Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Do-it-yourself playgrounds

The do-it-yourself attitude of the 1960s led to a new form of pedagogical activism as parents joined forces to create their own urban play areas for their children. Led by the spirit of 1968, they took over empty lots and urban niches and used raw building materials to create places for their children to play.

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Intricate designs in the 1970s

The first playground is thought to have come about in New York City in 1890, a rather simple affair with a walled-off section of courtyard reserved for children's play. As this photo from Central Park in 1972 shows, the design of playgrounds got much more intricate over the decades, with cement stepping stones and bridges as well as firemen's poles and a slide

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Junk playgrounds

Dane Carl Theodor Sorensen had numerous theories on how best to design play for children. He introduced the concept of the junk playground in 1931. Handing children building materials and tools and leaving them alone to do as they like with them, Sorensen led the way in a call for more free space to encourage children's creativity.

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Play sculptures

Early on, playgrounds utilized whatever materials were on hand: Steel, rope, wood, concerte or stone. But in the 1960s, new materials were introduced and greater thought was put into designing elements for the playground that could be used in multiple ways by a large number of children, such as this sculpture, as seen in the exhibition.

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Treehouses and teeter-totters

As playgrounds gained popularity, the designs become larger-than-life as well. Not only were the play sculptures often unique in appearance, they took on a child-like look, with crooked edges or unusual forms. Over time, as safety concerns grew among parents, these playground elements grew to look more homogenous.

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Water, water everywhere

Beginning in the 1930s, playground designers attempted to incorporate the natural elements in the play areas in order to give children in an urban environment the same benefits as their peers growing up in rural areas. To that end, sandboxes replaced beaches, splash pools became the sea and grassy areas became wooded forests.

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Children and play are inextricable

One of the most prolific playground architects, Aldo van Eyck, is motivated by the notion that children and play are an inextricable part of city life. As a student, van Eyck was deeply impressed by the European avant-garde, which comes across in his later work in Amsterdam's urban planning bureau. Striking simple and quite flexible, van Eyck designs to create environments that connect people.

Playground Project: 'Freedom and anarchy' for kids

Participative and performative playground

"We want to make museums more lively," said Gabriela Burkhalter, curator of the Playground Project exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn. Burkhalter, who began the project as intensive research in 2006, created a livable exhibition that tells the story of the 20th century as seen through the development of playgrounds. The exhibits are made to be touched, climbed and played on.

The playground: What started out as a gathering point has become a vital part of urban planning in many cities, especially in northern Europe – and an important element in children's development.

Playgrounds have become a ubiquitous part of the urban environment in Germany. From red roped climbing gyms to rainbow-shaped monkey bars to tunnel slides painted to look like a dragon's head, play equipment for children can be found in public places around the country – and are often filled with laughing children.

That's not always been the case. A by-product of the industrial revolution, playgrounds first came about in the late 19th century in the US and UK. These areas, often empty lots in the midst of housing projects, initially served both as meeting point as well as a place for the children of immigrants and those living in poverty to interact with the outdoor world.

The Playground Project, an exhibition at Bonn's Bundeskunsthalle traces the development of these common areas as they went from barren urban niches to the adventure playgrounds so frequently seen today.

Playgrounds come in all shapes and sizes in Germany

Social reform of the 1900s

The first playground is thought to have been conceived in New York by philanthropic social reformist, Charles B. Stover, who founded the "Outdoor Recreation League" in 1890. The organization aimed to open experimental playgrounds around the city – creating spaces that might help to "save" the street children from life on the mean streets. Rather simple in their concept, these parks used the tools on hand in a rapidly industrializing world – equipping the gender-separated areas with risky climbing frames made of steel pipes and wood. It was so successful in its endeavors that by 1903, the New York Park Department opened the first city-funded playground, Seward Park.

