Playgrounds – Nothing new here!

The first PlayBooster, Roller Slide with plastic spiral slide by Henderson Recreation, 1983

All play equipment is derivative.

Do you doubt that assertion? Show me one piece of playground apparatus that isn’t a twist on something that preceded it. Having worked to invent new stuff for six decades, I know intimately how hard it is to come up with any playground innovation.

True confession time. While I have significantly improved the design of play apparatus and contributed to popularizing these improvements, none of my designs are particularly original. Rather, I was inspired by things I saw that looked like fun and adapted them for public playgrounds.

Here are some examples:

  • While designing for BigToys, I added banister slides. These were inspired by handrails on the stairs to the Conservatory at Golden Gate Park, which my daughter loved to slide down.
  • The Roller Slide we introduced with PlayBoosters was derived from an art exhibit of play sculptures in New York. The art piece we drew from used an industrial roller conveyer that we refined, so it didn’t have entrapments.
  • The NYC exhibition also had a rotating barrel that was fun.  We added it to the Mexico Forge catalog, but it never took off. Probably because it was a stand-alone event, I see that the idea is back on the market.
  • How about the Track Ride? We started with standard barn door hardware and redesigned it to fix its safety and durability issues.
  • I saw a Curly Climber on a trip to Japan. We added them to PlayBoosters as soon as I got back.
  • The BIG revolution in the ’70s was the modular integrated play structure concept that I introduced first at BigToys and then at Mexico Forge with PlayBoosters. The “innovation” there was a clamp combined with the newly developed 5-in tubing from Allied Pipe. Using a clamp to attach a horizontal pipe was inspired by visiting my volunteer-built wooded play sculptures. I was stunned to see how quickly the wood was aging, while the steel turning bars at the same school had been there since the turn of the century and looked great. The combination of clamp and tubing provided the visual density of the wood systems with the tinker toy ease of configuration we had popularized at BigToys.
  • I must also admit to taking inspiration from Miracle and their rotationally molded spring toy. I gravitated to plastic to replace the steel barrels I had been using.

The one innovation that I hoped for that didn’t catch on was bending the five-inch tubing into more pleasing shapes. Bending pipe has only caught on as arches, but so much more can be done. For example, I’ve pitched a system using bent tubing that replicates the climbing challenges of an ideal tree complete with flexibility. I know kids will love it. Existing playground companies, not so much.

The first integrated play structure – Schoolyard BigToys Model 1976

What’s my point?

I’m baring my soul and sharing all this history to address a personal concern. Playgrounds are losing their customers to digital games, commercial entertainment centers, skateparks, etc. There are just too many other places to play. Why go to a park that the same old, same old?

In my next post, we will look at the decline of playgrounds as a center of children’s lives.  Will they continue to exist? Yep. Will there be more created. Sure. But the same can be said for cemeteries. Let’s do something that attracts a few more visitors, shall we?

4 thoughts on “Playgrounds – Nothing new here!

  1. I guess one could say it’s all derivative of natural play….sliding down a hill on a piece of cardboard, jumping from boulder to boulder, climbing a tree, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s true, there’s nothing new out there on the playground, just lipstick on the same old pigs. It is mostly true in all areas of design, game changing innovation is very rare. My feeling today is that the most developmentally crucial play involves constructive play, play that has the child problem solving, making mistakes, pinching their fingers, negotiating with their peers and the natural world. We are a world away from widespread play like that. It is messy, often dirty, even faintly dangerous, though not as much as we often fear. The real enemy of healthy free play for children is probably as much fear as anything. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.


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