Playgrounds and Postwar Culture

Notting Hill Adventure Playground early 1960s, with permission from Donne Buck.
In this contribution to our Reading and Resource Lists section, Ben Highmore selects key texts and materials about playgrounds and postwar culture.

Playgrounds are a ubiquitous feature of the urban environment the world over. Since the late nineteenth century flat patches of ground have been set aside and planted with metal and plastic devices that allow children to swing, slide, clamber, and climb. Of course, playgrounds are not evenly spread across the globe, but even the poorest and most traumatised of countries have some playgrounds, and there can’t be a child on the planet who wouldn’t recognise a swing. It is an urban form, like roads and pipelines, which has been minimally standardised. These little discrete patches of play-space might tell us exactly what the city thinks of kids: that children require little enclosed spaces that work like hamster wheels, designed to exhaust rather than stimulate. Is this the city offering children small protected places where they won’t get runover or taken away by predatory adults?

But the conventional playground of swings, slides, and seesaws is far from the whole story. In the decades following the Second World War a culture of experimentation was associated with playgrounds, particularly in Northern Europe and North America, but also in Japan and later in India and elsewhere. New kinds of playgrounds emerged that encouraged children’s autonomy by establishing the conditions for children’s self-directed play to flourish. These were playgrounds that also wanted to encourage the play of children who had grown bored of swings and slides. These were the Junk Playgrounds, the Adventure Playgrounds, the Play Parks, and the Robinson Crusoe Parks. These were places where children could do those things that might be a normal part of growing up in the countryside but had become increasingly prohibited in the city: making dens, making space, having fires, and going adventuring. In the new experimental playgrounds children and young people could make bonfires and cook food, they could build shacks and then destroy them. Here was a scene of permissiveness that supplied an implicit critique of the modern city: it wasn’t that children were becoming more delinquent, it was the profit-directed city, with its logic of private property and its incessant rules of behaviour, that was criminalising children’s play. The city was a machine for turning adventurous teenagers into delinquents. The adventure playground didn’t solve that issue but it did vastly improve what was available to children who didn’t have gardens or weren’t likely to join a religious-based after-school club.

Following the dynamic history of playgrounds is an important way of understanding the modern city as a place that increasingly became a hostile environment for children. But it also tells us a story of all the innovations and provocations that children and adults supplied to redress that hostility. Below is just a short selection of items that allow that story to become visible.

Allen of Hurtwood, Lady. Planning for Play. Thames and Hudson: London, 1968

Born Marjorie Gill, Lady Allen was married to the Independent Labour Party politician Clifford Allen who was given a peerage in 1932. Knowing that it would help her advocacy, she nearly always wrote as Lady Allen of Hurtwood. This book is the culmination of her thinking about children, play, and playgrounds. Her November 1946 article in Picture Post “Why not use our bomb sites like this?” – an article about a Danish experimental playground where children made elaborate constructions out of waste building materials – could be seen to kick start the experimental playground movement in the UK that used bombsites and waste-ground for children’s self-directed play. Lady Allen produced dozens of campaigning leaflets and pamphlets. In fact, the well-produced leaflet was her preferred means of communicating as she felt that a succinct, well-illustrated statement was more likely to find its way to the desk of an education officer or an urban planner than a lavish hardback such as this. Luckily however, Lady Allen did produce this book, so we don’t have to root around dusty archives to recover her leaflets and brochures. As a professional landscape architect and as a children’s rights advocate you can see her constantly juggling her eye for design and her sense that children should make their own environments however untidy they looked.

