Would you like to swing on a star? Frank Gehry, a star architect who designs gleaming, undulating buildings – for grown-ups – is now designing a one-acre playground for children in lower Manhattan. Does this mean society wants new, creative ways to unhook kids from their Game Boy and other electronic addictions and entice them to enjoy imaginative play – outdoors?
One can only hope. For the past 25 years, playgrounds have been designed to be so immune from injury lawsuits that they have become downright boring, almost childproof. Often all that's seen on a playground is an expanse of rubbery surfaces. In Broward County, Florida, playgrounds now come with signs that say "No Running."
How can children overcome limitations and form good social skills without at least a few physical challenges?
If anyone can design both fun and safety into structures, it is Frank Gehry. His buildings often come with whimsical curves and colors that are outside the sandbox of other architects. He is most well known for billowing, silvery surfaces, such as the titanium-covered Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The inspiration for this magical look comes from his childhood in Canada. His Jewish grandmother would bring home live carp and park them in the bathtub, allowing him to marvel at their lustrous movements.
Last month, he was chosen by New York City to design a $4 million playground in Battery Park, overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as part of redeveloping the southern tip of Manhattan. Appropriately enough, his playground will be near the first permanent one in the United States, built in 1903 to get children off the streets of the Lower East Side's crowded slums. And it's also near Teardrop Park, a playground built after 9/11 close to ground zero; it includes such innovations as a sandbox with a water spigot, allowing children to sculpt sand castles.
More communities need to turn to good designers to put the wow and wonder back into playgrounds. That doesn't mean bringing back the often unsafe equipment of monkey bars or merry-go-rounds. But not all risks can be eliminated if children are expected to let off steam, challenge themselves, and learn from outdoor fantasy play.
Anyone designing a playground today will need to fight through a tangle of state and federal safety rules put in place since the 1980s. Most of these are necessary. Between 1990 and 2000, about 44 children under age 15 were killed on public playgrounds in the US. But many rules need rethinking in order to make an important distinction between risk and hazard.
A playground should not contain hazards – something a child cannot foresee – but not all activities or equipment can exclude the kind of risk that calls for some judgment by a child. And playgrounds designed for 8- to 10-year-olds may not always be appropriate for 3- to 6-year-olds.
A new balance is needed between safety concerns over playgrounds and the desire of children to practice for the risks of adulthood with challenging outdoor play.