Leveling the Playground at the BSA Space

Young and old alike are invited to explore the science of play at 'Extraordinary Playscapes.'

extraordinary playscapes bsa

A child prepares to play on the ‘Imagination Playground.’ / Photo by Madeline Bilis

Who decided that jungle gyms, slides, and merry-go-rounds should coexist in designated areas? The origins of the playground, as it turns out, can be traced back to Boston.

Early forms of playgrounds, called “sand gardens,” were created in Germany in the late 1880s. Around the same time, a Harvard graduate named Joseph Lee studied play environments in crowded Boston neighborhoods. He deduced most play occurred in the street, and decided to create a more suitable play space in the form of a model playground on Columbus Avenue. Lee found success in clearing a lot for games and sports, and went on to found what’s known as the “playground movement.”

The history, science, and importance of play are explored in-depth at “Extraordinary Playscapes,” a new exhibition at the BSA Space. From June 8 through September 5, the collection will showcase the creativity that has fueled designs of more than 40 playgrounds around the world. The exhibit, curated by Design Museum Boston, features playable installations, videos, scale models, and other hands-on interactive experiences. Young and old alike are encouraged to climb, build, bounce, and learn.

“Going through this exhibit, I really have to thank my parents,” says Sam Aquillano, executive director of the Design Museum Foundation and co-curator of the exhibit. He explains his parents allowed him to roam free—spending hours traversing the woods near his childhood home in Erie, Pennsylvania, while getting a few bumps and scratches along the way. 

extraordinary playscapes bsa

Photo by Madeline Bilis

When Aquillano decided to help establish a playground in his Fort Point neighborhood a few years ago, he noticed contemporary playgrounds weren’t very inspiring.

He explains that couple of high-profile head injuries in the 1980s and 1990s led to the regulation of playgrounds, and a document known as the “Public Playground Safety Handbook.”

Compared to his play experiences before the handbook was introduced, Aquillano explains newer playgrounds seemed bland.

One thing to think about is, ‘Ok, we’ve made playgrounds safer, but what have we lost in the process?’”

The ability to calculate risk independently, for one.

“(Playgrounds) should have some element of danger—controlled danger,” says Aquillano, explaining kids need to be able to fall to be able to get back up.

Along with co-curator Amanda Hawkins, Aquillano researched the science of play for the exhibit, which revolves around physical health, mental health, social health, and creative health.

extraordinary playscapes bsa

‘Extraordinary Playscapes’ curator Amanda Hawkins discusses barriers to play, including screen time and safety concerns. / Photo by Madeline Bilis

Hawkins explains that a child’s screen time average can reach 6 to 8 hours per day, while the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity often falls to the wayside. With this in mind, the two hand-picked dozens of unique play spaces to feature—ones that broke play barriers like screens and safety concerns, and instead encouraged creative growth.

From St. Louis’ City Museum (a park featuring repurposed industrial materials, giant pencils, and dinosaur sculptures, among other things) to a room in Japan filled with colorful, hand-crocheted hammocks called Takino Rainbow Nest, “Extraordinary Playscapes” is aptly named. The collection also includes local favorites like the Lawn on D and the Alexander W. Kemp Playground in Cambridge.

The interactivity of the exhibit was part of the duo’s vision from the beginning, says Aquillano. It was designed so that photos of each playground were featured at the bottom of poster boards, allowing for children to inspect them. All of the pedestals in the exhibit also include a small step so kids can get up close to objects.

An “Imagination Playground” allows for visitors to create their own play environment from big, blue blocks, and a large “PlayCube” originally designed in the 1960s by architect Richard Dattner welcomes climbers of all ages.

The installation expands beyond just the BSA Space. Design Museum Boston opened a PlayCubes playground in Chinatown Park earlier this month, and next week, the foundation will unveil a structure called “Playform 7” in City Hall Plaza. The museum encourages visitors to pick up a “Playground Passport” to visit other playscapes around the city.

“Extraordinary Playscapes” is free and open to the public. It will be on view from June 8 through September 5 at the BSA Space, 290 Congress St., Boston. For more information, visit architects.org.

extraordinary playscapes bsa

PlayCubes at Chinatown Park / Photo by Madeline Bilis

extraordinary playscapes bsa

Photo by Madeline Bilis

extraordinary playscapes bsa

Top: ‘Extraordinary Playscapes’ curator Sam Aquillano plays on the PlayCube. Bottom: A hopscotch trail leads to a section of the exhibit. / Photos by Madeline Bilis