Designed for Play: Children’s playgrounds and the politics of urban space

by | Jul 11, 2024 | General, New Historical Perspectives, RHS Publications | 0 comments



To coincide with the release of his new book — Designed for Play. Children’s Playgrounds and the Politics of Urban Space, 1840–2010Jon Winder considers the complex and revealing history of the children’s playground and the wider social, political and environmental concerns such spaces were intended to address.

Jon’s book, published on 11 July, is the 18th title in the Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series for early career historians, published by University of London Press.

As with all books in the series, Designed for Play is available in print and as a free open access download.




In January 1858, Charles Dickens launched the Playground and Recreation Society in London. Dickens hoped that the organisation would create dedicated play spaces for poor children, away from the temptations and evils he felt that children encountered in the street. A year later, parliament passed the Recreation Grounds Act which specifically permitted the creation of playgrounds for children.

This combination of high-profile advocacy and enabling legislation may seem like the obvious starting point for a process that has resulted in more than 26,000 children’s playgrounds across the UK today. However, by May 1860 the Playground and Recreation Society had unceremoniously folded and few public spaces in London included dedicated recreation grounds for children. Elsewhere the picture was similarly mixed. Several gender-segregated playgrounds had been created in Salford and Manchester in the 1840s, while conversely a small number of public parks barred children from entering altogether.


Gymnasia and playground of the Home and Colonial Infant School, London, wood engraving, c.1840, Wellcome Collection, Public Domain.


From this inauspicious start, my new book — Designed for Play. Children’s Playgrounds and the Politics of Urban Space, 1840–2010 — charts the rationale, form and function of children’s playgrounds over the course of almost two centuries.

The book provides new perspectives on the histories and geographies of childhood, welfare, philanthropy, education, nature, landscape and urban design. The playground has seldom been explicitly endorsed by central government and as a result Designed for Play draws on the dispersed archives of philanthropic, municipal, commercial and voluntary actors to highlight the convoluted journey of the playground: from obscurity to popular ubiquity and back towards a place of somewhat aimless eccentricity in the twenty-first century.



In tracking the ideas and actions that have sought to direct children’s playfulness, we find that the playground has long acted as a site where social, political and environmental values have been played out and contested.

In the 1890s, the philanthropic reformers created children’s garden gymnasiums, segregated by age and gender, in the poorer districts of London. By the 1920s, manufacturers such as Charles Wicksteed & Co. were selling robust, metal swings and slides to municipal authorities who were intent on facilitating children’s carefree and energetic play away in parks and on housing estates.

During the mid-twentieth century, the National Playing Fields Association did much to promote standardised playground provision and actively campaigned against children playing in the street. At the same time, modernist architects and landscape designers experimented with the ideal playground form as they created the architecture of the welfare state.

From the 1970s, sociological research, anarchic thinking and the adventure playground movement all challenged conventional playground thought and practice. By the turn of the century, playgrounds were increasingly presented as a problem to be solved, often sites of danger and decay rather than childhood possibility.

The long history of the playground provides a unique example of shifting welfare interventions in the urban environment.


Gymnasia for Parks, Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss Ltd, 1912, National Archives, WORKS/16/1705.


Throughout this story, the term ‘playground’ has proved sufficiently flexible to accommodate changing attitudes to childhood and diverse play space forms. At the same time, such spaces have proved to be a useful site for exploring the wider historical themes and their impact on the built environment. From landscape architect Fanny Wilkinson and psychologist Mabel Jane Reany to campaigner Marjory Allen and sociologist Margaret Willis, the playground has been associated with pioneering women who reimagined and redefined spaces for play.

The long history of the playground also provides a unique example of shifting welfare interventions in the urban environment. A diverse set of actors across philanthropic, voluntary, municipal and commercial arenas have all sought to influence the built form of cities, ostensibly to shape children’s health and wellbeing, while also seeking to address urban and imperial anxieties, generate profit and gain political capital.


Slides in Wicksteed Park, Wicksteed Park Archives, c.1920, uncatalogued.


Seemingly novel calls for the reintroduction of nature into cities and the creation of wilder childhoods have a long and complex history.

In twenty-first century Britain, the politics of the playground are far from settled. It seems obvious to state that children play in playgrounds, but they are far from the only place where children play. High profile campaigns, including Make Space for Girls and Playing Out, continue to contest historical assumptions about children’s place in the city, challenging car-centric, male-dominated public space design.

My book, Designed for Play, provides vital historical context for present day policymakers and campaigners, encouraging deeper reflection on the assumptions and values that shape children’s place in public space. It also shows that seemingly novel calls for the reintroduction of nature into cities and the creation of wilder childhoods have a long and complex history.



About the author


Dr Jon Winder is a historian, geographer and heritage practitioner. He currently works as a Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Wellcome-funded ‘Melting Metropolis’ project at the University of Liverpool.

Jon’s academic research explores the diverse ways in which we have tried to create more liveable and humane urban environments, both in the present and the past. He has published work on urban environmental history, children’s geographies and the history of the children’s playground. Designed for Play. Children’s Playgrounds and the Politics of Urban Space, 1840–2010 (2024) is his new book.

Jon has shared research findings through a diverse range of public and media organisations, from BBC Radio and the Conversation, to History Workshop Online and the Wicksteed Park Trust. As a heritage practitioner, he has secured and managed £15m in funding for a wide range of landscape restoration and community engagement projects across the UK. He occasionally posts @DrJonWinder.


About the ‘New Historical Perspectives’ book series from the Royal Historical Society



New Historical Perspectives (NHP) is the Society’s book series for early career scholars (within ten years of their doctorate), commissioned and edited by the Royal Historical Society, in association with University of London Press and the Institute of Historical Research.

The series publishes monographs and edited collections by early career historians on all chronologies and histories, worldwide. Contracted authors receive mentoring and an author workshop to develop their manuscript before its final submission.

All titles in the series are published in paperback print and open access (as pdf downloads and Manifold reading editions) with all costs covered by the Royal Historical Society and partners. For more on current and forthcoming titles on the series, please see here.


HEADER IMAGE: Sketch Suggestions of Improvised Equipment for Children’s Play by R.B. Gooch, National Playing Fields Association, 1956, London Metropolitan Archives, CLC/011/MS22287.

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