• For the kids

    From ‘Junk’ to ‘Nature Play’: the evolution of the Modern Playground

Think back to your childhood and picture this – moving moving across the monkey bars, racing your friends to the top of the jungle gym, perhaps you were a sandpit fan? With this play came laughter, games, scrapes and bruises, but most importantly it framed our childhoods. 

Modern playgrounds have become a symbol of our youth, our creativity and our children’s development. They have evolved from inner city bare concrete to some of the most thrilling activity centres imaginable, and on that, we have prepared a little history of playgrounds through the ages.


Teaching children through play


It’s widely acknowledged that the first dedicated playground was built in in 1859 in Manchester, England. Although the idea and theory behind these grounds was developed in Germany more than a decade earlier, educator Henry Barnard designed the original outdoor play space as an extension of the classroom. His intention was to create a practical environment where children could learn and develop skills through play. His depiction showed children, surrounded by educators, exploring their space, playing games, building blocks, swinging and climbing. He’d meticulously studied pedagogy and saw the notion of the playground as the perfect complement to a child’s development.


By any means necessary – keeping the kids occupied


It took nearly half a century for his ideas to really pick up steam and playgrounds began to pop up all over cities around the world. Inner city streets became increasingly less safe for the often-unsupervised children of the city. The lucky few were privy to some spectacular playgrounds, full of swings, see-saws, carousels and slides. For many, it was a dedicated area filled with half-baked, usually unsafe constructs designed with the sole purpose of keeping the children out of the way, the trouble was, embracing the materials of the industrial age, the equipment often led to  major injuries.


The iconic 'swing' began to appear across playgrounds before to WWII.

The iconic ‘swing’ began to appear across playgrounds before World War II.


Post World War II – the adventure playground


Danish landscape architect C. Th. Sorensen started to notice that children didn’t want to be in his playgrounds – they wanted to explore, create and move freely anywhere but in a confined playground. How could he create an environment that both attracted and retained the children, kept them engaged and out of the way? He designed the “junk playground”. Using, just as its name suggests, junk and recycled rubbish these areas were designed to engage children creatively using the natural urban surrounds.

As World War II came to a close, Lady Allen of Hurtwood discovered these gems and recreated the “adventure playground”. This idea spread like wildfire throughout Europe and Lady Allen even designed special accessible playgrounds for children with disabilities. These playgrounds became more and more popular and some are still around today.


Novelty to Safety – how safety regulations changed design


Over the years, designers started to edge their way back into children’s play and some of the most creative playgrounds began to pop up. Steering away from the traditionally structured grounds, designers started to build imaginary worlds through the creativity of their structures. Jungle gyms shaped like animals, giant colourful rockets (Sydney-siders will remember enthralling playgrounds such as the Rocket Park in Centennial Park) gave playgrounds new life, and children playing there, playful incentives to play and learn outside.

Sadly, many of these structures were deemed unsafe for children, and by the eighties, a lot of these novelty parks were being torn down to accommodate the burgeoning safety regulations. This coupled with the onset of computer games and indoor play, saw a decline in outdoor creative play.


Many playgrounds still feature novelty colours and shapes inspired by the playgrounds of the seventies and eighties

Many playgrounds still feature novelty colours and shapes inspired by the playgrounds of the seventies and eighties


Architecturally marvellous– turning sculpture into play


In recent years, there has been a real push towards creating engaging spaces for our children to play and learn. In order to fit in with the safety regulations, designers and architects have created some of the most innovative, accessible and interesting playgrounds. Playgrounds are now designed to include water features, brightly coloured equipment, and contemporary art. Each piece created with a unique purpose, to challenge and engage children.


Three playgrounds at Centennial Parklands offer this kind of experience, with features like interactive climbing frames, a Liberty Swing (a swing system that allows access by kids who use wheelchairs) and we recently installed a durable softfall material to make them more accessible and a little safer.


The Liberty Swing in Centennial  Park

The Liberty Swing in Centennial Park


The latest and greatest development in this story, is of course, where intelligent architectural design meets the school of nature play – creating spaces where children can get their hands dirty, build cubbies and run through forests and natural creek beds… A playground where children can really run ‘wild’. And guess what? A space like this is about to open in Centennial Park!


Nature play theory is about connecting children with their surrounds

Nature play theory focusses on connecting children with their environment


WILD PLAY is coming…


Centennial Parklands is counting down the days to the launch of the Ian Potter Children’s WILD PLAY Garden. The $4 million dollar Garden is currently being constructed in Centennial Park, adjacent to the Education Precinct, opening this spring for children aged between 2 and 12 years of age.

We recently gave a sneak peek of the new treehouse, which will feature in the Garden among giant boulders, bamboo thickets and water features to emulate a natural environment (with loads of extra pizzazz) so that kids can really test their boundaries.

Keep an eye on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds for updates on the project, as well as right here on the blog.


We're on facebook

Similar Articles

  • Sydney’s best playgrounds for kids of all ages

    Playgrounds allow kids to have fun, relax and explore their mental and physical abilities in a safe place. Sydney is one of the most kid-friendly cities in Australia with so many great play areas to enjoy over summer on a family day out. Not all playgrounds are alike, some focus on water play, nature play […]

  • Summer school holiday programs for Sydney kids

    Summer is finally here and keeping the kids entertained for six whole weeks during school holidays can seem like a daunting task. Luckily, there are tons activities for all interests and age groups around Sydney. Here are a few of our favourite fun and educational ways kids can spend summer. #1 Summer science programs in Centennial […]

  • Sydney’s kids go wild for WILD PLAY!

    The Ian Potter Children’s WILD PLAY Garden in Centennial Park is proving a hit with the kids of Sydney. Over the past week, children and their families from right across Sydney made their way to the Garden, which is designed to be an outdoor learning experience for kids of all abilities and backgrounds. It is made […]

  • Cubbies and nature quests – all the highlights from Outdoor Classroom Day

    A mass of grinning little faces descended upon Centennial Park last Thursday for international Outdoor Classroom Day. The special day had hundreds of school-aged children learning ways to reconnect with nature while playing outside and Centennial Parklands’ experienced ‘nature play’ educators were on the ground to lead the way! There were sensory games, trails to follow […]