Friedl, Peter. Playgrounds. Göttingen: Steidl, 2008

Peter Friedl, an Austrian artist born in 1960, works on long-term projects. This one consisted of photographing playgrounds. Since 1995 he has been travelling around the world taking photographs of playgrounds. A subsequent book from 2008 consisted of 236 alphabetically ordered photographs of different playgrounds from across the globe and demonstrates an amazing global homogeneity. From Acoma, USA and Agra, India to Yeşilyurt, Turkey and Yokohama, Japan, the book shows us patches of ground dedicated to a particular kind of play. While the scale, surface material, and upkeep of the playgrounds differ, what remains standard are the devices: things to swing on, things to clamber about on, things to slide down. Most are brightly painted with primary colours and constructed from metal or plastic; some are made from wood and left unpainted. All are fixed into the ground. Some playgrounds look more forlorn and unloved than others. Some playgrounds have a rudimentary set of metal bars for climbing on, others have an elaborate set of walkways and wooden forts. What is instantly visible is a genre of urban space that is recognisable the world over: here is a place reserved for children’s play, and here are the devices that they will use for their play.

Kozlovsky, Roy. The Architectures of Childhood: Children, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Postwar England. Abingdon and New York, 2016

Roy Kozlovsky is an architectural historian and theorist. This book looks across playgrounds, schools, hospitals, and kindergartens to see how the aesthetics of modernism and the ethos of the postwar British Welfare State came together to produce a whole series of forms and social spaces. Kozlovsky places the adventure playground not within a history of playgrounds, but instead sees it as connected to experiments in healthcare from the interwar years, particularly to the Pioneering Health Centre, also known as the ‘Peckham Experiment’. The Peckham experiment was a health clinic and research centre that practiced a form of environmental biology. It saw the whole environment as a dynamic organism understood in terms of work, leisure, family, pollution, and so on. It offered families not just somewhere to come for a medical check-up but a space for dancing, swimming, eating and chatting. In this light the adventure playground also looks as though it addresses the whole environment and the whole person, trying to produce a space where children can enter into personhood on something like their own terms. Whether adventure playgrounds and experimental health centres are seen as part of a progressive and liberatory practice or a new form of what Foucault calls governmentality is an open dilemma. Kozlovsky is a generous historian even if in the end he prefers to see the governmentality of these arrangements rather than their liberatory potential.

Come Out to Play Reel 1 and 2 (1954) and

On the British-Pathé website it has this film dated as issued between 1950–1959. The was produced by British-Pathé for the London and Greater London Playing Fields Association which was itself a part of the National Playing Fields Association which was the UK’s leading funder and advisor about outdoor play provision. The film coincided with a large exhibition and conference on playgrounds that was held at the Guild Hall in London in June 1954. The exhibition divided playgrounds into five types: equipped playgrounds; unequipped playgrounds; natural playgrounds; adventure playgrounds; and traffic playgrounds. The film starts with a policeman ejecting a group of boys from a park because they are playing football. We see various types of playgrounds and the work of the emergent profession of play-worker. It ends with a call for “more playgrounds, better and more imaginative playgrounds, and play leaders where there is a call for them.”

Solomon, Susan G. American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space. Hanover NH, University Press of New England, 2005

Susan G. Solomon is an art and architectural historian but her work on American Playgrounds is probably better described as a work of social history with landscape architecture at its centre. At the forefront of Solomon’s work is, as the subtitle suggests, an interest in how designers and architects remade space through their playgrounds. So, for instance, her accounts of Richard Dattner and Paul M. Friedberg, who were seen as the leaders of a playground revolution in the 1960s, is as concerned with the demonstrations and the community groups who petitioned Robert Moses (the autocratic Park Commissioner of New York) as with the aesthetics of the playgrounds that the two built in Central Park. The book also shows the importance of the Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi whose playground designs from the 1930s went unbuilt until the late 1960s.

Ward, Colin. The Child in the City. Thames and Hudson: London, 1977

Colin Ward (1924–2010) was an anarchist and an urbanist. In the 1970s he was the Education Officer for the Town and Country Planning Association – an association which promoted the idea of Ebenezer Howard and the garden city movement. Ward was a prolific writer (sometime a repetitive one) and wrote on everything from allotments to education. The Child in the City is undoubtedly his most famous book. It takes an unsentimental look at children’s life in the city and how even the most deprived areas offer opportunities for children’s play. He was a champion of the adventure playground movement, seeing these playgrounds as “parables of anarchism”. Ward’s anarchism was based around autonomy and mutuality. For him children didn’t require protection but opportunities to participate, to gain autonomy, and to undertake purposeful activities. An internationalist at heart he was always looking for examples of good practices. One example he gives is how public housing estates in London often tried to exclude young people, seeing them as a cause of vandalism, litter, and graffiti: in examples of collective housing in Sweden, Ward notes how the local housing warden paid the local children to collect litter and thereby incorporated them into the upkeep on the area, and give them a sense of pride and purpose.

