New City Playgrounds Explore Undirected Play

What are other, less fearful cultures than our own, doing to give children autonomy and adventure?

Hanegi Park in Tokyo, Japan, is ruled by children.

This two-part series, City Play in Progress, looks at the expanding definition of what it means to be a playground in New York City.

As a native New Yorker, playing in New York City brings back distinctly fond, if not obviously bucolic memories. The bloody scrape of my knee against asphalt paving, the almost intolerable singe of the metal monkey bars against my hands, and the acrid smell of rubber tiling mixed with the hot tar smell of a New York summer are intertwined with childhood memories of growing up. Though many playgrounds in the city still resemble the equipment-filled lots of my youth, more progressive ones that emphasize undirected play opportunities have increasingly become part of common conversation.

More from Metropolis

In the recent documentary The Land, Welsh children wield (real) hammers, (sharp!) saws and gather around spontaneous campfires in an adventure playground with minimal parental supervision.  They swing and spin wildly from trees, saw feverishly at cardboard and repurpose “found” objects to create tools to shape the barren landscape around them. The wild glee of these children is apparent. Rules of play are self-created, purpose is fervent and arbitrary, and children have seemingly unchallenged control over themselves and their environment.


The Importance of Playing With Fire (Literally) from Play Free Movie on Vimeo.

The Land documents the activity within a small adventure park in North Wales.


To the American eye, these playgrounds can seem dangerous, but writer Hanna Rosin argues that adventure playgrounds such as these create important opportunities for fostering independence, thinking creatively and learning how to take appropriate risks. The simultaneous and sometimes conflicting parental urges to keep our children safe from harm and to give them the tools to thrive are universal. Striking a balance between the two is a particular challenge that playgrounds can start to bridge in valuable ways.

In the book Savage Park, writer Amy Fusselman uses her experiences in the junk playgrounds of Tokyo to argue that we, as Americans, have chosen to negate risk at the cost of a deeper, richer human experience. To Fusselman, the way we control how our children play is tied to our cultural disconnection from fear of death. Risk is something that can be managed away with an extra warning label or two, a protective bumper, and if all else fails, blame on another party. Against the current frontier of our city’s playgrounds, all adamantly cheerful in color and thoughtfully protective of body parts, are we ready to ask if our version of safe is too safe?

The barriers to more widespread interest in progressive play, both in theory and implementation, are very real and particular to the U.S. and New York City. As landscape architects, our work and our perspective on playgrounds tend to be heavily tinged with the practical. Imagination and personal beliefs inform and shape a creative design, but the need to design responsibly puts us in a very different mindset than those of the writers listed above. Liability and perceptions of child safety can be a driving force for many projects, with code compliance relying heavily on guidelines from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards. These playground guidelines are formed within the confines of their agency titles with a focus on equipment safety and play surfacing rather than overall playground design or child education.

In the adventure and junk playgrounds of Europe and Asia, adult supervision in the form of a full time playworker or two is the norm. Their job is to support playground activity, rather than to direct or to curtail. In a city-owned park, ease of maintenance and lack of non-capital funding is a driving concern. With a vast network of parks already struggling to fulfill basic functions for a diverse and highly populated city, the idea of adventure playgrounds and full-time playworkers can seem fantastical.

New York City’s forays into playgrounds emphasizing undirected play include Imagination Playground where the components for play are pre-selected and the physicality of play that is more readily apparent in adventure and junk playgrounds has been stripped away. Closer in spirit are nature playgrounds, such as the relatively new Zucker Natural Exploration Area which is host to adventurous parents and children. Fenceless and integrated into the rest of the open space beyond, Zucker brings play space full circle to areas for free play like the Children’s District of Central Park in the 1800s. Literally ground for play, this space was composed of a large open lawn, a dairy barn for refreshments, and a rustic structure perched on a large rock outcropping.

The definition of what makes a playground is shifting either forward or backward through time depending on your perspective. Progressive play spaces propel us out of the Robert Moses equipment playground era yet harken back to an elemental form of play that is timeless.


In our next post, we look at boundaries to equity for play and recreation in New York City.

Grace Lo, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP is a full-time practicing landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, a part-time yoga teacher, and an aspiring plant nerd. A born and bred New Yorker, she has nine years of experience working on public, commercial, and residential projects throughout the New York area, and has a passion for involvement in urban revitalization in all shapes and forms. She received her BSLA from Cornell University.

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs, written from within the practice, by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more. 

Follow Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects on Twitter at @mathewsnielsen and Instagram at mathewsnielsen.

Recent Projects