Putting Play Today in Context

Current dialogue about playgrounds and the role of play in the development of children into healthy, self-reliant, well-adjusted adults encompasses themes that have been present since playgrounds were first built during the Progressive Era. Each generation has responded in its own way to these ideas, reinventing the playground to reflect contemporary culture and evolving notions about what constitutes a stimulating, challenging, and safe play environment. But the underlying premise behind every incarnation of the playground—that outdoor recreation is essential to the health and well-being of everyone, especially children—has remained consistent since Central Park’s inception.

Present concerns about children’s health and lack of contact with nature echo those of the Progressive Era, at the turn of the twentieth century, which led to the development of the equipment-filled playground, the expansion of urban park systems, and the nationwide movement to create gardens for children.(10) These gardens in particular are instructive precedents to the current discussion of “nature-deficit disorder.” According to Fannie Griscom Parsons, one of the founders of the original school gardening movement, “The twentieth-century child must go back to nature if it is to hold its own.”(11) Richard Louv and others have drawn the identical conclusion about the twenty-first century child.

The play leader is another idea that has attracted renewed attention. Much of the recent discussion about the play leader concept has focused on the adventure playground as a precedent, but this type of direct adult involvement in playgrounds has a longer history. The playgrounds created during the Progressive Era included play leaders, as did those of the Moses era. These employees served as an essential programming element, rooted in the notion that the physical playgrounds and their equipment alone could not achieve what educators and recreation leaders hoped children would gain through play. The continual difficulty of maintaining programming in parks lends further credence to the fundamental premise of Central Park as a flexible, unprogrammed space designed to have inherent and enduring value absent any organized activities (which it could accommodate, but did not require).

Central Park is unique in offering 21 playgrounds set in an 843-acre landscaped park in the center of the City. The Park provides a wealth of opportunities for play, exercise, nature exploration, entertainment, and relaxation. Collectively, these constitute a valuable antidote to some of the issues of contemporary childhood. Ultimately, the Park’s value lies less in any specific activities or facilities than in what Olmsted and Vaux described as “a sense of enlarged freedom,” or the manner in which nature can uplift the human spirit. It is this sense of freedom that literally provides the space for wonder and imagination, the very soul of play.(12)

1 Fifth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park , January 1862 (New York: Wm. C. Bryant, 1862), 133.

2 Central Park Conservancy, Report on the Public Use of Central Park (New York: Central Park Conservancy, April 2011).  

3 Fergus P. Huges, Children, Play, and Development, 4th Edition (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2010), 4–5.

4 Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, Building ‘Generation Play’: Addressing the Crisis of Inactivity Among America’s Children (Palo Alto: Stanford University, February, 2007).

5 New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “Childhood Obesity is A Serious Concern in New York City,” NYC Vital Signs 8, No.1 (June 2009). www.nyc.gov.

6 Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2005), 120.

7 Ibid; Stuart Lester and Martin Maudsley, Playwork Partnerships, Play, Naturally: A Review of Children’s Natural Play (UK: Children’s Play Council, 2006). 

8 “Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum,” New York Times, January 5, 2011; Ultimate Block Party: www.ultimateblockparty.com

9 Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning & Sustainability, PLANYC Progress Report 2010.

10 Marie Warsh, “Cultivating Citizens: The Children’s School Farm in New York City, 1902-1931,” Buildings and Landscapes 18, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 64–89.

11 Fannie Griscom Parsons, “The First Children’s School Farm,” Outlook (May 2, 1903): 71.

12 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, “Preliminary Report to the Commissioners for Laying Out A Park in Brooklyn, New York: Being a Consideration of Circumstances of Site and Other Conditions Affecting Design of Public Pleasure Grounds” (1866), published in Albert Fein, Landscape Into Cityscape (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981).