If you remember this playground, your childhood was awesome
The story of Bob Leathers, the architect whose kid-designed playgrounds shaped a generation of play.
The words, written in big, white, Impact letters, caught my attention as I scrolled idly through Facebook a few months ago: “IF YOU REMEMBER THIS, THEN YOUR CHILDHOOD WAS AWESOME.” They were superimposed on an image that did instantly remind me of something: the SuperPlayground, a wooden play structure in a small park in my hometown, which was torn down and replaced several years ago.
In the small, lefty community of Sebastopol where I grew up, in the wine country north of San Francisco, there were many playgrounds, but the SuperPlayground was everyone’s favorite. Whimsical details like a dragon slide, pyramid-framed swings, and pointed wooden towers separated it from the many plastic and metal pre-fab structures elsewhere around town. But best of all were the “secrets” the structure held: the wooden tunnels underneath it big enough only for young children, the corner where a PVC pipe embedded in the wall allowed you to whisper to your friend across the park. There were always places to hide and discover away from prying adult eyes.
It seemed likely that someone from Sebastopol had created the meme. But to my surprise, the original image post had over 30,000 likes (and now over 76,000). Scores of comments enthusiastically identified the playground as Wonderland Park in Wasilla, Alaska, or Imagination Station in Roxbury, New Jersey. Small arguments erupted between people who were sure this photo was taken in different locations around the country. What was going on? Was this treasured childhood memory just another cookie cutter experience created for me by some corporation?
To find out, I had to go back to the 1970s in Ithaca, New York, when a young architect built his first playground inspired by his children’s ideas, to the early 1980s, when the playground safety movement began (with a brief swing by Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood), and to the early 1990s, when a woman in my hometown threw herself wholeheartedly into the construction of the park we loved so much.
Dreamland For Kids playground, built in 1999 with Leathers and Associates, Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2015
Kids rule and
no one gets paid
“It didn't really start off as a business at all,” Bob Leathers told me over the phone from a project site in San Diego. After years of construction, his hearing is impaired, and his wife Cheryl helped us communicate, relaying my questions to him. “It really just started off as volunteering to help other communities build playgrounds.”
Bob Leathers grew up in Maine, building his own rafts and treehouses with a gaggle of other boys. Leathers had always been creative, and after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1965, he moved to the West Coast, where he worked at an architectural firm and facilitated community projects. But Leathers didn’t build his first playground till he moved back east to Ithaca in 1970. His project, building a playground at his children’s school, had a few unique features. Firstly, no one got paid. Second, the kids’ imaginations drove the design. These two ideas planted the seeds of the mission Leathers and his nascent company pursued for the next thirty years.
After helming the creation of about five playgrounds a year through the seventies, Leathers began to incorporate the work into a company, Leathers and Associates, in the early 80s.
“One of the beauties of doing it community-built, as I do it, is that I never sat down and designed the process,” Leathers told me. Yet, over the years, as Leathers’ projects spread across the country and even around the world, the communities he worked with helped him develop a formula.
First, a community member would recruit him to build a playground. Though some of his projects have been partially funded by a town or county government, almost all of them relied on fundraising. Leathers, and eventually the company he started, Leathers and Associates, gave communities suggestions on how to raise the funds necessary to get their project off the ground. This was often an overwhelming process, including everything from selling personalized fence posts to penny drives at local businesses. Leathers or an employee of his would travel to the town for a “design day”, where he’d visit local schools and solicit drawings and ideas from children. These would be incorporated into a playground design based around a similar basic structure, but personalized by the children’s ideas in that specific community.
Dreamland For Kids, Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2015
“When it first started, let's just say the third playground I ever did, if a kid had said, ‘I want to have a castle like at Disneyland,’ my response then would've been, ‘It's impossible to build a castle with a whole bunch of volunteers,’” Leathers says. “After having done 500 or so, I kept hearing ‘castles,’ I kept hearing ‘spaceships,’ I kept hearing ‘tree houses,’ I realized it may be [possible], and [we] evolved into it.” Leathers found cheap ways to create abstracted representations of kids’ fantasies that they could use to play however they wanted.
