Rob Walker | Essays

Danger, Nostalgia, and Playgrounds

Rocket ship playground, Burlington, Colorado (2009), Brenda Biondo via Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic had a nice writeup the other day on a book of photographs by Brenda Biondo: Once Upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920-1975. I loved the pictures, but I was also struck by the headline: “Nostalgia for the Disappearing Danger of Mid-Century Playgrounds.” 

I am attracted to the idea that the “classic” playground entails “danger” — and that our emotional response to that might be “nostalgia.”

I think this actaully makes sense. Absent of, say, children, or other signs of life, some of thes objects do look vaguely menacing. (Even the groovier ones, like the rocket-ship playground above, seem a little spooky.)

It’s certainly the case, if my childhood memories are reliable, that the playgrounds of the past entailed physical peril: I injured myself on more than one play-oriented public contraption. Maybe I was simply a klutz, but in any case there is something almost threatening to me about the hard, hot, metal objects, the sharp edges and unforgiving surfaces, that Biondo documents. There's a sense of spinning risk that we used to simply accept as part of the cost of doing fun.

Maybe the nostalgist views these as reminders of a time when we didn't worry so much? Evidently such playgrounds are disappearing. And I recall a very thoughtful talk at the 2011 D-Crit Conference about the need to rethink the design of these spaces. Arguably, in fact, what we have here is a pleasing documentation of dubious design — dubious design that, somehow, we are sorry to see disappear.


Hartsel, Colorado (2011) Brenda Biondo via Hyperallergic.

Two-way climber, Colorado Springs, Colorado (2006) Brenda Biondo via Hyperallergic.

Colorado Springs, Colorado (2006), Brenda Biondo via Hyperallergic.


Posted in: History, Photography, Social Good

Comments [7]

"dubious design that, somehow, we are sorry to see disappear."

Indeed because in this as in so much else our balls are disappearing with them.

As a parent of two youngsters, another sentimental aspect of these images is the utter lack of benches or any other accommodation for grown-ups to hover over their children or, worse, run around with them on the play apparatus.

As opposed to when I was eight, at my age now, you wouldn't catch me dead on that awesome rocket slide - which is entirely the point.

Let the kids play on their own.
Mr. Downer

I was so sad to see the playground of my youth, with all its physical risks — which included a manmade hill of cobblestone, wood pylons, and sheet metal (http://nrha.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Ghent/G0000lD9GcAfZiHs/I0000slvovmaKn54), a place that was an endless source of possibility (pirate ship, island, UFO) — leveled (literally) into a safer space of limited possibility (http://nrha.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Ghent/G0000lD9GcAfZiHs/I0000GPtAgxldFwE).

Thanks, all.

Meanwhile, my friend R.A.K. just reminded me of a reference I really should have made — Bill Cosby's routine on playgrounds of this very vintage. Quite funny, and directly addresses the "danger" factor, rather effectively.

Rob Walker

As someone who grew up playing on the rocket-ship I would just like to state the I have injured myself more seriously on the "new and improved" playground than I ever did as a careless child on the rocket. While the new playground is more child friendly, and more focused on exercise, I will forever miss the thrill of the old rocket.

Dangerous playgrounds used to help the process of natural selection. The smart kids survived and the dumb kids fell off the top of the monkey bars. There is nothing to be learned on the modern sissy, low to the ground, plastic games set amongst the wood chips, not asphalt. I value the lessons I learned on hot metal slides and swinging really high then jumping onto asphalt. I learned how to land right, that's for sure.

I am very familiar with the rocket ship pictured in this article. I played on it as a child. I played on it with children, in my care, as an adult. In all those times, I do not remember one child in fear, or being injured. All I remember is activity, joy, and laughter. The problem with our society is that we are so busy ferretting out the "what could happen", that we ignore the what IS happening. As a result, we are contributing to a generation of people, lacking in the ability to learn through experience, assess and react to situations - including dangerous ones - independent of external forces, and who are sadly lacking in the ability to have fun through creation, imagination, and simply physical activity. Let children be children. Stop looking for a tragedy. Live in the moment. Temper the political correctness.

Jobs | July 17