Form, Function and Fun: Playgrounds as Art Education

Engagement is the most crucial element of the artistic experience. Sometimes we are drawn to a work of art because it triggers a memory or coincides with something relevant to our personal lives. Other times we like something because it is aesthetically pleasing. The numerous conceptual and visceral responses are what makes art a substantial and desirable part of culture, and a reason it has been incorporated into the fabric of our constructed environment.

Playgrounds or play sculptures created by artists are an example of art’s proliferation across the cultural landscape. The benefit of artists designing playgrounds or sculpture within playgrounds, is that it enlivens and activates play spaces and makes them unique destinations. Playgrounds were developed as a way to encourage socialization and object and inquiry based learning among young children. They were part of Friedrich Fröbel’s nineteenth century curriculum, which is still utilized in early childhood education today. Fröbel, who developed the first organized kindergarten school in 1837, also set in motion the use of designated outdoor play spaces as a resourceful setting for children to develop social, emotional and cognitive qualities. These settings were called gymnasiums. While the 1837 gymnasiums look different from our current conception of playgrounds, they were designed with aesthetics and educational values that are appropriate to how young children learn from and interact with their surrounding world. Fröbel envisioned early childhood education as a tangible and hypothetical garden, where children’s knowledge and creativity could be nourished through a variety of activities and materials. The literal German translation of kindergarten is “children garden,” so it is clear that Fröbel thought of learning in terms of both nature and nurture.

As urbanization blossomed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the desire for safe and productive outdoor spaces for children led to the playground movement. Proponents of the playground movement included Jane Addams, who was one of the first widely renowned social workers in the United States. Addams co-founded Hull House, a settlement house that provided services to Chicago’s poor, working class and immigrant communities. Alongside medical, educational and occupational endeavors, Hull House was committed to providing recreational opportunities such as organized sports leagues and playgrounds. Since then, playgrounds have been associated with initiatives that support a better overall quality of life. Throughout the twentieth century, playgrounds were included in blueprints for better housing developments and city planning. The incorporation of play spaces with contributions from modern and contemporary artists, architects and designers, has been acknowledged as a humane approach to social conditions affecting all generations, especially children growing up in complex and critical periods.

Over the years, the architecture and aesthetics of playgrounds have become more generic due to rising costs in materials and labor. The proliferation of playgrounds has also suffered from a lack of funding and overdevelopment resulting in a decrease of public recreational spaces. Contemporary artist Minerva Cuevas’ film No Room to Play (2019) portrays a cautionary dystopian narrative, in which urban public playgrounds are left to decay (see: “No Room to Play”). It is important that we collectively value playgrounds as an artistic and pedagogical pursuit, so that we can continue to assure that generations of youth have the freedom and inspiration to grow and express themselves.

This post highlights several examples of art-centered playgrounds that made/make significant social statements and inspire experiential and embodied forms of learning.

The “Junk”and “Adventure” Playgrounds

Children playing in the Crowley Adventure Playground in the United Kingdom.

When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite playgrounds was colloquially referred to as the “tire playground.” It was made from repurposed wood and tires, which were fashioned into the form of a dragon and stylized interpretations of more typical playground structures (i.e. tire swings, slides and climbing apparatus). The playground marked a significant deviation from the generic playgrounds I had been accustomed to. Its design was refreshing and also spurred the imaginations of my friends and I. We envisioned ourselves as fantastical and historical figures, exploring a whimsical land populated by playful dragons.

The concept behind recycling or repurposing old or neglected materials for playgrounds was popularized in the early 1940s by a British reformer named Marjory Allen. In the aftermath of Germany’s World War II bombing campaign known as the Blitz, many people and places throughout the United Kingdom were left devastated. More than 40,000 lives were taken and over one million buildings were destroyed. High-rise developments were quickly built to provide shelter for those who were displaced by the wartime affairs. Although these buildings were an essential response to those who lost their homes, their massive design meant that multiple families were living in tight quarters with one another. In these compact spaces, children especially needed room to grow and play, which is why Allen responded with a plan inspired by Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen’s concept of the “junk playground,” and prior iterations such as the Emdrup Junk Playground, which was built in 1943. In order to provide much needed space for children in high-rises to play, as well as in an effort to clean up after the wartime devastation, Allen oversaw the transformation of ruins and material leftover from the Blitz into playgrounds.

