An evolution in child's play
Children in the playground at Ithaca in Red Hill in 1918. Early playgrounds were sets of simple individual pieces of equipment that usually were not linked together in any meaningful way. Photo: Courtesy: Queensland State Library
Finding a playground that satisfies the school-holidays crowd is no picnic in the park, though kids these days are spoiled for choice compared with their parents who were largely satisfied with little more than a swing set, slide and possibly some steel tubing to climb.
It's a different story these days with millions of dollars devoted to planning parks across Australia that engage, inspire and educate and a national awards program aimed at recognising the country's best.
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This photo from the Queensland State Library archives shows a set of steps, decorated with stone edgings, leading to the playground bordered by stone walls Photo: Courtesy: Queensland State Library
But while Brisbane missed out at this year's Parks and Leisure Australia Awards of Excellence - Wollongong's Towradgi Park Regional Play Space claimed the top spot for play space - City Hall has budgeted more than $140 million for parks and playgrounds over the next four years.
And a top priority is a $2 million all-abilities playground at the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, currently in the design phase at council and set to include substantial equipment, pathways, shade-shelters and seating, according to lord mayor Graham Quirk.
"This CBD all-abilities playground is part of a larger $57 million commitment I have made to building a network of suburban parks over the next four years," he said.
Brisbane playgrounds then and now
A playground at Ithaca in Brisbane's Red Hill in 1918, a classic example of what "play space" was like in the city before the term, and the city, had been fully realised. .
"We have already delivered all-abilities improvements to more than 25 playgrounds since handing down the Access and Inclusion Plan in 2011 and I'm really excited that we'll be building another one right in the heart of the CBD."
When complete, the new city facility will replace and surpass the garden's existing playground, marking the evolution of the built environment created for the sake of child's play.
But what does that evolution look like? Are playgrounds really any better today than before?
Brisbanetimes.com.au has worked with council to provide a brief history of play space across in Brisbane, tracking change that reflects the shift in social attitudes and living arrangements since one of the city's oldest playgrounds was built at Red Hill at the turn of last century.
The Ithaca playground at Red Hill is a classic example of what "play space" was like in the city before the term, and the city, had been fully realised. This photo from the Queensland State Library archives shows a set of steps, decorated with stone edgings, leading to the playground bordered by stone walls. There's a swing set and see-saw made of a wooden plank. The equipment was launched by the Mayor of Ithaca, J.F. Hayward, just ahead of Christmas in 1919 as part of a the development of a larger parkland at Arthur Terrace. Along with the park, locals were granted two cricket pitches, two double tennis courts and a basketball court. The Red Hill Community Sports Club stands on the site today.
1970s - 1980s
Generally playgrounds have evolved from sets of simple individual pieces of equipment that may have been grouped, but were usually not linked together in any meaningful way. In the 1970s through to the early 1980s, such equipment may have included monkey bars, a swing or pair of swings, a slippery slide and possible a tubular climbing frame, often all made from steel tubing. Such equipment may have been installed on a grass or dirt surface, or in some instances even a hard surface such as asphalt. It may have been shaded by trees if any were located nearby, but would definitely not have included specific shade sails or structures.
During the 1980s, treated pine came to be commonly used in playground construction, providing the opportunity to link or combine playground elements. Timber forts were a popular product of this time, often combining different climbing elements to access an upper level, with options such as slippery slides and fireman's poles provided to return to ground level. At this time such playgrounds were still unlikely to be provided with specific shade structures, with undersurfacing still likely to be grass or dirt.
The introduction of Australian standards to set basic safety requirements led to changes in "under-surfacing" materials used at ground level in playgrounds. Initially bark chips were commonly used to ensure a "compliant soft-fall surface", and sand also started to be used for this purpose. While these two materials can still meet compliance standards for soft fall, the use of rubberised wet-pour soft fall surfacing is proving more and more popular, as it is the only soft fall under-surfacing product that also allows for universal accessibility. For example, it is very difficult or impossible for wheelchair users or people with other mobility impairments to travel across sand or bark chip surfaces.
A further stage in the evolution of playgrounds was the rapid expansion in the use of plastics as construction materials. This enabled greater flexibility in the combination of different play elements, and also resulted in an explosion of colour options being available, increasing the visual appeal of playgrounds to children. It also led to an expansion of playground equipment manufacturers, many with their own "off the shelf" playground equipment products available for purchase. The use of plastics was further accelerated when the public health risks associated with CCA treated pine were identified.
Increasing acknowledgement and acceptance of the need to provide engaging and meaningful play opportunities targeting different age groups of children has led to an increase in available funding for the development of playgrounds since the 1990s. Along with the expansion in available construction materials, this has enabled the development of larger-themed playgrounds, with a greater diversity of play experience to appeal to different age groups, as well as incorporating components to provide accessible and inclusive play opportunities. Such playgrounds include appropriate soft-fall undersurfacing, shade through the provision of shade structures/sails, and often incorporate landscaped areas with plantings as part of the overall playground area. Hidden World Playground in Fitzgibbon is a great example of a themed council playground that includes all of these elements.
Many recent developments in terms of specific pieces of playground equipment have focused on providing shared experiences, such as birds nest or basket swings that allow multiple people to sit in the same swing at once, spinning items which include multiple seats, placing slippery slides side by side or even providing double-width slides for two people to use at once, and grouping together various types of individual swing seats so that groups of people of varying size and ability can swing together.
Today and the beyond
Council introduces the Brisbane Access and Inclusion Plan 2012-2017, which sets new targets relating to the provision and design of parks and public spaces, to ensure everyone can use and enjoy city facilities. And with a quarter of a million more people forecast to call Brisbane home by 2026, spending on playgrounds is a key aspect of council's promise to deliver an "inclusive, active and healthy city".
For more information on Brisbane's best parks and playgrounds visit the Brisbane City Council website.