From Sand Lots to Play Dates Trends in Play and Playgrounds

Sixty years ago, work and play were very different. A majority of women remained in the home, in both urban and suburban settings. The mostly male heads of households went off to work, and children went off to school and play. Since then, a lot has changed—and that includes how and where kids amuse themselves. While earlier generations might have rounded up the kids in the neighborhood for a (largely unsupervised) game of after school sandlot ball, the 1960s ushered in a more organized playing field—quite literally. Coinciding with the entry of more women into the regular workforce, extended school hours and after-school programs, Little Leagues, and other supervised sports programs provided kids with not just fun and exercise, but a structured form of child care.

These programs provided an alternative to the 'latchkey kid'—the child left home alone during the hours between the end of school and the parents' typical work day. Instead of a spontaneous game or free playtime in the neighborhood, children were soon scheduled for play dates at a time when busy parents could coordinate and supervise the activities. And as the how’s and where’s of child’s play changed, so did the playgrounds and play equipment.

Playgrounds are in the minds of Chicagoans more than ever now, thanks to the March 2013 launch of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's “Chicago Plays” playground renovation project. The initiative is a joint collaboration with The Chicago Park District and the Park Advisory Councils that aims to replace old and unsafe playground equipment and renovate grounds with new play pieces at more than 300 parks city-wide. The program hopes to reach its goal in five years.

Beyond Galvanized Metal

Up until about the mid-1980s, playground equipment at parks and schoolyards looked pretty similar; most of it was constructed of galvanized metal, and a typical playground included a slide or two, swing sets, monkey bars, a merry-go-round, and maybe a sandbox. A community playground might be set up in a grassy or sandy lot to soften falls and help prevent childhood injuries, but asphalt was also a common surface, particularly for school yards and public recreation centers.

While galvanized metal was undeniably durable, it also got freezing cold in the winter and frying-pan hot in the summer. The pieces were bolted together, sometimes creating rough or protruding edges that could cut or snag a child, and those same bolts required regular maintenance to ensure proper structural integrity.

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