Towards the end of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century five successive and distinct phases or fashions in playground design can be recognized within the UK:
constructed boat-shaped swings, ‘Witches Hat’ roundabouts and crash stop plank see-saws, all within a tasteful assemblage of formal flowerbeds, fountains, muzzle-loading cannon on plinths by the bandstand, surrounded by wrought iron gates and railings.
2 Social and Natural. The period 1920-49 saw, largely in southern England and the Home Counties, a brief burgeoning of aspirational sports investment, with tennis courts, pools, lidos and bowling greens. World War Two consigned much of the ironmongery and the ground staff to assist the war effort and through a process of neglect, coupled with a growth in spectator sports, fields and pitches were the major areas of provision and improvement in the 1950s, prior to selling off portions for housing and similar developments.
3 Scrapyard, 1950-70. As in so many other ways the Scandinavian countries drove playground fashion within this period with their development of Adventure and Craft play centres which in England largely consisted of concrete pipes under mounds, railway sleeper forts and knotted ropes hanging from trees. These were potentially high risk situations that appear to have produced few injuries, while apparently justifying the next phase. An absence of playleaders in British playgrounds effectively removed a major element from the best European practice, but the development of ‘urban farms’ in some centres partially compensated for this.
4 Supersafe, 1970 and after. From the 1970s onwards there has been a major development of interest in inspection services and safety surfaces. Some part of this priority change was a natural and justified response to campaigning on behalf of children who had sustained quite devastating injuries due to neglect or negligence, but these developments can otherwise be seen as being driven by what is often described as a litigious society seeking substantial compensation for minor injuries.
5 Play for all. Inclusive Play – the pattern was set by the development of special playgrounds
for disabled children in London which, with discretion, admitted siblings and others without impairments. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) endorsed and carried forward this philosophy while encouraging bolder and more ambitious provision of services for all upon an integrated basis. Currently the move is against specific provision for any minority interests and there are substantial funds in place to improve facilities overall.
From the Empire-sustaining challenges of Victoria’s Jubilee parks to the Sputnik and moon rocket inspired play equipment of more recent times, community values and priorities have shaped play provision. The same considerations apply today and, whether starting from scratch, adding a new item or embarking on a full refurbishment and improvement programme, the first step should be to consult the community as a whole and seek to identify and reflect community values while, where necessary, reconciling diverse or contradictory aspirations.3