The emergence of Childhood and the role of children in the public realm

One of the most important occurrences at the beginning of the 19th century is the emergence of childhood as a distinct and important human developmental phase. Yet another consequence of industrialization, the idea of family, along with the role of each member and age group in it, changed in order to foster the new forms of labor and domesticity. This transformation affected the most crucial aspects of everyday life, both in the domestic and urban realm, manifesting in many ways, but especially in the movements which address the presence of women and children in society throughout the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. As such, this paper focuses on the ideas of the Playground movement, which started in Boston in 1886 with the construction of the first sandlot. The movement then expanded massively in the first twenty years of its life but quickly lost sight of its overarching ethical aims. This loss, I claim, constitutes something of a road-not-taken such that to reintroduce some aspects of its original ethical approach could help address some of the relevant challenges to our contemporary urban and territorial conditions.

In its original form, the Playground movement was an attempt to address issues related to urbanization, industrialization, and immigration that prevailed in American society at the time. The movement was introduced with the implementation of the sand gardens in Boston in 1886, but its influence can also be seen in significant urban planning projects such as the Children’s District, as well as the Heckscher and Perimeter Playgrounds in Central Park, etc. The movement was inspired by the German play movement emerging at the beginning of the 19th and gradually became more widely known in the U.S., with organizations like the Playground Association of America forming to support and expand its ideals.

In addition to its explicit goal, which was to prepare the active American citizen of tomorrow and thereby determine the role of children in the new form of everyday life, the Playground Movement is a powerful manifestation of the spatial imaginary of the 19th and 20th century. The Playground movement advocated the importance of free play close to nature, and aimed at the well-being of children in terms of mental, moral, and physical health.

Its fundamental principles can be traced back to both academic sources and the press of that era, including The Playground Magazine, which included articles with practical advice, programming ideas, and theoretical pieces, but also political discussions regarding the new role of children in civil society. In order to disentangle the reasons why this approach was never widely adopted, as well as its contemporary relevance to the key normative priority of justice, the establishment of three spatial lenses is essential. These lenses are spatial justice, spatial politics, and spatial economics.

The first lens, spatial justice, evokes the ethical discussion about what planners and designers ought to do and yet quite often fail to. In the case of the Playground Movement, then, the spatial justice lens allows us to pose the question: for whom is a space created? This question about the subject of this approach (i.e. For whom did they design?) is crucial and constitutes another very interesting legibility project that encompasses many of the aspects that relate to identity in the society of the 20th century, including gender, class, citizenship, etc., but the specific emphasis here is on the age of the users. Although the foundations of the Playground Movement are closely linked to the study of children -- their cognitive abilities and developmental phases in the first years of their lives -- later design applications and methodologies did not involve understanding or even observing the way children played and lived in urban spaces. Planners in the contemporary context broadly agree that space should not be exclusive but inclusive of children. However, in the late 19th century, when older, so-called “traditional” schemes of production were disrupted by the expansion of the processes of industrialization, the ideas of domesticity and urban life were in the process of transforming. This gradually resulted in the emergence of an understanding of everyday life which viewed cities -- and in particular, their streets -- as urban commons, commons which increasingly included the presence of women and children. However, the notion of inclusivity was not yet fully elaborated at this time. Although the Playground Movement initially aimed at incorporating inclusivity among its overarching principles, it gradually started to shift in a different direction, creating (as I discuss in the next section) segregated play spaces.

Source: Clarence Elmer Rainwater: The Play Movement in the United States, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1921.
Fig. 1. Early Schoolyard Playground in Boston.
Fig. 2. Early Sand Garden in Boston

Next, the spatial politics concerned with what ought to have been done in order to include children within the urban realm is another crucial aspect of this movement. Although the aim of the Playground Movement was undoubtedly powerful in its aspirations for justice (i.e. their aim of accommodating the needs of all women and children, including both citizens and immigrants as well as members of both the upper and lower classes), the concrete set of strategies and instruments deployed for the sake of realizing their project ultimately failed to provide a space for all. The general aim of the Playground Movement to improve urban environments for children shares important parallels with other concurrent social reform movements of the time. The first was that of the Kindergarten Movement’s aim to revise formal education for children; and the second were the various movements that aimed to cultivate children as the citizens of tomorrow. The reformers of the Playground Movement aimed to transform urban spaces and their through the transformation of urban environments, not merely designing for some modern childhood to come, but rather actually designing that modern childhood itself.

However, the tools used for the implementation of these ideas, which I characterize here as aspects of spatial economics and spatial politics, suffered from embedded technical, institutional, and small-scale problems that ultimately hindered the expansion and realization of the driving principle of the Playground Movement, i.e.: that space is for everyone, including children.

