Playgrounds: A Material Cultural Study of Post-1945 Playgrounds

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Media, Arts and Humanities


In 1989 the right to play became part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC 1989): 'States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.' The convention, however, does not recommend the kind of activities that should constitute play, nor how different forms of play may be gauged as age-appropriate. Most playgrounds today are discrete areas dedicated to the physical play of small children. An uncharitable description of them might compare them to 'hamster wheels' designed to siphon off excess energies by using brightly coloured devices (usually plastic) laid out on a spongy 'prison yard' designed to keep children from hurting themselves. Playgrounds today are risk-averse places that require the least amount of upkeep (the devices are durable and fixed). The history of playgrounds, however, particularly in the decades that followed 1945, tell a much more diverse and experimental story. In this history we can learn about playgrounds that were aimed at all children and young people aged between 4 and 16; playgrounds where children learnt (with only the minimum of supervision and instruction) how to build shelters, how to grow food and how to cook it; playgrounds aimed at instilling a love of nature. We can learn about how the adventure playground movement developed into a campaign for adventure play for children with disabilities, and how playgrounds were at the forefront of a recycling movement. We can hear about ambitious and unrealised projects to turn islands into playgrounds (Washington DC) and to pedestrianize residential streets to protect public space for children's play (London). These were playgrounds that saw their task as preparing children for the future by giving them the space and means to develop a democratic ethos and to inoculate them from the lure of fascism. These were spaces ambitiously aimed at fostering self-reliance alongside the ability to participate in collective communities. These playgrounds often snatched 'waste ground' for a few years during transition periods between destruction and rebuilding. Today, as we face an uncertain future threatened by climate catastrophe, where urban space and the right to the city seems to preclude the young, we might want to ask: how can we prepare our young people for the future? How could the history of playgrounds offer resources of hope for an increasingly precarious future?

This research investigates the recent history (post-1945) of playgrounds: their design, their day-to-day existence, the infrastructures that supported them, and the communities they fostered. Based on extensive archival research it will draw on: accounts of playground campaigns; architectural plans for playgrounds; photographic records of the building of playgrounds and of play activities; diaries of playground leaders; and the ephemera of leaflets, posters and DIY instructions that constitute a dynamic aspect of playground culture. The research is particularly interested in how informal and formal infrastructures develop to sustain playground culture: instructions for the training of playground leaders; international associations for playground advocacy; self-help playground literature; and a promotional literature for specific playgrounds. These infrastructures aren't simply offering practical support: they are also offering a world of care and concern - an infrastructure of feeling.

Planned Impact

TThe 'right to play' is recognised by the United Nations. And yet today 'play' has a very different cultural presence than it did in 1989 when the UN wrote its convention on the Rights of the Child. Today play is often associated with screens and with our digital lives, and not with the physical space of a playground. Screens can be exciting, and playgrounds can be 'dangerously dull' (as the Guardian put it). We live in a risk-averse society, but it isn't clear where the risks for children are: are there dangers in not undertaking risky outdoor play? My research suggests that reimagining playground culture could have a significant impact on childhood environments. To this end I have identified three beneficiaries for the research:

Urban Planners, Local Councils and Play Campaigners (most directly, Brighton and Hove Council, Bristol Council, and Playing Out): The research has a strong potential to change the play environments that local authorities are charged with providing. My research planning was conceived in consultation with play policies as they have developed in recent decades in the UK, Canada and the US, as well as with Brighton and Hove and Bristol Council. Today local authorities are faced with the problem of having reduced financial resources but also facing pressures from local populations to provide more imaginative and environmentally-friendly play spaces that encourage children to play outside (see Brighton and Hove's recent 'Open Spaces Strategy' report). Because my research will uncover a large variety of different playground types and will critically assess the various affordances of these material spaces (in terms of social, creative, physical, aesthetic, and financial values), it will lead to a growth in the decision-making capacity of those responsible for building playgrounds. It will also, in the long term, have the potential to alter the playgrounds themselves by providing evidence of inexpensive examples of child-centred and exciting play environments that can be adopted and adapted by local authorities. During the period of the award I will be meeting with designers and landscape architects in Scandinavia to look at local authority provision for outdoor play there.

Educationalists, Schools, School Children (most directly, OPAL [Outdoor Play and Learning] and Hopscotch Consultants): As most schools have playgrounds or play areas there is huge potential for contributing to the shaping of play environments in schools. Many schools also work with programmes that educate children about nature and the environment (forest schools, particularly). Schools are interested in promoting play that is exciting, inclusive and curiosity driven, and my research will supply imaginative resources from previous playground practices that can support and enlarge this effort. I will be working with OPAL in adding to their design resources for transforming school play space, and I will be working with educational consultants to see how my playground research could be built into the curriculum or into extramural activities.

General Public: There is an increasing concern that ubiquitous computing is having significant effects on young people's lives. This research provides a positive set of alternatives to the current situation. Today discussion of children's play is often focused on a small set of spaces: home, school, park. Adventure playgrounds, creative playgrounds, activities like forest schools, all build new capacities for imagining different play futures for our children. Grass-roots and neighbourhood-led projects such as 'Playing Out' (where residential roads are closed to traffic for a set period after the school day) are demonstrating a general appetite to change how we think about our play environments. This beneficiary will be addressed via media, social media and public engagement. At the end of the award period I will send a short report to the UN General Assembly and to UNICEF.


10 25 50
Description Experiments in Free Play - a public talk in Edinburgh 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A presentation online of research to architectural historians and art historians. Good discussion of how playground history might relate to other themes and their histories.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Playgrounds as Social Architecture. While this was a university talk it was primarily to those training to become professional architects and interior architects/designers. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A presentation to a cohort of students studying for professional design and architecture qualifications. Very good discussion of how playgrounds make us rethink what we see as architecture and how professional designers might engage with a client base.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021