A typical American playground is easy to picture: a swing set, monkey bars, a plastic slide, maybe a low-level jungle gym. But imagine a playground made of rainbow nylon cord crocheted into a massive hammock-like construction. Or one where kids can hammer nine-penny nails into junkyard forts and slap paint onto loose pieces of piping.
These two playgrounds exist — the former in Japan and the latter in Berkeley, Calif. — and are being highlighted in the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibit at the Boston Society of Architects, along with 38 other imaginative play spaces. The exhibit aims to inspire the design of playgrounds without standard, mass-produced equipment, and includes the installation of two new playgrounds in Boston. The show runs through Sept. 5 at the society’s BSA Space, at 290 Congress St.
“We need to create spaces for unstructured and challenging play that are more than just the post-and-platform model,” said Sam Aquillano, director of the nomadic Design Museum Foundation, which curated the show. “Play should be imaginative, it should have some element of controlled danger. We’re not advocating that kids should get hurt, but that they should fall down and get back up. The risk of falling is good, and it’s an important theme in the exhibition.”
That risk has been largely eliminated from American playgrounds. Several high-profile head injuries led to the introduction of government safety guidelines in 1981 that spelled doom for many merry-go-rounds, sandboxes, and treehouses.
In her book “The Science of Play” architectural historian Susan G. Solomon argues that the uniformity of current playgrounds is actually a hazard. “These kids have no capacity to make judgments when they face situations that have not been engineered,” Solomon wrote.
The result is that today’s playgrounds often bear some similarity to highway rest stops; you could be in Cincinnati or San Diego, and it would be hard to tell the difference. Solomon made gloomy pronouncements in her book.“The equipment is predictable and demeaning. Almost any child can maneuver easily on it,” she wrote. “No kids can really alter the environment. There is little chance that anyone will ever have a scraped knee or bruised elbow, minor injuries that used to indicate that a child had tried something new. . . . Kids are not trusted to produce their own bliss.”
The BSA exhibit touches on this in its detailed timeline, and in several informational panels, one titled “Barriers to Play,” which lists some common reasons why American children aren’t playing as much as they used to: socioeconomic obstacles, accessibility, scheduled activities, safety concerns of parents or caretakers, the decline of recess time, and, of course, too much screen time.
But on the whole, the exhibit takes a more optimistic tone. It highlights playgrounds that are exceptions to the rule, and reasons why play is important for children’s mental, physical, creative, and social health. The hope is to inspire better-designed playgrounds and spaces, Aquillano said, rather than dwell on the current dearth.
The exhibit is doing more than just inspiring: it’s bringing new playgrounds to the Boston area, one on City Hall Plaza, opened on June 13; another in Chinatown Park, opened May 19 at the southern end of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Neither looks like your average play area. The City Hall playground includes three semi-pyramidal structures with strong rubber treads, and springy artificial turf. In Chinatown, kids can climb onto (and through, and under) bright orange and green PlayCubes, which are dodecahedrons — three-dimensional shapes with 12 faces — which are stacked into strange formations.
“PlayCubes allow for unprescribed play in an urban environment, which is rare,” Aquillano said. “They don’t guide you in a specific direction, so kids can be creative about how they use them.”
This proved true on a recent Friday morning, when seven young children experimented with the PlayCubes in Chinatown Park. One boy was sitting in his as if in a hammock. A girl was attempting to climb up a slide attached to one of the formations. Another boy was poking his head out of one of the cubes while maneuvering his feet through another.
The PlayCubes will stay in Chinatown Park even after the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibit moves on. In September, the exhibit will move to Portland, Ore., and then San Francisco and Chicago over a two-year period. The playscape in City Hall Plaza will stay in Boston, but will move to an area in Roslindale that currently lacks a playground.
Boston was actually the birthplace of American playgrounds — the first sandpile appeared in the yard of a North End chapel in 1885 — but now the city’s playing catch-up.
Katherine Levesque started working for the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in March as its first “play coordinator.” Levesque said, “Boston is relatively new at this, just as they’re relatively new in the fields of contemporary art and, well, coming into the 21st century with everybody else.” Still, she said, the city and its residents are making progress. “Having a playground in City Hall Plaza is a big jump. It puts play literally in the city’s front yard.”
Designer Mitch Ryerson, who is featured in the BSA show for designing the Kemp Playground, on Cambridge Common, said that he has been busy lately. Ryerson brings his original craft, boat building, into his playground work through his use of wood. He has designed playgrounds in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Watertown. “Ten years ago, playgrounds all looked the same, in this cookie-cutter manufactured style,” Ryerson said. “Boston is doing really well now at making people aware of the importance of natural space, and space that kids can really explore in a creative way. Design can foster that sense of exploration.”
At Boston Society of Architects, 290 Congress St., through Sept. 5. 617-391-4000. www.architects.org/bsaspace/exhibitions/extraordinary-playscapes