Another name for junk playgrounds is an “adventure playground.” Like the tire playground of my youth, these play spaces often have a thematic aesthetic and are designed in a more open-ended manner than traditional playgrounds. This inspires children to interact with playground objects by designing their own fantastical games.

Artful Adventure Playgrounds

Niki de Saint Phalle, Le Golem in Jerusalem. Photograph by Hagai Agmon-Snir, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s first commissioned public artwork was a playground sculpture created in 1972. She was invited to create a major work of art within the city of Jerusalem by Martin Weyl, who was the curator of sculpture at the Israel Museum. Weyl wanted Saint Phalle to create a sculpture for a playground in Kiryat Hayovel, a neighborhood in southwestern Jerusalem. In response, Saint Phalle created a large cement representation of a monster, which she called Le Golem, named after the mystical creature in Jewish folklore. Le Golem is a massive slide in the shape of an amorphous creature that has three long red tongues serving as slides. Although the play sculpture is now a neighborhood landmark that is renowned by the community, it was initially met with controversy due to parents’ concern that the monster theme would be too scary for their children. The proposal was rejected by a committee once before influential Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s convincing argument in favor of the piece led to its approval during a second vote.

Twenty-four years later, at a 1996 lecture at the University of San Diego, Saint Phalle recounted the initial controversy and provided some insight into her original intent behind creating Le Golem. According to her, she envisioned the sculpture to be a pedagogical undertaking by turning a monster into something playful and memorable that could help children conquer their fears.

Concrete Jungles: Play Sculptures by Jim Miller-Melberg and Isamu Noguchi

A Saddle Slide by Jim Miller-Melberg in Arcadia Community Regional Park, Los Angeles, 1957.
Photograph by Los Angeles County (Calif.) Chief Administrative Office CEO Photo Unit.
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

When we think about modern art, accessibility is not often something that comes to mind. Moreover, climbing on works of art is generally considered deplorable and a cause for outrage (see: Vartanian, 2014). However, Jim Miller-Melberg and Isamu Noguchi’s playground designs are premier examples of modern art’s extension into everyday life. Both Noguchi and Miller-Melberg were concerned with incorporating the sleek, abstract forms of modern sculpture in an environment that would be accessible and utilitarian for children to interact with.

Jim Miller-Melberg’s Porpoise, Tree Form, and Turtle.
Photograph by artist Scott Hocking from his “Mid-Century Modern Playground Sculpture” series.

You have most likely seen and possibly played with one of Miller-Melberg’s sculptures. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, he created both abstract and representational forms that were distributed to playgrounds across the United States. His iconic figurative play sculptures include the Turtle and Porpoise, while notable abstract pieces consist of his Moon House, Play Walls, Tree Form and Saddle Slide.

Miller-Melberg’s driving vision for his playful works of art was to provide children with an age-appropriate introduction to modern art and design, while also supporting how they learn through a combination of nature (innate behaviors) and nurture (developed knowledge). When installed in a playground, Miller-Melberg’s artworks depict a concrete jungle gym that alludes to the natural environment and ways in which we learn by drawing connections to our surroundings. The impetus behind his work is inline with the Fröbelian model of outdoor play as a process that builds social and cognitive skills, while an interaction with organic and geometric forms supports inquiries and understandings about our presence in the world.

Jim Miller-Melberg’s Moon House.
Photograph by artist Scott Hocking from his “Mid-Century Modern Playground Sculpture” series.

In an interview with design writer Debbie Millman, Miller-Melberg states: “I grew up in the country and we always had a garden, had a little stream going through our property, glacial rocks in the stream, and we would jump from one to the other. But it was an environment for play. When I started designing, swings and slides were about it. I think kids love to swing and slide, but the emphasis is on individual activity. What I was trying to get across was to provide an environment to play together” (quoted in Budds, 2016).