After the design day, preparation would begin for the build. A sort of modern-day barn raising, builds generally require about five days of ten-hour shifts and often necessitate thousands of volunteers. Tools and other supplies were sometimes donated to keep costs as low as possible. To coordinate and fund all this activity, volunteers running these projects donated months or even years of their lives to making these projects happen.
Knowledge of Leathers’ work has largely spread by word of mouth. His fame reached its peak in 1986 when he made a cameo on an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. The last time the New York Times wrote about him was in 1989. Yet since the ‘70s, his company has built well over 2,000 playgrounds, both in the United States and places like Israel and Australia.
“Most people can use a hammer and many people can use a saw”
For the communities that build Leathers’ playgrounds, and particularly for the volunteer leaders who are central to the process, the projects can be life-altering. In some communities, his playgrounds have lasted more than 20 years, providing a landscape for multiple generations to play.
Another defining feature of Leathers’ structures is their material: wood. “If you're going to fall and hit something, would you rather hit wood, or concrete, or steel? It's forgiving for kids playing on it,” Leathers says. Wood is also cheaper than a lot of the more modern materials made specifically for playgrounds, and, as Leathers notes, the farmed wood his company uses is environmentally friendly. Wood is also “volunteer-friendly”. “These playgrounds are built by volunteers who aren't familiar with sophisticated construction techniques, but most people can use a hammer and many people can use a saw,” he says.
But wood has a downside—it must be maintained by the same community that helped to build it. And it ages. This is the difficult result of Leathers’ vision: the playgrounds which take a miracle to build, often bringing a community together as nothing has before, creating life-long friendships and altering careers, don’t last all that long. In many places, Leathers playgrounds are disappearing.
An amazing feeling
“If I had known what I was going to endure, I probably never would have done it,” says Kim Caruso, now Kim Camp, the volunteer who spearheaded the SuperPlayground project in my hometown, Sebastopol. As a mother in 1992, she was in school to complete a degree. Her sister lived by a Robert Leathers playground in Vermont and it inspired her to take on a playground project in Sebastopol for independent study credit.
“I was a full-time student and had two little girls. It was actually pretty hard to keep it all together because it was really a full-time job,” Camp remembers. “It literally took two years to plan the whole thing from start to finish… I think we raised $90,000. In 1992, that felt like millions to me. We were out in front of the grocery store. We were in banks. I put on my first music concert with Maria Muldaur at the Vets Hall. I started writing grants. We were assigned someone from Leathers [and Associates]. I was constantly in touch with them. They gave me these books on how to do everything, how to organize everything. They came out a couple of times to help me and guide me through it. They were always available. It was an amazing system.”
As with Leathers' other projects, Camp’s extensive fundraising and planning culminated in a five-day build, bringing thousands of volunteers together to saw, hammer and supervise construction (Camp asked me to emphasize that many others helped with the project, including a committee). This included a crew of a dozen volunteer foreman, who were in charge of supervising the site from morning to night.
“When it was done? Oh my God. It was an amazing feeling,” Camp told me. “The whole thing was so rewarding. It was beyond my belief.”
Magic and maintenance
The project ended up being a major turning point in Camp's life. “Once you build something, it's like, you get it. You need to take care of it for life,” Camp says. The SuperPlayground launched her career as a community leader. For years after, she worked at the Sebastopol Community Center building other community-led projects like tennis courts and gazebos, while remaining in charge of the maintenance of the playground. “I think we did a heck of a job keeping up with it. I really do. If it wasn't safe anytime, we'd close it, we'd rope it off, we'd fix it right away. We had to reseal the playground[‘s wood] once a year, so we would organize like 60 people for the day. I had people that would help me do food. We’d have music,” Camp remembered.
As the years went by, the job of maintenance became harder and harder. “The truth is that I was having trouble finding people to help me anymore,” Camp says. Concerns about the degrading quality of the wood and shifting safety standards placed greater and greater demands on Camp’s time and the project’s finances. One child broke his arm jumping off part of the structure, and his parents tried to sue the city. Eventually, the cost of the adjustments needed to bring the structure up to code got to be too much. “I was nervous about the changes in all the safety regulations,” Camp says. “I didn’t want to keep having this playground where somebody was going to get hurt.”
