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Comments (4) Posted 04.14.13 | PERMALINK | PRINT

John Foster

The Imagination of Playgrounds


There is a picture by the American photographer Helen Levitt (1913 - 2009) that has always remained with my imagination. Taken in 1940, it is an image of 5 boys playing high atop an abandoned doorway in New York. Though the children could easily be hurt if they fell from their perch, these children are having the time of their young lives. With skinned knees and plenty of daring, these little pirates have created a playground from their imagination and city streets. Levitt was famous for her many marvelous photographs of children at play.

The image reminds me of some of the crazy things I did as a kid — climbing on roofs, climbing to the top of really tall trees, swinging from ropes, walking underground through sewers, hopping freight trains — you name it, I did it. It wasn’t that the kids of my block were poor or deprived. We had nice swings and sliding boards at the local school playground. It’s just that we preferred to invent our playgrounds out of the things we could find and invent. We preferred to ratchet up our play for the adrenalin rush — something a playground swing long quit doing, no matter how high you could go.

The following images begin with make-do playgrounds (as in the photographs by Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others), but are followed by some unique and creative playground structures, some of which are mid-century modernist designs. As these images attest, playground equipment can be as simple as a tractor tire or mimic the amorphic abstraction of Jean Arp. So whether you are a landscape architect, a designer or just an inventive kid, all that really matters boils down to one simple question: do children like to play on it?


The Imagination of Playgrounds
Boys Playing Over Doorway, 1940
Gelatin Silver Print


The Imagination of Playgrounds
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Children Playing in the Ruins
Seville, 1933


The Imagination of Playgrounds
Children Play Around An Impromptu Bonfire Site, 1989

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Jungle Gym of Tires by Paul Hogan
Photo by Paul Hogan


The Imagination of Playgrounds
Children Play Around An Impromptu Bonfire Site, 1989

The Imagination of Playgrounds
By M. Paul Friedberg (b. 1931), landscape architect, New York
Jacob Riis House, New York, 1966 


The Imagination of Playgrounds
Super Long Sliding Board; Wien, Donaupark

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Photographer Not Listed

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Early Ropes Structure for Kids, by Joe Brown (1909-1985), c. 1954

The Imagination of Playgrounds
By Kuro Kaneko, landscape architect; Teppozu playground, Tokyo: mound

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Ledermann/Trachsel, 1959: Spielplastik von Møller Nielsen

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Ledermann/Trachsel, 1959: Spielplastik von Møller Nielsen

The Imagination of Playgrounds
How to Install a Tire for Play by Paul Hogan

The Imagination of Playgrounds
An inventive use of automobile tires

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Abandoned amusement park in Chernoble, Russia

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Climbing Structure; Usedom, Germany, 2011

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Pipe Structure, Tbilisi, 2013

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Forgotten Playground; Gdansk, Poland

The Imagination of Playgrounds
Lozziwurm, Schützenmattpark, Basel: 2011 demontiert

The Imagination of Playgrounds
City Museum, St. Louis, MO, Bob Cassilly, creator
Photo by Scott the Travel Guy


The Imagination of Playgrounds
Turtle Park, St. Louis, MO, Bob Cassilly, creator
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Comments (4)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Lovely shot by Ms. Levitt, which triggered all manner of happy memories and association that begin in childhood and continued past college. The world was our playground, any environment an opportunity for adventure and nothing was more deeply satisfying than trespassing.

I'm 57 and the world has changed, and in this respect, I don't believe for the better. The new playgrounds I've seen, designed by intellectuals and behaviorists and designers attempting to "enforce imagination" while limiting liability, have almost all failed in my eyes. Like the final shot—smiling child aside, child conscious of being photographed—it is an adults fantasy of childhood pleasures.

I don't think I'm being nostalgic when I say that later attempts at playgrounds are really attempts to domesticate and delimit a child's/teenager' sense of fun, excitement, and most important, danger.
RWordplay
04.14.13 at 01:54

Love this article. Brings to mind one of my favorite books--"Where
did you go?" "Out" "What did you do?" "Nothing" by Robert Paul Smith.
Amy Brook
04.16.13 at 05:34

You had my full attention at Helen Levitt. Have you seen her film "In the Street"? It was released in 1952 and offers some lasting images of children playing on the streets of New York. I highly recommend it. Stunning.
Dayburner
04.18.13 at 03:33

Lovely article. Your readers might also enjoy the playgrounds at the playscapes blog: play-scapes.com
mwilliams
04.23.13 at 10:54



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John Foster and his wife, Teenuh, have been longtime collectors of self-taught art and vernacular photography. Their collection of anonymous, found snapshots has toured the country for five years and has been featured in Harper’s, Newsweek Online and others.
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