Are Playgrounds Ghettos for Children? A Brief History of Children’s Play and Playgrounds

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of content



A Brief History of Children’s Play and Playgrounds

Are Playgrounds Really Ghettos?

Playgrounds as a Mirror of Childhood in Western Society

Are Playground Ghettos for Children?



The goal of this paper is to answer the question, if it is legitimate to call playgrounds “ghettos for children”, as is often done in literature. Children’s play is an essential part of playgrounds, and therefore by looking at the history of the acceptance of children’s play, one can also see how children and their culture have been viewed in Western societies. By having a closer look at the term “ghetto“ as well as which attributes, according to some critics, these two places have (or do not have) in common, one can come to a solution why the term ”ghetto“ has often been misused and trivialized in this context.


When most people think about playgrounds they think of the „classic“ playground we all know, with a swing-set, a sandbox, a seesaw as well as a slide. These four ”S’s“ are standard on many playgrounds in the Western world. Even so, there are different forms and sizes; these indicators make playgrounds easily recognizable and different from the rest of the urban surroundings. They are separated and mostly unconnected to their surroundings in the urban sense.

It is conspicuous that although many child-related subjects are studied in academia, playgrounds raise so many pessimistic feelings in some parts of the academic community.

Why is there such an outcry about this topic? Playgrounds, places which supposed to be full of joy and delight, are at times compared with ghettos: restricted areas of control and suppression. As the US-American artist Denis Wood claims in his paper: Free The Children! Down With Playgrounds!

”Today’s playgrounds keep the kids not only out of adult places, but out of adult times. To be bIunt, the playground is a ghetto in which kids are kept, in all ways out of the way of adults (except for those few hired to watch them).“ (Wood, D. 1977: 235)

But are they really „ghettos“, places where a minority is separate from the rest of the community, or are they rather a sort of oasis, refuges in an otherwise hostile environment?

Playgrounds do not have a negative image in the wider community, but in particular scholarly circles, especially among educators, playgrounds have more and more been named ”ghettos“ for children.

Darijana Hahn-Lotzing states in her dissertation about playgrounds, that there are mostly just two types of literature about playgrounds after the Second World War. On the one hand, literature from planners about how to plan and build playgrounds, and on the other hand, from educators who criticize these playgrounds and write how make them better (2011).

But what are the reasons why playgrounds have been seen in such contrary ways? Some scholars even support getting rid of playgrounds all together. Like for example German (what is her job? it’d be good to say ”German architect, Inge Thomas..“ or planner, or whatever she is) Inge Thomas in her Pl ä doyer f ü r die Abschaffung des Kinderspielplatzes. (Thomas, I. 1980)

Later on I would like to have closer look at some of the arguments why playgrounds are supposedly ghettos for children, as well as what the reasons are behind this argument. In this section, I would like to include the various opinions from different areas of expertise. It must be noted that this essay mostly describes the history and conditions of European, North American and closely related cultures. Another point will be to clarify the term ”ghetto“ and see which of the characteristics may apply playgrounds.

But first, to better understand this debate I would like to make a excursion to the ”nature“ of playgrounds and with it the indispensable history of children's play. By asking the question: ”Are playgrounds natural?“, we will have a closer look at their development. It becomes more apparent by whom the critics of today and earlier periods have been influenced, and why they see playgrounds in particular ways. Although playing is not exclusively a domain for children, the focus of my paper will be on children up to the age of twelve. I will have a look at how greek philosophers viewed play, as well how the image of children’s play and therefore children has changed over the last millennium. Furthermore I would like to examine the discussion about playgrounds from a childhood studies perspective and see what this tells us about the acceptance of children in our Western society in general.

A Brief History of Children’s Play and Playgrounds

Are playgrounds natural? Of course this question can be answered easily: No, they are not. They are a recent ”invention“ and therefore not a natural part of our cities.

But what is natural? Are our Western cities natural, where we live with thousands and sometime millions of other people?

Playgrounds are like so many other things which surround us everyday: a development, an adaptation to our conditions and surroundings.

Perhaps one of the most natural phenomena, however, is children’s play. It has probably been around since the beginning of humankind and has been a topic of discussion since Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. (Lackner 2012:105):

”[…] bis zum Alter von fünf Jahren [...] sollen [die Kinder] soviel Bewegung erhalten, dass sie nicht körperlich träge werden. Tätigkeiten aller Art und besonders Spiel sollen ihnen diese Bewegung verschaffen […] dies alles soll den Weg für die späteren Beschäftigungen bahnen; deswegen soll Spiel zum größten Teil das, was man später ernsthaft betreibt, nachahmen.“ (Aristoteles, Politik VII,17. In: Ders., Politik 4: Buch 7 und 8.2005: 44)

