Childhood, argues the critic Alexandra Lange, has become too circumscribed, too controlled, too “safe.” In “The Design of Childhood,” Lange looks at the world we’ve designed for our kids, from toys to schools, playgrounds and entire cities. It is a fascinating and sobering story. “Our built environment is making children less healthy, less healthy, and less imaginative,” she writes. With Lange’s historical perspective, though, solutions emerge. Most fundamental, perhaps, is that children should be considered citizens, not consumers. “What those hungry brains require,” she says, “is freedom.”
What do you see as the ways that playgrounds shape children? Why, in other words, are they so important?
Playgrounds are a place where, ideally, kids run the show. In the home and at school, adults shape the schedule and the space, but in playgrounds children have to stretch themselves physically, socially and imaginatively. If all playgrounds are the same, or all playgrounds are built for maximum safety, kids are denied those opportunities to stretch and, often, to interact, because a boring playground is only going to be worth a short visit and is quickly outgrown. In Alexandra Lange's book she talk about several different models of playgrounds, the most anarchic being the junk playground (which were widespread across the US in the 1970s) where kids literally get to build their own houses, their own climbing structures, their own fun. All playgrounds don’t need to be that wild and dirty—I also admire the highly stylized and theatrical playgrounds by artist Isamu Noguchi—but they do need to spark something in the child’s mind, and not just for one visit.
When you're at a loss about what to do to keep your children happy and healthy, go to a playground. Children of all ages can spend hours swinging, climbing, balancing, digging, running and interacting with each other in these indispensable arenas. Playgrounds are “vital for a child’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development.”
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