There’s an interesting set of data maps on Sociological Images, correlating the locations of playgrounds in New York with the local average earnings. It depicts a play landscape that the writer found surprising – one where the poorest neighborhoods were also those wealthiest in playgrounds.
It’s not really that surprising. Areas with greater numbers of poorer people also have a higher proportion of public housing (in which those poorer people are living) and public housing projects are obligated to provide play areas. Areas with wealthy residents, where land value is high and new builds are led by private companies, don’t tend to ‘waste’ money on places that won’t make any. There have been some exceptions, and on-going battles in gentrifying neighborhoods to save existing playgrounds. Over time, however, awareness of children’s need for doorstep play might change, leading more mobile and wealthier parents to perhaps seek out homes with doorstep play offers. This could perhaps leading to family-oriented new-build communities that offer space at a premium cost – but then, don’t they call those the suburbs?
Still, it’s very interesting to see how wealth and access to services can alter over a person’s lifetime. When young, they might live walking distance from a number of places set aside for play, then grow up to find legal aid or healthcare offers thin on the ground. It’s also easy to assume that a playground is all it takes for children to be happy, that the space itself is the provision, but anyone who’s seen an inner-city playground knows that they are often not for kids. Their use by gangs as recruiting stations and offices, the training of fighting dogs on rubber-seated equipment, and rampant neglect for years on end mean that playgrounds can actually become among the most dangerous places for children to be. Public playgrounds shouldn’t have to be staffed, but they do need to be looked after, and in places where local residents are unable, unwilling, or just rightly afraid, to take on that responsibility, many children start looking elsewhere to play.
In wealthier neighborhoods I would assume that a higher proportion of children are ferried to activities, rather than playing out, or perhaps being taken to places such as Central Park that are farther away, but much lovelier. I don’t know as much about the play habits of children in wealthier families, though anecdotally I would assume that they have a much larger expectation of homework and academic achievement, that they spend more time indoors and in front of screens than those in poorer families.
The interesting thing though, is how different publicly expressed concerns are for these two groups of kids. The chorus of television, newspaper and blog posts on these subjects seem to boil down to two key concerns: that wealthier children spend too much time indoors and may be growing up to be dull, uninquisitive and apathetic to natural environments, and that poorer children are spending too much time unsupervised and may be growing up to be drug-addicted criminals who will break into the homes of journalists or start dating their daughters. Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that much of the support for playgrounds and youth clubs in poorer neighborhoods stems from fear of these children, rather than concern for their welfare.
Because surely, if public playgrounds were designed to help children play, to explore their worlds and build new ones, to express themselves and experiment with new ways of being, to make and lose friends, to take risks and get hurt and heal stronger than before, they would look very different to the tarmac paving and metal rings that we so often take for granted. If they were not designed for containment and ‘blowing off steam’, these playgrounds would look less like the exercise equipment in prison yards. If they were really designed for children, rather than adults, they would look (as the saying goes) more like parks than parking lots.