Bringing nature to the cities in 1930s Scandinavia

Although this early play equipment was both dangerous and minimal, the idea caught on in other parts of the world. Carl Theodor Sorensen, a landscape architect in Copenhagen took an especial interest in "natural" children's play. Beginning in 1925, Sorensen worked to replicate the rural environment in the courtyards of Danish housing complexes. In his world, a sandbox becomes the beach, a kiddie pool replaces the sea and grassy areas with bushes and paths serve as areas for children to orientate themselves as if in the forests.

At the same time, he developed the notion of the junk playground, or Skrammellegeplads – a free space replete with building materials and tools that would allow children to creatively complete their own construction projects.

Even without a proper play area, kids will find creative ways to entertain themselves

As much effort as Sorensen made to accommodating these areas to the desires and needs of children, the first member of Sorensen's staff, John Bertelsen, explained that these areas were not intended to be educational. "I cannot, and indeed will not, teach the children anything. I am able to give them my support in their creative play and work, and thus help them in developing those talents and abilities which are often suppressed at home and at school."

As a result, there was much greater emphasis on designing the playgrounds to allow for incidental play – as opposed to contrived, adult-directed play with rigid structures. A pro-child environment, Bertelsen believed, required a pro-play physical background. And with that, the notion of play sculptures – like slides designed in the shape of an elephant's head – was born.

The adventure playground and anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s

Sorensen's ideas left an impression on Marjory Allen, a gardener and landscape architect in London who focused on the creation of child-friendly environments after witnessing how happy children were playing in nature. "Outdoor living is as important as indoor living, especially for the children," wrote Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood in her book Planning for Play.

It's unclear at what point kids lose the urge to enjoy themselves on the playground

After renaming Skrammellegeplads to the more palatable "adventure playground," in 1953, Allen traveled the world to bring attention to the necessity of properly planning playgrounds around children's needs. In her book, Allen writes that urban planners should consider such dimensions as the inclusion of poor weather areas – spots for shade from the hot sun or rain – as they design parks. Or the distance young children will walk in order to come upon a playground as well as traffic patterns that will cut off a child's access to the play area. From the pedagogical perspective, she wrote that these spaces always required a mixture of freedom and anarchy for the kids to make best use of their creativity in them.

These adventure playgrounds that Allen was advocating for were quite different from what many parents in Germany were used to and in the 1960s – a decade which emphasized self-empowerment – many citizens got together to initiate community playground projects. In Berlin's Märkisches Viertel, an area that saw rapid post-war growth, residents banded together to create the country's first adventure playground in 1967. Despite initial criticism of these playgrounds as being anti-authoritarian, the idea spread to other industrial areas, including the Ruhrgebiet. Their rapid acceptance and development reflected the activist attitude of the time – if the government won't legislate for these play areas (as they had done in Denmark), parents would take their children's development into their own hands.

The normalization – and nominalization – of the 1980s  

While in Germany, pedagogical activism has carried the parental love affair with the adventure playground through to today – resulting in unusual playgrounds in nearly every corner of the major cities, in other places, like the US, safety concerns have made them much more difficult to design. As a result, playgrounds have taken on a more normalized, homogenous appearance, with natural materials like sand and water traded out for cement and rubber.

Still, all hope is not lost. With the exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle, both the exhibit's curator Gabriela Burkhalter and the museum director Rein Wolfs, aim to showcase what playgrounds can offer – from a design perspective as well as a historical, pedagogical and urban planning view.

