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Why Playgrounds Are Still So Important Today

written by: Casey • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/17/2012

Playgrounds have existed for a hundred years, but in the last several decades, innovation has been stifled. Fear of lawsuits and concern over test scores have pushed recess and physical education to the sidelines even more. But luckily, a new movement is injecting life into playground design.

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    Warning - Playtime!

    It has been estimated that children today spend fifty percent less time outside than children twenty years ago. In a way, this isn't surprising, given the attraction of the Internet and videogames for entertainment. But we can't blame the videogame industry entirely for this one--the fault lies with schools as well. Between a drive to increase standardized test scores and a fear of lawsuits (imagine a playground with a "No Running" sign), schools are beginning to limit physical education. Some elementary school children are no longer getting recess at all.

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    Playgrounds Now and Then

    But recess, and playgrounds, are just as important now as they were a hundred years ago. The first playgrounds in the late nineteenth century served as a place for children to go in overcrowded immigrant neighborhoods to get away from the harsh streets. An off-shoot of the woman's suffrage movement succeeded in pressing for a number of social programs for families and children, so that urban landscaping became a project for philanthropists and local governments. By the 1920's, it was commonplace for schools to have playgrounds, though often they were out only during the summer and then dismantled. The common apparatus included: a sandbox, a balancing tree, jump standards, a see-saw, a slide, a swing frame with sliding poles and ladder, a flying dutchman, and a giant stride.

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    Lawsuits and Safety

    Of course, playgrounds have changed drastically over the years, evolving in size and form. Innovation has often been discouraged, however, particularly in the latter part of the 20th century when playground equipment became standardized and corporatized. And meanwhile, lawsuits began to fly in from parents of children injured on playgrounds. Stringent safety standards did not bode well for creativity of design.

    However, with increasing technology as well as scientific research pointing out the importance of play (particularly the physical kind) for children, there is a movement underway to innovate, to change the way we think about playgrounds. The next article in this series will look at these new ideas more closely. In the meantime, also see: The Importance of Play in Early Childhood.


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