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Playground Designers Breaking Old Rules

Playground designs are becoming less safe, more fun

Somewhere in the last few decades, parents started to worry about everything. It seemed to happen overnight, perhaps tied to our newfound ability to Google just about anything and the constant stream of terrible news flooding our phones/computers/minds all day.

Whatever the reason, you can't deny that the carefree childhoods we once enjoyed in the '70s and '80s—when we took off on our bikes for hours at a time and built forts with tools stolen from our dad's garage—are like a foggy dream at this point.

But some say this hyper-focus on safety and restriction is changing, and it's starting with the playground.

Europe is leading the way, with new designs cropping up for playgrounds that promote concepts of "free play" and independence.

Take the Nature Playground in Copenhagen's Valby Park. According to The Globe and Mail, its innovative design mixes "whimsy and common sense." Kids can climb to the top of five miniature observation towers and look out over the playground's green hills and wildflower fields, or walk its winding paths and build new worlds in its sand play areas. (Sounds pretty cool, huh?)

Helle Nebelong, the designer and civic official who created the playground, says it speaks to a child's "inner urge to pick things up and create things."

Another noteworthy outdoor kid space is Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works, which brings nature to the forefront of play with sprawling gardens, open spaces to ride bikes and more.

“If you ask children what they want, … they have lots of ideas about bushes and trees where they can pick apples,” she says. “It’s a grown-up approach that all things to do with childhood should be colorful, and have heavy equipment and horrible rubber in lots of colors.”

It's not that these kinds of playgrounds are all that "new" in concept — it's just that we're finally coming around to appreciating their approach to childhood again.

In fact, the 1970s saw many of these eclectic, imagination-boosting play spaces, but a steady flow of lawsuits put an end to most. What's more, the mounting safety regulations imposed by U.S. and Canada in the last few decades haven't exactly made it easy to build these wonderscapes on our own turf.

“In some ways, the lawyers were designing the playgrounds,” said former New York parks commissioner Adrian Benepe. "The idea was if you didn’t follow the standards, you’d be liable if somebody broke an arm, and as a result you had very rigid playgrounds. They were attractive, they were safe, they were clean … but they were boring.”

Chatting with The Globe and Mail, Benepe noted that the playgrounds he grew up climbing in the 1930s and '40s had asphalt floors, tall swings and seesaws. Those playgrounds would probably be deemed terrifying by today's standards, though, since we've phased them out in favor of rubber-padded jungle gyms and swings. But those changes have coincided with a shift in our cultural definitions of what's truly "dangerous."

And that wide-eyed, childhood exploration, some argue, has been lost in the process.

“Children have very little independence,” says Cam Collyer, who directs children's programs at Evergreen Brick Works. "Thirty years ago, they had as much as they wanted. We’ve got to take that into account. A child in the city is not roaming around the streets on their own anymore.”

See more creative play spaces that are making a comeback.

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