen by its participants, pleasurable, non-literal, and actively engaged in by the participants.(3) Play can include sensory, physical, imaginative, thrilling and social experiences; it can involve exploration, manipulation, and observation. In most cases, play is a multifaceted experience that combines many of these characteristics, which makes it difficult to define in absolute terms.

Central Park’s playgrounds are spaces specifically devoted to play, but there are many correlations between the types of play that occur in them and those that occur in the greater landscape. The exhilaration of sledding is comparable to the feeling of swinging a little too high. Building in the snow is similar to manipulating playground sand. As a flexible, unprogrammed space, the Park landscape offers an infinite number of ways that children can adapt the environment to fit their own needs and imaginations, playing with natural elements and inventing games that integrate landscape features. Playgrounds complement that experience by encouraging types of play that may not be not practical or safe in the park landscape. While climbing trees may be considered a quintessential experience of childhood in the country or suburbs, it is not an activity that can realistically be accommodated and sustained in the context of public park used by millions of people. Playgrounds, however, can provide ample opportunity for climbing in an environment that can withstand the intensity of use and expectations of safety in an urban park.