Of the more than 2,000 playgrounds built by Leathers and Associates, Leathers estimates that about 1,500 are still standing. The internet is littered with stories of those that have been taken down or rebuilt. Over the past few years, worries about wooden playgrounds have intensified, as parents grew concerned that arsenic or other chemicals contained in the sealant could be leaking into the ground. Other safety regulations, such as those requiring specific surfacing to prevent injuries from falls, also impacted Leathers’ playgrounds. The company has adapted their materials and designs to suit these changes. But with the older playgrounds, it can be difficult for volunteers, like Camp, to keep up.
Dreamland For Kids, Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2015
The best thing
In 2007, Camp came to the painful decision, along with the city, to replace the playground. The resulting structure is much more traditional than the original SuperPlayground, featuring largely plastic equipment and a climbing wall. “We worked really hard to replace it with something that was going to be fun and safe and last longer,” she says. “What's there now is so different, and yet the kids that come there now really enjoy it. For those of us who experienced the SuperPlayground or have ever been to a Leathers playground, it's like, it's amazing. We knew we weren't going to be able to replace it with [something like] that, but we would come up with something that we could afford.”
“It broke my heart, taking that thing out, believe me, it really did,” Camp says. “I knew it was the right thing to do in terms of our town. I do see [Leathers' playgrounds] in other communities that have lasted longer. I just had to live with myself and know that I thought it was the right thing to do before somebody got hurt. And I couldn't keep up with it anymore. I mean, it was killing me.”
“But the truth is the community that came together for this particular project was amazing and some of my best friends to this day, I met on that project. I wouldn't trade it in for anything,” Camp adds. “It was the best thing I ever did in my life.”
This structure replaced the SuperPlayground in Sebastopol, CA in 2007, December 7, 2015
“Don’t climb that”
Hard as it is to believe, playground safety has only really existed as a concept since the early 1980s. In 1981, just as Leathers’ playgrounds were flourishing, a spate of highly publicized playground injuries prompted the first playground safety guidelines from the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission. Throughout the 80s, fear of accidents snowballed, as more and more parents sued cities and states for their children’s injuries. A few crusaders, including consumer advocate Theodora Briggs Sweeney, turned up the pressure on playground designers, local governments and manufacturers to create safer playground equipment. Many parks removed materials and structures considered dangerous, including anything that could entangle a child and installed softer surfaces, replacing concrete with rubber or wood chips.
A large body of research has proven that children today are given less freedom by their parents than previous generations. In 1972, geographer Roger Hart conducted a famous study, measuring the distances that children in a small New England town traveled outside their homes, producing maps that showed the average distance most children were allowed to stray, and how far they actually went. When he returned to the same town in 2004 and caught up with the now-grown children he’d studied to see how they were raising their own kids, he found his experiment impossible to repeat: the parents barely trusted their children to go outside their sight, not to mention to be followed on unsupervised adventures around the town.
A backlash to the phenomenon of “helicopter parents” and “overprotected children” (as journalist Hanna Rosin calls them) has taken shape over the last few years, resulting in the concept of “free range” kids, who are given a longer leash by their parents, coming into vogue as a child rearing practice. Some parents today are leaning towards allowing their children experiences that more closely resemble the unsupervised freedom they had while growing up.
One of the more radical results of this movement has been the resurrection of “adventure playgrounds”, a largely lost tradition started in post-World War II England.
Adventure playgrounds resemble junk yards in which kids have near total freedom and are given permission to take risks that would give most 21st century parents a heart attack. They light fires, use real tools like saws and hammers, climb trees and play in the mud. Adventure playgrounds employ “playworkers”, who are highly trained to supervise children from a distance, encouraging them to take measured risks and learn from the consequences.
