Posted by Torben
Traveling with children is hard work. Everything takes longer, everything is more stressful. And that's before you figure out what you're going to do with them when you get there. Berlin offers plenty of options, from Legoland to two big zoos, but you don't have to fly to Germany to see exotic animals or admire elaborate lego creations. Berlin does, however, hold one attraction that's become hard to find in the US: cool playgrounds.
A couple of years ago, while back on suburban Long Island where I grew up, I happened upon the local public playground that it had been such a treat to visit as a kid, the ambitiously named Rocketship Park (located in the village of Port Jefferson). The experience was devastating. The playground had been turned into a padded abomination of boring, a place where it was both impossible to hurt yourself and impossible to have fun.
The Rocketship Park of my childhood boasted a huge rocketship you could climb up with a slide about halfway up to the top. The new Rocketship Park also has a rocket with a slide (two slides, actually), but it's small and stupid. Then there is some sort of pirate ship construction, which could be cool if the nets and rope ladders hanging down extended more than two feet off the ground. Said ground, by the way, is light blue composite rubber and looks like it was intended for the “time out” room at a mental hospital.
Now, first impressions can be deceiving: based on photographic evidence, I'm forced to concede that maybe the original rocketship was not quite as big as I remember it. Also, a rocketship? According to Wikipedia, Cold War-era playground equipment was “intended to foster children's curiosity and excitement about the Space Race” and a means whereby “nuclear weapons were made intelligible in, and transposable to, a domestic context.” This is true, by the way, for both the West and Eastern Bloc countries. So much for the unalloyed innocence of my childhood. And that pirate ship thing is apparently wheelchair-accessible, not the worst thing in a world where, at most playgrounds, the wheelchair-bound are entirely excluded.
Those qualifications notwithstanding, however, I can say with confidence that Berlin has the superior playground scene. First of all, playgrounds here are plentiful. Berlin has 1,858 of them – that's more than three times as many as Paris. Second, many of them are relatively new, and an effort is made at upkeep (in the current fiscal year, Berlin is spending 32 million Euros to fix up and improve 101 playgrounds as well as 38 day care centers). Third and most importantly, many of them are fun!
As Anna Winger has written in the New York Times: “Guided by what most German parents consider a healthy chance for children to mitigate risk in the interest of developing selbstständigkeit, self-sufficiency — or what some American parents might deem a total lack of concern for child safety — playgrounds here are physically challenging and ambitious in design. […] Public space in Germany is not held hostage by liability lawsuits; Berlin playgrounds are not designed by lawyers. Thus they offer an opportunity for exploration that is, well — playful. It’s enough to make some of my American visitors, many who admit to being helicopter parents (one friend giddily describes herself as a Black Hawk) — weak at the knees.”
In this spirit, many Berlin playgrounds, right in the middle, will have a big, friggin' rock! Also, many of the attractions are hard to use: there's no ramp or steps or ladder leading up to the top of the slide, instead you have to climb and crawl, balance and strain for the pay-off. (And things can go wrong. One of the playground staples that I remember most fondly from childhood visits to Germany is the zipline: you pull the attached rope to the top of a ramp, wrap yourself around it (there's a little disc at the bottom that functions as a miniature seat), hold on tight, and slide on a steel cable until you're stopped abruptly, inertia yanking you into the air. I was convinced my three-year-old son would love this as much as I did, but miscalculated his speed. Happily, my son held on tight and was not launched into the abyss. Still, he refused to go near the thing for many months after.)
German playgrounds, in short, are designed to encourage physical activities that entail some level of risk. This is based on the assumption that risk-taking is necessary for the development of certain motor skills – and that acquiring these motor skills ultimately reduces the risk of accident and injury. And kids need to be cajoled into physical activity: a longterm study of German children has found that the motor skills of kids today are 10% weaker than in the 1970s.
Of course, lack of exercise among children is not a uniquely German phenomenon. But Germany compares poorly in this regard with the United States. A recent WHO study found that, globally, 85% of girls and 78% of boys do not get the one hour of physical activity per day the WHO recommends. Germany does worse than the global average, with 88% of girls and 80% of boys getting too little exercise. The figures for the United States, on the other hand, are 81% for girls, 64% for boys.
