How is it that children’s play yards have evolved from sand piles to the manufactured slides, climbers, and swings found on most playgrounds today? Children’s outdoor play environments have been influenced over the years by play theories that date back to Jean Jacques Rousseau of France in the 18th century, who advocated for a return to nature speaking to children’s need for a sense of freedom (Christianson & Vogelsong, 1996). Playgrounds have taken many forms over the years, with an overriding recognition of the important fact that play is essential to early development. Play is the work of early childhood and the way by which children learn and grow.
Attempts to provide the ideal outdoor setting for children’s play have been inspired by the desire to support physical challenge, play and recreation, organized games, and exploration of the natural world. In the 1970s and ‘80s we saw adventure playgrounds develop using discarded materials such as scrap lumber, rubber tires, old vehicles, and other recycled materials. This concept of adventure playgrounds began in Europe in the 1930s. Sometimes referred to as “junk playgrounds” these were informal areas found most frequently in Scandinavian countries where children create their own design and structures under the supervision of a play leader. The popularity of adventure playgrounds has re-appeared over the years (like bellbottom pants) and still has many supporters.
More recently, safety concerns have been raised as an increase in playground injuries have received media attention. The concern for safety is justified. Over 200,000 children are treated in hospital emergency rooms in the US each year as a result of playground equipment-related injuries (Tinsworth & McDonald, 2001). There has been a strong emphasis on identifying the cause of these injuries and constructing safer playground equipment. Much progress has been made in playground equipment safety. As a result of guidelines published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the Handbook for Public Playground Safety, and the publication of the 2001 American Society of Testing and Materials Interna- tional Standard 1487, important equipment-related safety issues such as unsafe surfaces, spaces that can entrap a child, protruding hardware, and unsafe equipment layout to name a few, have been addressed.
Many existing playgrounds, however, still have unsafe equipment (US PIRG, 2001), and this has received a great deal of public attention and concern. A simple solution that corrects all problems quickly is difficult to find. The cost of replacing unsafe equipment or purchasing equipment for new develop- ment has been difficult for many organizations, schools, and child care programs. Many programs find themselves with open areas where unsafe equipment has been removed, but nothing has yet replaced it. As dollars are being spent to upgrade playgrounds with safer equipment, there also appears to be growing awareness that children in our country are spending less time outdoors than in previous generations. In our culture, we seem to have lost sight of the health bene- fits and learning opportunities that abound in the outdoor environment that have little to do with playground equipment.
For previous generations spending time outdoors was a given. Children walked to and from school, played outdoors after school every day, played outdoors all day until dark on weekends, and their families had picnics, went to parks, or camped to make outdoor time a part of everyday life.