Miller-Melberg established a company called Form Inc. in 1960, where he designed, built and distributed his playground sculptures and equipment to public and private clients. Contemporary artist Scott Hockings has spent years diligently documenting his extant work in parks, schools and housing complexes across the United States. Hockings’ “Mid-Century Modern Playground Sculpture” series features most of Miller-Melberg’s unique play sculptures, as well as other vintage “play art” from other influential designers including David Aaron and Paul Friedberg. Hockings notes that “like most cast concrete or metal based playscapes, they have been quickly vanishing in favor of mass-produced, modular plastic equipment. Many of the Jim Miller-Melberg sculptures have been removed and destroyed, and virtually no metal sculptures still exist.”

Play sculptures by Jim Miller-Melberg and David Aaron were preserved in the unavailing of the George Christopher Playground in San Francisco. From left to right: Miller-Melberg’s Climbing Wall (blue), Aaron’s Pleasure Dome (silver) and Miller-Melberg’s Saddle Slide (yellow). Image courtesy of San Francisco Recreation and Parks.

Although no longer in production, some of Miller-Melberg’s noted play sculptures are still prominent elements within playgrounds, having been preserved by parks departments in major cities, such as San Francisco.

Isamu Noguchi, Play Mountain, 1933. Photograph by William Taylor. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

Isamu Noguchi’s playscapes also eschewed traditional playground equipment in favor of free-form abstract sculpture. He intended for the sturdy surreal objects and earth-like forms to inspire unbridled imagination. His philosophy was that a playground without any obvious guidelines would help children think critically, embrace ambiguity and become more open-minded in how they observed and interacted with their environments and each other.

Noguchi created numerous models for play spaces, but only a few of his designs were actually constructed for public use. Play Mountain was one of the initial playgrounds that Noguchi imagined as a scale model in 1933. The following year, Noguchi attempted to incorporate Play Mountain into New York City’s urban recreational infrastructure, however, he was unable to convince the city’s Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses.

Play Mountain‘s design, which simulated environmental modulations and architectural wonders (like pyramids and ziggurats), would have seemed alien to Moses and other straightforward urban planners. Art historian, Shaina Larrivee explains that, “playgrounds, a relatively new priority for New York and other urban areas, were decades away from a renaissance that would embrace experimentation and promote ‘creative play'” (Larrivee, 2011). Noguchi’s playground designs were also ahead of their time from an art historical perspective, because reflection of the surrounding landscape within large scale sculptural art was not truly emergent until the Land Art movement of the 1960s.

Isamu Noguchi, Kodomo No Kuni Playground. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

The first actual playground Noguchi realized was a temporary structure, located outside of Tokyo, called Kodomo No Kuni or ‘The Children’s Country.’ It was built in 1965 for the national holiday, Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Year). In the mid-1970s, Noguchi’s Playscapes was established in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. (see: Lange, 2019). In his design for Playscapes, Noguchi envisioned an all encompassing educational landscape, complete with a shelter, a classroom, art studios and an office space. He intended for the space to be utilized throughout the year by school groups and summer camps, as well as the general public. The playground equipment is more akin to abstract sculpture than the typical jungle gyms, slides and swing sets seen in most playgrounds, however, every abstract and surreal form is highly functional in encouraging self-directed play. Writer Aria Danaparamita writes, “rather than dictate a play activity, the structures invite creative interactions. Kids can climb, swing, and roll around in the Playscape’s spiral tower, play cubes and modernist geometric structures with integrated slides and swings” (Danaparamita, 2013).

Moerenuma Park’s Forest of Cherry Trees, Sapporo, Japan. © Moerenuma Park

Noguchi’s last major artistic project was a playground called Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan. The park is a 454 acre amalgamation of Noguchi’s ideas and designs for playgrounds and land art, including Play Mountain. Although Noguchi passed away several months into the project’s planning, his friend, the influential Japanese architect Shoji Sadao, carried on with the logistics and construction. This monumental public space, which includes one of Noguchi’s most elaborate play spaces, opened to the public in 2005, seventeen years after Noguchi’s death.