Moreover, apart from health concerns, the need for public playgrounds is more widespread in densely populated Germany. Even in suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas, backyards are tiny compared with the US. And in a country with a low birth rate that is not very child-friendly, playgrounds are a place where kids are allowed to play without the risk of reproach.
Playgrounds, in other words, play a complex social role in Germany (and especially in a big city like Berlin). The development of motor skills is one thing, but it's not sufficient for playgrounds to consist of glorified exercise equipment: play and exercise may overlap, but they're not the same. Thus Berlin's playgrounds sport houses and boats and airplanes you can climb onto or into and that are great for role-playing. They have swings that accommodate more that one child so that kids not used to sharing with a brother or sister can learn to play together. Many playgrounds have water features, where the kids themselves pump the water and are in control of where it flows: it can be dammed and rerouted or power little mills. Ultimately, though, the water ends up on the sandy ground to produce another great playground attraction: mud.
The sandbox, of course, distinguishes itself from other playground staples (slide, swing, see-saw) in that there is no one “right” way to play with sand. This, experts note, should be the ambition of playgrounds: to foster creativity, to encourage children to decide for themselves how to play, rather than having a “proper” use dictated to them. This idea is not new. As early as the 1930s, the designer Isamo Noguchi tried to convince New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to build Play Mountain, a playground without any equipment where the landscaping alone would afford opportunities for play.
It seems that, generally, the period from the 1940s through the 1970s was a time of rich experimentation when it came to playgrounds. In 1943, in the middle of World War II, the first “junk playground” was established on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Kids built their own equipment out of junkyard materials with little to no oversight. The so-called skrammellegepladsen was the forerunner of “adventure playgrounds.” These were only established in Germany in the 1970s, in part as an outgrowth of the social progressivism we associate with 1968.
But for all the creativity and joyful experimentation that went into the design of playgrounds in the decades following World War II, their widespread establishment was a double-edged sword. In a way, they were a manifestation of what one playground designer has called (and the term is of course highly problematic) the “ghettoization” of children. In Germany, everyone is familiar with stories of their grandparents playing amidst the rubble of bombed out cities. Designated playgrounds, happily, replaced the rubble. But then these playgrounds came to be seen not only as a place to play, but as the only place to play.
Some theorists have suggested that the goal should be to get rid of playgrounds altogether. Instead, the city as a whole should become so child-friendly as to make playgrounds unnecessary. For all my dismay at the transformation of the Rocketship Park of my childhood, I was not dependent on public playgrounds on suburban Long Island. Instead, we played in the backyards and the woods of our neighborhood, and we were restricted in our movement only insofar as we had to be home in time for dinner. Or else.
Which brings us to the great enemy of avantgarde playground designers: parents.
In Berlin, it is not unusual for parents to outnumber the children at playgrounds. They are places where moms and dads can meet and have a cup of coffee (in Covid times especially), and where the children (ideally) will entertain themselves. Contemporary playgrounds aren't, as they were in the past, just for the working-class – a place kids could hang out while their parents were at work. All children go to the playground, and they are always under the observation of their parents.
By the 1980s, playground experimentation had ended. Many that were especially creative were shut down out of safety or (in the US) liability concerns. And playgrounds were built in such a way that parents could always overlook their entire expanse. One of the cutting-edge playgrounds the architect Richard Dattner designed in the 1970s for New York featured a low wall to at least symbolically separate parents from children. Now kids (literally) had no place to hide.
I think some of what was lost in the last several decades has returned to the playgrounds of Berlin. Earth mounds to hide behind, tubes to crawl through, climbing structures to jump (or fall) off of, mud to ruin your clothes in: it's a child's dream, if a parent's nightmare. Still, I'm grateful for the proliferation of playgrounds in the city, and for their variety. To see your kid have fun – well, skinned knees and muddy jeans seem like a small price to pay.