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According to Hitoshi Shimamura, the International Play Association regional vice president in East Asia, the pilot park that became Hanegi Playpark was founded in 1975 on a one-acre plot of land formerly used as a dump. It was modeled on the first adventure playground, which was created by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen and which opened in Emdrup, Copenhagen, in 1943, when that town was under German occupation.
According to play researcher Susan Solomon’s book American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, this first-ever adventure playground had, essentially, three components: a vacant lot; donated scraps; and a single adult supervisor, who “was available only for guidance and was key to the success of the playground.”
Sørensen’s playground, then known as a “junk playground,” was the seed for many more. According to adventure-playground advocate Lia Sutton, there are currently about a thousand adventure playgrounds in Europe, largely in Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England.
Adventure playgrounds arrived in Britain in the 1950s, where they benefited greatly from a powerfully placed playground advocate, trained horticulturist Lady Allen of Hurtwood. As a result of her zeal, many adventure playgrounds were set up in the British Isles. In the United States, adventure playgrounds simply did not take hold in the same way.
Playgrounds themselves emerged in the United States in the 1880s, when, as noted by Howard Chudacoff in his book Children at Play: An American History, the playground movement in the United States began, and “reformers established sand gardens in parks and schoolyards to promote play among very young children.”
In the early 1900s, the Playground Association of America was founded, and that event marked “the professionalization of playground work.” By 1917, the country had 3,940 public and private playgrounds, and it employed 8,768 playground directors.
With the advent of the automobile, the playground served a basic need: It got the children off the streets and out of the way of vehicles. In 1922, automobiles caused the death of an astonishing 477 children in New York City. But during the Depression, playground funding was cut, and the movement sputtered.
The economy improved following World War II, but the public playground’s decline continued, because middle-class families provided their children “with their own play accoutrements at home,” as Chudacoff noted, and backyard playgrounds competed with public play areas.
In the 1950s, the playground in America began a brief relationship with the art world, because, as Solomon wrote, the connection “between playgrounds and sculpture began to take hold.” In 1954, the Museum of Modern Art held a playground-design competition that received significant media attention and heightened the legitimacy of playgrounds in art circles and elsewhere. The association between playgrounds and art did not last long; safety issues became important, and commercial products filled the playparks. Lady Allen of Hurtwood toured American playgrounds in 1965 and called them “an administrator’s heaven and a child’s hell.”