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14.02.2020 - Ausgabe: 1/2020

From the universe to the fairy-tale-castle into the jungle and back

By Dr. Darijana Hahn

© Dr. Darijana Hahn

When the Russian philosopher Svetlana Boym came back to Leningrad in 1999, she could hardly find again what had once been so characterising of her childhood, those sputniks made of tubular steel, those playground devices which could be found on every and any playground in those times. The rockets, which used to serve as climbing scaffolds were an expression of the pride the Soviet Union felt based on the fact that in 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first man on the moon, ahead even of America. Now, the Soviets' urge to explore the universe wouldn't know any limits. That is why it was even noticeable on playgrounds. 

While these steel tube rockets, which once were so characteristic, seemed to have been swallowed up by the earth at least in Saint Petersburg and been replaced by castles and palaces made from coloured plastic material, increasing numbers of those rockets have recently been re-emerging in the so-called West.

Since the summer of 2017 the "Universe has hit the Park" in the city area of Luxembourg (2/2018) and in Düsseldorf children have been able to try and to find out "How to get to the stars" (www.cube-magazin.de/magazin/duesseldorf/artikel/auf-dem-weg-zu-den-sternen; 15 May 2019). And "intergalactic play fun" can be found for children in Hamburg-Harburg since October 2018.


Is this just pure coincidence? Is there any apparent trend towards the outer space? And if so, what exactly is the message?

Regardless of whether this is a real trend or not, rocket devices at playgrounds provide a good opportunity to pay some attention to the design of playgrounds in general.

Despite all variety, there is obviously a visible trend that, most of the time, playgrounds are focused on specific topics, from the fire brigade to the knight's castle and to the jungle.

Especially the latter is becoming increasingly popular. Hence, you will hardly find a town without a jungle playground.  In Berlin, there is at least one in Berlin Steglitz, in Saarbrücken it is the climbing jungle which invites the children to experience exciting adventures and in Hamburg there are even two jungle playgrounds (one in Lindenpark in the district of Altona and one in Steilshoop).


However, the jungle and the universe are two topics which could hardly be more diverse. On the one hand there is diversity, on the other hand it might show the internal contradiction related to playgrounds as such since the very beginning.

While on the one hand the playground is considered to provide children with offerings which they otherwise would not have, it is, at the same time, often looked at as kind of compromise solution with the aim to substitute lost natural play areas. However, playgrounds already existed when there was no such lost room to be replaced which in turn means that a playground is much more than a compromise solution. Playgrounds help to express ideas created by the society with regard to the education of their children.

So it is no wonder that the history of the playground goes back to the Age of Enlightenment when pedagogy became a scientific discipline. 


At the very beginning, the main purpose of a playground was similar to what we call "kindergarten", that is to say joint public education.

It was the playground where children used to meet. At that time, design elements did not yet play any role. First and foremostly, it was a matter of protection against those risks, children would be exposed to if they played in other ways, as for instance the theologian and pedagogue Peter Villaume (1746 - 1806) explained in one of his publications:


"In each city and each district of major cities, there will be one free spacious square which has to be fenced up in such way that children are secure from horses and vehicles and even dogs. There will be one municipal representative to supervise the square and prevent damage and disorder as well as to encourage the children in case of emergency, suggest games and supervise them while they are playing" (cited in Hahn-Lotzing 2011, 33). 


According to a report about one of the first playgrounds in Germany, the focus was not only on the protection OF children, but also AGAINST them. The "Lübeckischen Blätter" (newsletter of the German city of Lübeck), for instance, reported in January 1827 that the city council had established something better than a ballroom, that is to say an appropriate, well-equipped playground for children." Although the Lübeckischen Blätter did not provide any detailed description about the playground, they were very enthused about this innovative facility because it was the public playground which made it possible to keep children away from playing on public roads (Lübeckische Blätter 1827, 2:18). However, this prohibition only made sense because now the children had their own play area.


It was the common objective of all parties involved in the playground initiative of the 19th century to provide the children and youngsters with more appropriate play areas than public roads and yards used so far.

In Hamburg, for instance, a merger between several civic associations submitted an application for playgrounds to the Senate on the grounds that children would otherwise revert to wilderness as long as they depend on playing on public city roads and squares (cited by Hahn-Lotzing, 2011:40).

As shown by the study of the Danish social politician Hans Dragehjelm about "children playing in the sand", it was already in 1909 when many German cities established their first urban playgrounds.  Dragehjelm urged all cities without playgrounds to "create an as healthy pastime as that provided by playing with sand".

While up to then there had mainly been talk of so-called open spaces without describing them in more detail, Dragehjelm already brought into play a classical playground element, namely sand. 


However, it can no longer be reconstructed if there was anybody playing with sand outside beach areas. What is certain is that the international scientific research refers to the so-called German “sand gardens” which had been taken over by other countries, such as the USA or Japan www.pgpedia.com/s/sand-gardens, 15 May 2019.

In addition, devices of all kind which can somehow also be related with playgrounds can first and foremostly be attributed to the so-called famous Turnvater Jahn (a German Gymnastics educator) who established a public gym field at Berlin Hasenheide, where climbing walls and dangle arches invited to exercise.

Until today his idea still lives on in manifold ways and all kinds of playground devices on which children can practise gymnastics and train their body coordination.


Specific playground devices, such as swings, merry-go-rounds and slides have, however, their own story. They lead us to the parks of the nobility where leisure activities were provided in natural surroundings. When these parks, which were once the exclusive preserve of nobility, were finally opened to the commoners in the middle of the 18th century, everybody got access to those noble leisure devices. What once had led to creating amusement parks such as the Prater Park or Tivoli Gardens, first enriched some restaurants on a very small scale and was finally also established on playgrounds.


