Adventure playgrounds emerged from movements in 1960s Europe that worked to reclaim derelict urban spaces, many caused by the devastation of World War II. Filled with trash and debris, the sites were considered unfit even for parking cars and were therefore abandoned by developers. However, children had no qualms about these forbidden sites, often playing happily in rubble heaps. They seemed to prefer the informality of dirt and scraps to formal jungle gyms. Eventually parents and park designers realized that these non-traditional materials inspired creative, thoughtful play. The adults and children worked together to construct the kinds of play spaces the children wanted.
Proponents for adventure playgrounds claimed that the play environment they provided would help kids retain resilient and positive world-views. Adventure playgrounds continually proved the value of learning experiences outside of school. Children could use the playground for exploring many real-life activities (and even the imagined ones). Many of the constructions were clubhouse-type buildings that fostered elaborate games of pretend.
Landscape design innovator and father of the adventure playground, M. Paul Friedberg confirms, “We want the child to be living in a padded box. [But] A child has to have the real world, fraught with challenges to overcome.” Friedberg’s conviction held true in England, as full-time employees staffed each adventure playground to oversee creative activities and aid in the general upkeep of the materials. The playgrounds’ need for heavy community involvement and maintenance would later figure into their demise.
In the United States, the movement caught on quickly. Adventure Playgrounds sprouted up in locations all over the New York, predominantly in Manhattan. The new layouts updated the 1930s playground’s repertoire of metal swings and sandboxes. Adventure playground builders designed with natural materials to integrate the play area into the land itself, using stone, concrete, wood, metal, and sand. Adventure playgrounds in New York City often contained innovative shapes for kids to climb in and around rather than raw building materials as in the European sites. Federal regulations with high standards on safety stifled the use of rougher materials in playgrounds.
Many parents began to worry about the possibility of injury in the tunnels and massive play shapes that blocked visibility of their children. Others felt the constructions should be preserved as landmarks, especially the ones designed by famous architects. Soon adventure equipment lost out to colorful catalog models with less sand and fewer moving parts.
The trend of converting adventure playgrounds reached this site at 164th Street and Edgecombe Avenue in Highbridge Park later than most. Adventure equipment was installed in 1973—a construction project that created adventures of an historical nature. According to one assistant principal at nearby J.H.S. 164, students watching workers ready the parkland picked up Revolutionary War musket balls. Apparently, the construction project turned into an archeological dig. Students flocked to the site before and after school to collect unearthed artifacts from the battle of Harlem Heights. Said Vice Principal Whitney, “[It was] a bad year for landmarks preservation but a good year for social studies.”
No records exist detailing precisely what type of adventure equipment existed in the playground. The 1989 renovation reports simply mention removal of “volcano slide” and “tire swing.” In 2017, NYC Parks announced Adventure Playground would receive capital improvements including an updated, more discovery-based play feature for 2-5-year-olds as well as a play feature filled with adventure for 5-12-year-olds. The enhancements also include a spray shower area; gathering spaces, social seating, an artificial turf practice field space, game tables, and plantings, lighting and drinking fountains.
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