There is a picture by the American photographer Helen Levitt (1913 - 2009) that has always remained with my imagination. Taken in 1940, it is an image of 5 boys playing high atop an abandoned doorway in New York. Though the children could easily be hurt if they fell from their perch, these children are having the time of their young lives. With skinned knees and plenty of daring, these little pirates have created a playground from their imagination and city streets. Levitt was famous for her many marvelous photographs of children at play.
The image reminds me of some of the crazy things I did as a kid — climbing on roofs, climbing to the top of really tall trees, swinging from ropes, walking underground through sewers, hopping freight trains — you name it, I did it. It wasn’t that the kids of my block were poor or deprived. We had nice swings and sliding boards at the local school playground. It’s just that we preferred to invent our playgrounds out of the things we could find and invent. We preferred to ratchet up our play for the adrenalin rush — something a playground swing long quit doing, no matter how high you could go.
The following images begin with make-do playgrounds (as in the photographs by Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others), but are followed by some unique and creative playground structures, some of which are mid-century modernist designs. As these images attest, playground equipment can be as simple as a tractor tire or mimic the amorphic abstraction of Jean Arp. So whether you are a landscape architect, a designer or just an inventive kid, all that really matters boils down to one simple question: do children like to play on it?