Filmmaker Erin Davis is the creator of a short documentary about a UK adventure playground called The Land. Watching the film, which features scenes of children lighting fires with wet cardboard and engaging in other precarious behavior, is simultaneously nostalgic, heartwarming, and nerve wracking.
Davis believes that spaces like adventure playgrounds teach children valuable skills about risk which are essential for decision making. “They look around and at The Land and they get it,” she told me. “They don’t think ‘I can jump off a tree.’ They move their bodies differently in that space, and that awareness is valuable.”
“If [an adult] says ‘don’t climb that’ a child is going to be like ‘ok, I won’t’, but if they develop for themselves an idea of their personal boundaries and limitations, that’s a really important place to be psychologically by the time you’re a teenager and you’re making even higher stakes decisions about your personal safety,” Davis explains. “What’s happening at the heart of The Land, and can happen in any play environment if we let it, is that children are in control of the content and the direction of their own play.”
Not everyone sees the advent of greater parental and governmental involvement in play negatively. National Recreation and Parks Association playground safety expert Caroline Smith doesn’t see the last few decades of playground safety regulations as increasingly stringent, but as a natural progression adapting to the information on injuries and accidents that has become available over time. “We had the reporting, so [regulators] were able to identify where injuries were occurring. [The regulations] have just gotten more specific,” she says.
Dreamland For Kids, Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2015
Bob Leathers knows about the challenges his older playgrounds are facing. “They have a life depending on how well a community takes care of a project. What that really means is that some projects have only lasted about 10 years. Other projects are still going strong today that were built 20 and 25 years ago. It's a question of how well they're taken care of, how tough the use, the weather and the community,” he says.
“We do find frequently when projects are torn down, they rebuild, and they're rebuilt with Leathers and Associates,” Leathers adds. “There's been probably 100 that have come back and done it again.”
But building with communities is harder these days, says Leathers’ son, Marc, who took over the company in 2005, when Bob left due to health reasons. “Now, in the playground industry, there’s a lot more political red tape. It’s tougher to do the community built process,” he says. “That’s something I never want to see disappear. The impact on the community can’t be replaced.”
This commitment to his father’s particular vision has led to one of Marc’s biggest effects on the company: his decision to do paid contract work as well as community builds. After watching many of his father’s playgrounds torn down and replaced with uninspiring, mass produced structures, Marc decided it was more important to keep a Leathers playground in these communities than it was to stick to a strict doctrine of building with volunteers. “So now we do two services,” he tells me. “We do well-designed structures and we do community builds. We hear back from people who’ve torn out our playgrounds and replaced them with literally anything else and it’s not really the same. Now, [with our contract work] there’s a passing of the baton of some kind.”
Dreamland For Kids, Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2015
Safety is a myth
Playground safety expert Smith believes that it’s possible to both fulfill the requirements of safety and to create challenging play spaces though sometimes the desire for safety can make people lazy. “I hate to see people take the easy way out and say, you know, you can make your playground safe by making everything only four feet high. Sure, you could do that, but you’re not really hitting all the important parts of having a playground, the benefits of having a challenging equipment and challenging opportunities,” she says. Cheryl Leathers told me something similar. “Playgrounds are about taking risks, but you want them to be safe risks. That's pretty complex to deal with,” she said.
Though Smith and Davis agree that children need to be challenged, they fundamentally differ in their conception of safety. “I think it’s a larger cultural anxiety,” Davis says of the shift towards tighter regulations. “It’s about feeling insecure about our place in the world. This new idea that safety is attainable by creating greater restrictions on our lives.”
“You know, safety is a myth,” she adds.
Davis’ argument for giving children greater autonomy reminds me of my own experiences at the SuperPlayground. It wasn’t the slides, swings or other standard playground equipment that I found so compelling about the park, but the child-sized mazes and hiding spaces that seemed to belong to only us kids, where adults couldn’t come in and tell us what to do. It’s not that Leathers and Associates don’t focus on safety—Bob Leathers himself sat on the National Playground Safety Committee for several years, and his website says that all their designers and construction consultants are Certified Playground Safety Instructors—but their playgrounds allowed the possibility of risk, of invention and of a world that belonged to children alone.