At the end of the 19th century, urban life was seen as hard and unsafe for children and through segregation, urban reformers of the early 20th century tried to create no-risk environments that would give children equal opportunities for prosperity and happiness. The ideas of Progressive Era, which included an emphasis on civic virtues and the nature of appreciation, were gradually gaining significant ground in discussions concerning the future of society. These ideas also found their way into discussions among urban planners and designers, who were debating the best way to build the cities in which children, as the citizens of tomorrow, would grow up. Segregation was used as a political tool, an instrument to create a secure environment for young children, eliminating the dangers of street life. The basic goal of the design was to create an environment in which children could resist the negative effects of urbanization. And although through the Playground Movement the significance of public play was recognized, the implementation of it in the following years failed to provide a space for the creativity and cognitive development of children, but rather a space for control, more helpful to the authorities and parents and less attractive to children that looked for stimuli in places outside the designed playgrounds. Play was seen as an expression of freedom and pleasure but through an organized and guided activity, and anything beyond that, including any informal or unstructured play in the city was considered bad activity.

Yet another aspect of the American society that affected the spatial politics related to expression of the Playground Movement were the evolving ideas about citizenship as expressed in all appearances of everyday life including recreation, play and education. As projected in many of the planning projects of the early 20th century, one of the intentions of the park planning during that era was the mixing of ethnicities and classes. The playground movement quickly began to accumulate those ideas incorporating means for the assimilation, integration and Americanization of children immigrants. Design principles that favored cleanliness, beauty and visual order created spaces that would accommodate simulation of the typical, or ideal, adult life and would facilitate American citizenship. However the notion of playgrounds created through small-scale interventions based on collaborative processes in the neighborhoods are by definition spaces for empowerment of immigrants and communities, fostering local identities and diverse cultures. 

Last but not least, another aspect that led to the dominance of segregated play spaces was the design and planning principle that favored the complete separation of movement flows. The views of the Modern Movement regarding circulation was that everyone was supposed to walk on the pavements. According to Stavrides, “what was at stake then and continued to be at stake in twentieth-century modernism is the forms of appropriation of the street by individuals, masses or communities in the process of contesting their character as public, communal (connected to the closed neighborhood communities which Haussmannian projects attacked) or common spaces.” In this context, the idea of children playing in the street is prohibitive.

The Playground Movement became very quickly over-professionalized in the way that it addressed design and planning challenges, detracting from every community that it served the collaborative part of the design process. This was partly a consequence of the growing effort to create a safe environment for children, but it also is connected with the ideas that viewed children as consumers that initiated in that historical moment and led very quickly to the privatization of spaces for play. And although seen through the lens of spatial economics, anything requires financialization in order for the city to find the best way to make use of the resources, the way that spatial economics affected the Playground Movement caused an unmitigated disruption to its overarching principles.

Starting from the end of the 19th century, the streets quickly became the instrument for transforming cities. Aiming at the most efficient circulation of goods people and money, cities were designed primarily to foster this type of activities. Certainly, places for education and amusement were part of the planning approach but were analyzed through the lens of efficiency and profit that led very quickly to the development of amusement parks and generally private spaces for play. Following the swift in the society that led from the favor of production to the favor of consumption, children were learning through their play the fundamentals of being a consumer.

To conclude, It is undeniable that the Playground Movement transformed the cities creating new dynamics among the users of the urban environment. The theoretical framework addressing its fundamental principles was a common ground shared with other approaches across the United States and Europe that created the emerging concept of childhood. The Playground Movement, Froebel’s Kindergarten, that set the ground for the contemporary preschool education with the design and development of Froebel’s gifts and George’s Junior Republic, the miniature cities, states and nations run by kids, are all parts of the same belief: that children should be carefully trained and educated in order to become the citizens of tomorrow. Based on insights from developmental psychology planners and designers of the early 20th century had the tools to create environments that would foster fruitful activities for the youth. However, due to the fear that freedom in play would mean that children were in danger of becoming a threat to society, those approaches resulted into segregated play spaces that did not always draw children’s attention. The quest for autonomy and creativity led children outside the playgrounds developing their own unstructured play very often interacting with other agents in the urban environment, family, friends and neighbors.

1. Stavrides, Stavros. Common Space: The City as Commons. In Common (Zed Books). London: Zed Books, 2016. According to Stavrides, “city streets represent a world of social disorder that needs to be controlled through planning policies and authoritarian interventions in a direct clash with practices that appropriate the street as a possible common space”.

2.  Fröbel, Friedrich. Froebel: Materials to Aid a Comprehension of the Work of the Founder of the Kindergarten. The Reading Circle Library ; No. 2. New York: ELKellogg, 1887; George, William R. (William Reuben). The Junior Republic, Its History and Ideals,. New York, London: DAppleton and company, 1910.

3.  Marie Warsh. “Cultivating Citizens: The Children’s School Farm in New York City, 1902–1931.” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 18, no. 1 (2011): 64–89.

4. Sonja Dümpelmann, “Layered landscapes: parks and gardens in the metropolis,” in Dorothee Brantz et. al. eds., Thick Space: Approaches to Metropolitanism. Berlin: Transcript, 2012, 213-238.

5. Stavrides, Stavros. Common Space: The City as Commons. In Common (Zed Books). London: Zed Books, 2016.

HIS-4115: History and Theory of Urban Interventions

Instructor: Neil Brenner
Harvard Graduate School of Design
Full text available upon request.