However, it took a long time until the dangle arch, merry-go-round and swing were present on playgrounds. Long before the existence of the present over-prescriptive approach and the frequently cited Helicopter Parents, many other concerns had to be resolved.

Although, for instance, the Hamburg Senate approved the a. m. application of the civic associations in 1885 to establish playgrounds, the installation of "light gymnastic apparatus" was rejected due to the fact that they would need a permanent expert testing and maintenance (cited in Hahn-Lotzing, 2011: 39).

Even 70 years later, there were still concerns regarding the devices. In 1954, the Municipal Parks Department of Essen, for instance, rejected devices, such as merry-go-rounds, seesaws, high climbing scaffolds and concentric running facilities "as they could easily cause accidents". Only sand pits, low balancing logs, jumping posts, horizontal bars up to 1.40 metre high, low climbing animals, small slides made of iron tubes (Garten und Landschaft 1954,13) were deemed acceptable.


According to various sources, in the 1960s, finally most playgrounds had been equipped with all kinds of devices. Contemporary literature about playgrounds shows an abundance of play facilities. The trade journal "Garten und Landschaft (garden and landscape)", for instance, includes advertisements of play equipment manufacturers. The design variety already then went much further than what has often been argued since the 1970s: namely that most playgrounds were equipped by no more than the "Holy Trinity", consisting of slide, climbing scaffold and sand box. This is documented by photos from the responsible authorities www.dkhw.de/ueber-uns/geschichte/, 15-05-19.

The municipal archives of the environment authority in charge for playgrounds in Hamburg, for instance, show many individual playgrounds which often have artistically designed climbing sculptures or discarded vehicles, such as boats and busses. In addition, steel tube products, which were very popular in the 1960s, provide numerous possibilities for climbing. Besides, wooden climbing sculptures were at least equally popular on Hamburg's playgrounds.

While the playground was generally found to be good and regarded as important in the 1970s, in times of the general social transformation a public controversial discussion about playgrounds began and still continues today. 

When for instance Reinhard Witt (see Playground@Landscape 2/2017) demands playing areas close to nature (published in the 2/2017 issue of the trade magazine "Stadt und Grün" ), and to tear up the safety nets and chains of the play equipment industry into which we are lured by psychological tricks, his demand reveals criticism of devices of a long tradition. One of the countless examples can be found in the "critical playground dictionary", in which the following is cited under the heading "playground devices":


"That is how imagination and creativity as well as one's personal initiative and activity are suppressed while at the same time a passive consumerism - to use and consume - is being addressed. Boring playgrounds with playground equipment are hostile to communication and promote aggression" (cited in Hahn-Lotzing 2011, 62).


The massive criticism raised against playgrounds in the 1970s, in which playgrounds were often cited as ghettos, added impetus from outside which is still valid. One of the former innovations was for instance the use of wood as a basic material for playground devices. 

The company "Richter Spielgeräte", founded in 1967, was one of the first manufacturers choosing wood for the production of playground devices. First of all, because it is more pleasant for children to touch and feel than the steel tube material used until then and, secondly, because it is a material which provides more design opportunities for play sculptures.

In 1971, Richter describes the philosophy of their devices in an advertisement of "Garten und Landschaft".


"We could, of course, also create a scaffold from poles instead. But why should we do so, knowing that spaces and building structures which belong to a child make them very happy. In all houses and buildings of the town, regardless if private or others, the child has to behave according to the principles of adults, whereas in the child's towers or castle, hut or house they don't have to. These are the child's rooms. They are too small for adults and difficult to accede for them" (cited in Hahn-Lotzing, 2011 - 74).


From the 1990s onwards further trends have emerged, which characterise playgrounds in a sustainable way. Besides the popularity of rope play equipment, there is hardly any newly established playground without elements from black locust which is particularly popular in development areas where exclusively straight forms and shapes are predominant (see pictures 23 and 24). It is particularly here where playgrounds consisting of crooked stunted wooden devices represent the latest outcry, a silent yearning for more nature in settlements and civic environments. This timeless discomfort is, ultimately, what is being expressed by the popular jungle theme playground. The longing for nature and naturalness is hence just as old as the playground as such, the beginning of which leads back to the age of the Enlightenment, as stated above. With the increasing modernisation and mechanisation at the end of the 18th century, the longing for more homely times had already begun. Rousseau's call "Back to Nature" - fed up with modern civilisation - is the most popular example which is still true today.

While on the one hand the trend for more nature, a more homely life is constantly present, the need for progress is, on the other hand, timeless. It is not for nothing that there is a steadily increasing trend towards cities on the one hand while, on the other hand, infancy as such is more and more pedagogised.  There is hardly any child who is allowed to play "just so". Even if adults like to remember their own free childhood, they are always concerned about their children's future.

When playgrounds are planned under the motto "outer space" this is on the one hand - as aforementioned - an expression of the diversity of theme playgrounds. But on the other hand it could also be interpreted as a look ahead. While the jungle issue evokes nostalgia, outer space represents the idea of progress. Even more so in times when the number of real wild play areas aside from the artificial jungle playgrounds is constantly shrinking and living spaces are becoming increasingly dense. What could be more appropriate than saying: "Let's reach for the stars".



Bibliographic references:

Boym, Svetlana: The Future of Nostalgia. New York 2001.

Dragehjelm, Hans: Das Spielen der Kinder im Sande (Children playing in the sand). Leipzig 1909.

Hahn-Lotzing, Darijana: Spuren im Sand – oder: der Kinderspielplatz als Indikator der Gesellschaft ( Tracks in the sand – or – the playground as a society indicator). Aachen 2011. 

Spitzer, Klaus / Günter, Janne und Roland (Editor): Spielplatzhandbuch. Kritisches Lexikon (Playground Manual – A critical dictionary). Berlin 1975.








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