Where are all the ancient playgrounds?

I spend a lot of time in parks.

No. Strike that.

I spend a lot of time in playgrounds. Spaces filled with plastic play structures designed to get kids climbing swinging and sliding with the minimum risk of injury. There are sandboxes, teeter totters, swings and slides. And kids love them. I think given the choice, there is nothing that would trump a trip to the playground.

When did we start building these micromanaged play areas for children?  Some of the earliest spaces built specifically for children’s play were sand gardens, like big sand boxes in empty lots.  In the early 1900’s, model playgrounds were built, with steel tubing and twirling contraptions.  These eventually developed into the safe rounded edge plastic structures we have today.  Where did the concept of playgrounds come from though? When did we start earmarking specific areas as ‘for kids’ and ‘for adults’?  Is it a relic of increased urbanization, providing climbing opportunities for kids whose parents could no longer live in the country and had no access to natural spaces? Then why are there playgrounds in small villages? Why do parents in the countryside buy play structures of their own? Is there something inherently attractive about a climbing frame built specifically for children?

Seward Park, NYC 1912 Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

Seward Park, NYC 1912
Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

Wicksteed park swings, 1923 (Daily Mail)

Wicksteed park swings, 1923 (Daily Mail)

What did children in the past do? Where did the children living in Ancient Rome play? What about the earliest villages? Prehistoric hunter/gatherers?

Looking at children from the ancient world, we have evidence for toys.  Pull along toys, rag dolls, jointed dolls, miniatures, board games, balls – all sorts of toys that indicate that children played, including depictions of children playing.  We have toys from ancient Rome, Egypt, and even from the Vikings.  Additionally, I’m sure children in the past used other mundane things as toys, co-opting everyday objects to their own use – this can be seen even today both in my own home and elsewhere.  However, there is almost no indication of where the children played in the past.  Did they play mostly indoors?  Did they play in the streets?  Did they play in abandoned lots?  Did they play in the fields?  Did they spend time in work places?  Undoubtedly all of this is true, and the archaeologist in me wonders whether any of this would be detectable.

Youngster riding adult bike with ad-hoc seat

Youngster riding adult bike with ad-hoc seat, Central Turkey

Children playing on hay pile

Children playing on hay pile, Central Turkey

In Central Turkey, a village I visit regularly has a government built playground, old and rusting, with broken glass everywhere and a ground covering made of gravel. However, the kids play in abandoned buildings, in the farm yards, in the in-between spaces. They carve out little places for themselves (under the watchful eyes of parents and older cousins), and I suspect they treat these spaces better than any kid playing in a governments maintained park.

Turkish merry-go-round

Canadian kiddo on Turkish merry-go-round

Children playing in a half-built building

Children playing in a half-built building, Central Turkey

How would we ever identify these transient and short lived ‘playgrounds’ in the archaeological record?  How could we see children playing in half built houses?  Playing in the fields or in places of work?  Would we be able to see such an ever-present part of the community?  Children are such a staple of modern public spaces that I think it’s important to consider their impact on spaces in the past.  Would children have played around Stonehenge?  What about on the Pyramids?  In fact, I went looking for pictures of modern children playing on standing stones and couldn’t find any.  They are all de-populated.  I can’t imagine these landscape features aren’t magnets for local youths (whether they admit it or not)!  And I have trouble believing that the same wasn’t true in the past.

Archaeologists have in effect erased children from the landscape. We talk about the risk of childbirth, the cost of infants for women, birth spacing, and population growth/control, but where are the kids? The roving bands of dirt and noise, wielding sticks, bothering dogs, and climbing significant monuments? Without specific spaces set aside for children (and even with them) we need to remember that children would have been most everywhere, whether they were supposed to be, or not!

Children playing on pipeline yet to be installed, Laos

Children playing on pipeline yet to be installed, Laos

Children at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Children at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Similarly, maybe we should be allowing modern children to build their own playgrounds?  The new trend in Canada is for natural playgrounds in schools, back to nature. Encouraging kids to play with sticks and stones, mud and water. It’s great. The kids get filthy, learn a little science, and get to experience some textures other than plastic. Funnily enough, apparently these ‘natural playgrounds’ are expensive! You can’t have just any stump, you have to have a government-approved stump. Not sure if that defeats the purpose of the whole endeavour though.  Provided with enough space and opportunity for exploration, I have seen children create some amazingly fun spaces.  Such as children living beside the flooded Mekong river creating a rope swing and handle to help them after jumping into the swift-running current from a tree. Or even just playing in the tree.

Jumping into the Mekong, Laos

Jumping into the Mekong, Laos

Swimming in the Mekong, Laos

Swimming in the Mekong, Laos

Tree 'climbing frame', Laos

Tree ‘climbing frame’, Laos

I wonder if we’ll ever be able to identify these wonderfully creative spaces that were used by children in the past, but more importantly, can this be translated into modern playgrounds?  Is the problem just lack of space?  It often seems like modern urban parks are squeezed into leftover space, and then designed for safety.  Can we provide children with the opportunity to create their own playgrounds or is space in modern cities so tightly controlled that it needs to be designed and maintained.  Maybe we should just be leaving logs, rocks, and trees to see what the kids could come up with themselves!

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3 Responses to Where are all the ancient playgrounds?

  1. cwjones says:

    In ancient cities, urban space was also very tightly controlled and more compact than modern cities. But they were also far smaller. Does the need for dedicated parks and urban green space (and therefore, play space) decrease when you can walk for ten minutes in any direction and be in open fields? Even at seventh century Nineveh there was never more than a 1/2-km walk to the walls from any point in the city. Of course there are a few places this wasn’t true, like Rome or Uruk in their primes. I wonder if there is something different about their use of urban space?

    • Definitely the ‘need’ for dedicated space would have decreased. I guess I just think that kids would have been playing everywhere, but that fact is ignored. Just because the edge of the city/village was close doesn’t mean they never played on the neighbors roof, or their uncle’s sheep stall. We need a ‘childscape’ not just landscape and taskscapes!

  2. John says:

    Good, thought-provoking post. I have very little experience (outside of field school and class) with complex societies, but I wonder if the concept of “childhood” and specific spaces for this is something that is exclusive to that level of organization (with associated class structure)?

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