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International Darwin Day and the Evolution of Playgrounds

International Darwin day is February 12th, so in honor of that, let’s take a look at the evolution of playgrounds.

In the grand scheme of things, the late 1800’s wasn’t that long ago.  We had cars, cameras, telephones, record players, electric lighting, and typewriters, but pretty much no playgrounds.  They weren’t a thing. 

Very uncommon and if you did find one, it was what the name says; a place (ground) where children played.  The idea was to give kids a place to play that wasn’t in the street.

Cars evolved from the three-wheeled Benz, of Mercedes fame, that didn’t even have a proper steering wheel, to the luxurious, practically self-driving, AI machines of today. 

Cameras are phones.  Wait … phones are cameras?  Actually, phones are also “record players”, but vinyl is making a huge comeback.  Lighting went from that single brownish incandescent bulb that didn’t really illuminate the far corners of the house to the multi-hued, multi-colored, variable brightness, illumination experience we fully control with our … phones.  Typewriters are now a software program or app that’s downloaded onto powerful computers we take for granted.  Remember typing class in school?  Now it’s just inherent. 

And “playgrounds” evolved from sand gardens that were basically an open lot between buildings, to the elaborately designed and constructed destination play-plexes we see today.  I should copywrite that: “Playplex”. 

Back in 1905, the director of the Washington DC playground system and the director of physical education of the New York City school system, got together and formed the Playground Association of America. 

The PAA’s basic belief was “that inasmuch, play under proper conditions is essential to the health and the physical, social, and moral wellbeing of a child, playgrounds are a necessity for all children as much as schools.”

Hmm.  Sounds well and good, but their literature dictated that an ideal, proper (see, there’s that word again) playground, would have separate play sections, and not only would it be supervised, but there were instructors (on a playground?) to teach children necessary (necessary?) lessons and organize their play. 

They pretty much ruined the very definition of play.  Play is imaginative, full of discovery, not structured, actually fun, mentally and physically engaging, while decompressing from the regiments of life.  They made it regimented.  They took play out of play. 

Early playground apparatuses weren’t very safe.  In fact, they could be quite dangerous, so maybe the supervision part was needed.  Everything has a starting point, so in the case of playgrounds, evolution is a good thing.  Through the years, playground manufacturers used better materials and safety in components and overall design became a thing.

In the 1970’s we had the brilliant idea to stop using asphalt, you know … what we make roads out of, as playground surfacing.  We started coming up with more resilient, softer, and less bodily-damaging surfaces.

Today, we have committees, standards, compliance in design, and so many other safeguards that would make you think the next evolution in playgrounds is a padded room. 

Instead, playgrounds are more elaborate with more play value, inclusivity, challenging, engaging, inviting, and lots more fun than their ancient ancestors. 

The evolution of playgrounds has come a very long way in a short period of time. 

Happy Darwin Day!

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