"By playing, we begin to discover the world, to understand it and find our way around in it," Wolfs says. "Play puts social conventions to the test, and like art, it is a domain of unfettered creative activity, an end in itself, untrammeled by the twin demands of purpose and utility." And with this participative, performative exhibition – one in which visitors are asked to climb on, in and through the exhibit pieces – that is exactly what happens. Play, unfettered.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Traditional or unusual names

Do you want your kid to stand out or be one among many? Picking a baby's name is like deciding on a tattoo - except for someone else. While it's an expression of the parents' identity, the child is the one stuck with a bad idea. In any case, it's still not a good idea to criticize someone else's name choice. Ben and Mia are regular favorites; Marie and Elias topped Germany's name list in 2016.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Breastfeeding in public

Even though it doesn't work for all moms for a number of reasons, breastfeeding is a widespread practice in Germany. Germans are comfortable with nudity, so breastfeeding in public is generally not a problem. However, the country doesn't have a law explicitly protecting nursing mothers. Shop owners may determine that they don't want to see it in their establishment - and a few controversially do.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Breastfeeding older babies

This is another topic no one wants to be judged upon. You might even see mothers still breastfeeding their three-year-old child at the playground - but this is rather an exception. Since parental allowance is paid in Germany for 12 months (and up to 14 months when shared between the two parents), many moms try to stop breastfeeding before going back to work - but there's definitely no rule.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about


Speaking of getting back to work, organizing childcare is another stressful topic for new parents. If many are relieved to find any nearby solution, some German parents see the childcare they choose for their child as a crucial academic decision. Sending them to a Waldorf pre-school, for example, makes it easier to later be admitted to a school based on the same alternative educational philosophy.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about


Some parents openly reject vaccines; they are not obligatory in Germany. OECD data records a 96 percent childhood vaccination rate in the country - but other German studies claim it's lower. Vaccination opponents' beliefs only work as long as enough people follow the planned vaccination program to ensure herd immunity: Berlin faced a measles epidemic in the winter of 2014-2015, with 1,392 cases.

A crying baby (CC/Roxeteer)

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Crying it out

A universal phenomenon: Babies wake up many times a night and parents are exhausted. Following what's known as the Ferber method in the US, the book "Jedes Kind kann schlafen lernen" (Every child can learn to sleep) is a bestseller in Germany. It recommends letting babies cry alone in bed until they sleep through the night. It's a lifesaver for some; others describe this method as pure torture.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Attachment parenting

Those who are against the sleep training method are likely influenced by attachment parenting, a philosophy promoted by US pediatrician William Sears. This approach recommends, among others, sleeping near the baby, or co-sleeping - another controversial topic. Germany hosted its first Attachment Parenting Congress in 2014, backed by the Federal Minister of Family Affairs.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Disposable or cloth diapers - or diaper-free

Diapers are another universal parenting issue. With many easy-to-use models on the market, some parents try out cloth diapers. The extra workload isn't for everyone one though: Many will stick to disposable ones - and they can at least turn to eco-friendly brands. Those practicing the "Windelfrei" (diaper-free) method are still rare, but they automatically win the "most-dedicated parent" contest.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Homemade baby food or store-bought jars

You'll recognize the parents who care about this dedication contest (and naturally, about their above-average extraordinary child) by the way they lovingly prepare their baby's food. All organic, of course - and the accessories to serve the royal puree are from fair trade designers. They might judge those who just buy jars - but they'll still admit that they're useful when traveling.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

Alternative approaches to education

In the 1960s and 1970s, Germans reflected a lot on education and came up with concepts such as "antiautoritäre Erziehung," or anti-authoritarian education, which aims to promote a child's freedom of thought. The influence of this approach is felt in Germany to this day. Beyond various current popular theories, each parent develops their own style - and no one likes to hear it's wrong.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about

TV and electronic devices

There are amazing apps and TV shows developed for toddlers. Many one-year-olds are better than their grandparents at swiping through a smartphone's pictures. Although there is no consensus among German parents concerning digital media use for small children, most of them feel better when they restrict their child's contact with a screen - while secretly enjoying the break those gadgets provide.

Parenting debates most Germans have a strong opinion about


Another way some Germans measure how "good" a parent they are is by the number of years their child has never been put in contact with sweets - and that in a country where ice cream is an almost-daily ritual for older children in the summer. Incidentally, the second child usually gets to bite into some of that evil candy earlier in life - by then, parents have lost all their great principles.