Thomson, Mathew. Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013

Mathew Thomson’s Lost Freedom is a work of social and intellectual history. It casts childhood as having a central but uncertain role in the building of the British Post-War settlement. In one sense children are an ever-present co-ordinate of the Welfare State, with its ideas of support the needs of the population from the ‘cradle to the grave’. The child is there in all those postwar innovations around education, free milk, and pre-school care. Yet as Thomson’s book shows the child is also there as threat and a cause of profound anxiety. The threat comes from the endless concern with ‘youth’ as delinquency or potential delinquency; the anxiety comes from the idea that lurking round the corner is a paedophile ready to snatch ‘your’ child. Add to the mix the birth of TV addressed particularly to children and the result is contained in the title of Thomson’s book – lost freedom. The curtailing of urban children’s spatial freedoms is performed as well by the vast increases in car ownership. Thomson’s book excels in connecting events and policies with fears and hopes, and of balancing the forces of permissiveness with a new paternalism built into the urban realm.

Burkhalter, Gabriela. The Playground Project. Zurich: Jrp, 2016

This is the catalogue to an exhibition that Gabriela Burkhalter curated in 2016 and was shown first in Zurich, Switzerland and then later at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK. Burkhalter is an urban planner and a political scientist who became fascinated by the post WWII history of experimental playgrounds and play spaces. Switzerland has itself an important historical role in creating and organising playgrounds. Indeed, Zurich and its environs hosted some of the biggest playgrounds in the world, and they were aimed not just at children but at adults too – it was really a wrap-around idea of recreational support and provision for all. Switzerland too had a specific name for their playgrounds aimed at the young: Robinson Crusoe playgrounds. Here playworkers, children and young people put enormous effort into constructing useable buildings designed and built by the young people. All of this is written about in Burkhalter’s catalogue. The catalogue though is not Swiss-centric. It covers innovations in playgrounds from France, the Netherlands, Japan, USA, Britain, and elsewhere and provides resumes of some of the most notable playground designers across the twentieth century. Importantly it is also packed with wonderful photographs, many in colour, of iconic and lesser-known playgrounds.

Glasheen, Lucie. “Bombsites, Adventure Playgrounds and the Reconstruction of London: Playing with Urban Space in Hue and Cry”, The London Journal, 44:1, 54–74, 2019, DOI: 10.1080/03058034.2018.1533087

This article centres on the 1947 Ealing film Hue and Cry directed by Charles Crichton and starring Alastair Sim, Harry Fowler and Joan Dowling. Hue and Cry was a film that centred on the depiction of children playing in London’s extensive array of bombsites. In the film a criminal gang is foiled by masses of children emerging out of tunnels and dug-outs in the bombsites. Glasheen’s article brings together film and photography, crime, and bombsites as a context for thinking about adventure playgrounds as a creative response to urban space. Talk to any Londoner in their eighties or nineties and they will tell you about playing on bombsites. What they might forget to tell you is the number of injuries and fatalities that occurred from such activities. The very first junk-playground established in Peckham, London at the same time Hue and Cry was playing in the cinema, was partly a response to the death of a six-year-old boy who died falling down into a cellar. The elderly Londoners’ might also forget to mention the way that bombsites were associated with debauchery and crime: as well as children scampering about, London’s bombsites were associated with spivs and prostitutes and gangs of juvenile delinquents. Glasheen’s article works both centripetally and centrifugally: working out from the film text to taken in the dynamic play culture of London at the time.

Highmore, Ben. "Playgrounds and Postwar Culture." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 1 (April 2024)
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.