Playgrounds as an Expression of National Identity

In addition to prompting free play and imagination, playgrounds have also been utilized as a means to inspire national unity and pride. Such is the case with Singapore’s renowned playground designer, Khor Ean Ghee who created whimsical play environments within Pasir Ris, a community of housing developments in the East Region of Singapore.

Ghee’s initial playgrounds were created during the late 1960s and early 1970s, directly following Singapore’s declaration of independence during the summer of 1965. Singapore’s multicultural population included Chinese, Malay and Indian residents who lived side-by-side in many of these newly formed housing communities. Singapore’s government needed a novel way to portray their independence and signify their national identity in a manner that could be embraced by its diverse citizens.

One of Khor Ean Ghee’s dragon playgrounds in front of a community housing development in Toa Payoh.
Photograph by Jimmy Tan, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The designs manifested by Ghee (and later his protégées) transformed functional play equipment into vibrant sculptural forms. These distinct artistic play spaces were part of the government’s solution to fostering a national identity. Art critic Claire Voon explains that “Playgrounds, often strategically built at the heart of each estate, became one way to foster a new sense of belonging, as sites where neighbors, regardless of race and age, could congregate” (Voon, 2019). Ghee embellished his playgrounds to incorporate colors, shapes and representational motifs that Singaporeans would embrace as indicative of the country’s multifaceted culture. Artfully rendered playground equipment allude to objects like sampans (small flat-bottomed wooden boats popular among Chinese and Malay fisherman), mythical figures like dragons, fauna such as Asian elephants and popular local produce items.

Playgrounds as Art Education

One of my favorite art educational lessons involves having students create their own playgrounds. This activity is fun and informative for students and educators alike. Students are already familiar with the form and function of playgrounds, so having them think about how they would design their own play spaces becomes a very meaningful assignment. Prior affinity and understanding of playgrounds also makes it easier to explain how affordances of materials, such as paper, wire, textile and clay can be used to represent objects within a playground.

My example of a paper and mixed media playground, complete with some modernist looking tunnels and climbing walls, a slide and a swing that actually moves.

I have introduced this project as a way for students to hone their paper sculpture skills. The goal is twofold: asking students to design a playground using different pieces of paper and/or cardboard using various attachment techniques addresses thinking critically through problem solving, while giving them agency to create a play structure via creative intuition. Once the students have completed warm up exercises involving paper sculpture (ex. folding, curling, twisting and scoring the paper), they then are tasked with considering how they will use these paper sculpture techniques to design objects within their playground.

I like to start the playground project with a communal brainstorming session where students share what they enjoy most about the playgrounds they have been to. Then the conversation shifts to resemble a planning committee where students are prompted to consider what existing playground elements they would incorporate or what new structures they would develop if they were landscape architects. Finally, students break into teams and design their playgrounds, which they will present to the class in the form of a pitch. Classmates assess each others work, noting what they like best within each playground and what they think could be improved. In addition to developing their critical and creative thinking, the students are working on articulating their ideas and strengthening their public speaking skills.

The playground project can be modified to fit units focused on other media like clay and found object assemblage. The key is to make learning formal construction skills fun and informative. Maybe it will inspire the next generation of landscape architects and artists to create a new wave of play spaces.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Budds, Diana. “The Midcentury Sculptor Who Changed the Way Kids Play,” Fast Company, 28 October 2016.

Cartiere, Cameron. “Play Sculptures: Public Art in the Playground, Public Art Dialogue, 12:1, 2022. pps. 5-23. DOI: 10.1080/21502552.2021.1993619

Danaparamita, Aria. “Playing with Art: The Isamu Noguchi Playscape.” National Trust for Historic Preservation, 19 September 2013.

Lange, Alexandra. “The Story Behind Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Atlanta.” WHY Magazine, 2019.

Larrivee, Shaina D. “Playscapes: Isamu Noguchi’s Designs for Play.” Public Art Dialogue, 1:01, 53-80, 2011.

“The History of the Playground,” Churchich Recreation Blog, 27 August 2021.

Vartanian, Hrag. “What NOT to Do with Kids in a Museum,” Hyperallergic, 26 January 2014.

Voon, Claire. “In Singapore, Playgrounds Are Capsules of National Identity.” Atlas Obscura, 11 June 2019.

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