Never the less, in earlier times no one apparently saw the necessity to build playgrounds. So what brought forth the conditions under which playgrounds ”grew“ in our urban surroundings? To understand this better, it is not only useful to see the development of ”childhood“ in general but also children and children’s play, and how they have been seen by contemporaries. As mentioned before, it has been a long debated subject for at least 2,300 years, but according to Darijana Hahn-Lotzing, the Bohemian-Moravian bishop Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), claimed, ” [ … ] herrschende Not des Kindes [ … ], die in den niedrigen St ä nden in der Form dumpfen Dahinvegetierend und in h ö heren St ä nden in Form grausamen Lernzwangs bestand [ … ] “ (Comenius(19921659 ):8). He is often noted in literature about playgrounds to be the individual who created the condition in which child’s play was more widely tolerated and finally lead to its acceptance by adults (ibid:30).

The difference between Comenius and earlier transcripts is that he introduced change in perspective. Instead of talking about what children should do, he rather pointed out their grievances, which can be interpreted as really seeing children’s needs.

Historian Hugh Cunningham applied this idea to the conditions of children’s work, and I would argue that it can be used in the same context:

”It followed from this that adults should not look on children in terms of how useful they might be to adults (nimble fingers and so on), but rather ask what adults could give to children to make their experience better.“ (Cunningham, H. 2003:111)

The changing perspective towards childhood was mostly formed in the social contract theory within the era of Enlightenment the 17th and 18th century by Britisch and French philosophers. Among others, the most prominent of these were Thomes Hobbes and Jean- Jacques Rousseau, with two very different approaches. One can recognize this as well in the modern discussion about playgrounds, which we will have a closer look at later.

Were they established to tether the wildness of the child? To control them in the sense of Thomas Hobbes, the Puritan, who believed that humans are born unpure and evil (Montgomery 2003:61). Or, are children born innocent and there is a need for this innocence to be protected as long as possible, as Rousseau saw it (Montgomery 2003:66)

In the 1778 published book, Emile by Rousseau, he talks about the ideal upbringing of a boy and emphasizes natural education and play. These ideas set standards in education until today. (Montgomery 2003: 66).

Rousseau wrote:

”[…] every village boy of twelve knows how to use a lever better than the cleverest mechanician in the academy. The lessons the scholars learn from one another in the playground are worth a hundredfold more than what they learn in the class-room.“ (Rousseau 1762:250)

Even though, Rousseau is not talking about a playground, like we know them today, he clearly sees a lot of potential in playing (preferably in nature) and experimental discoveries. He sees playing as the most natural and best form of learning, and believes as well that children can teach each other. In their writing about children's play, educators Sigrid Brandstätter and Alexander Frisch claim that Rousseau is responsible for giving children the right to play and sees it as a form of child's expression:

Seit Rousseau wird das Spiel nicht nur geduldet, sondern als ein ureigenstes Recht des Kindes angesehen. Rousseau (1762) war der Erste, der die Kinder nicht als „kleine Erwachsene“ sah, sondern als vollständige Menschen mit Gefühlen und Erwartungen an das Leben, die es verdienen, ernst genommen zu werden. Ihm war es wichtig, dass Spiel Spiel bleibt und nicht in Arbeit ausartet. Rousseau hat den Grundstein für eine Kinderforschung gelegt, welche die Tätigkeiten des Kindes, u. a. das Spielen, als bedeutende Ausdrucksform menschlichen Lebens begreift.“ (Brandstätter/ Frisch 2000:4)

Undeniably Rousseau had a large influence on how we understand children and their needs and is still idealized today. But his ideals also lead to an increased separation between children and adults, by praising the innocent child, which is practically perfect in its natural status.

Only a few years later the German-Huguenot theologians and pedagogues Peter Villaume (1746- 1806) presented the idea of a special play area for children:

”In jeder Stadt, in jedem Viertel der größeren Städten wird ein freier, geräumiger Platz sein, der so verzäunt sein muss, dass die Kinder vor Pferden und Wagen und allenfalls auch vor Hunden, wenn man will, sicher sind. […] Ein Vertreter der Stadt führt hier Aufsicht, um allen Schaden und alle Unordnung zu verhüten und im Notfall die Kleinen aufzumuntern, ihnen Spiele vorzuschlagen und ihre Vergnügungen zu dirigieren“ (Villaume 1793 quoted in Spuren im Sand 2011:33)

According to Hahn-Lotzing, this disproves the idea heard by so often by critics, that the recent development of cities led to the necessity of playgrounds.


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Are Playgrounds Ghettos for Children? A Brief History of Children’s Play and Playgrounds
Free University of Berlin  (Fachbereich Erziehungswissenschaften uns Pychologie)
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Childhood, Playgrounds
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Anna Jens (Author), 2014, Are Playgrounds Ghettos for Children? A Brief History of Children’s Play and Playgrounds, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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