Heckscher Playground

Central Park’s first equipment-filled playground represented a significant shift in attitude about children’s play and its relationship to the Park. Heckscher Playground, located in the southern end of the Park on part of the original Play Ground, opened in 1926 (images 7 & 8). The four-acre, fenced playground featured a wading pool, separate activity areas for boys and girls containing play equipment, a common play space, and a comfort station. Before the creation of Heckscher, areas designated for children’s activities were encompassed in the larger design of the Park. They were scenic landscapes carefully managed to accommodate active recreation by children at prescribed times and according to strict rules about the types of activities that were allowed. Heckscher Playground, with its fence and permanent structures and equipment, was built for a single function, the result of more than two decades of advocacy for children and the development of new theories about their play and education.

The development of playgrounds as we know them was a central achievement of the Progressive Era, which lasted from the 1890s through the 1920s. Reformers of the day worked to address the growing crisis of urbanization caused by industrialization and immigration. Building on some of the ideals of the original parks movement, Progressive Era reformers began to agitate for the creation of more small parks in inner-city neighborhoods and dedicated play spaces for children. While most reformers recognized the purpose served by Central Park as widely beneficial, they also realized that as the city grew, one large park might not serve the full range of everyone’s recreational needs. They believed that the creation of small neighborhood parks and playgrounds would support multiple goals. Playgrounds would safeguard children from the physical and sociological dangers of street life and offer them opportunities for exercise and recreation. They also provided reformers and educators with a venue to educate and socialize these children, many of whom were recent immigrants.

In 1903, the first municipally funded playground in New York City opened in Seward Park, a new small park on the Lower East Side (image 9). The park included a running track, gymnastic equipment, sandboxes, swings, and a large bathhouse. While trees and shrubs were planted throughout and small lawns were planted along the perimeter, the playground, along with exercise and bathing facilities, were the focal points of the park.(4) A play leader directed activities, organized games, and managed the often-large groups of children. As similar playgrounds were built throughout the United States, play leaders emerged as a central feature of the early playground model.

That it took more than twenty years for this type of playground to reach Central Park is a testament to public awareness of the exceptional role the Park played in urban life as well as the challenge of balancing children’s use with the original ideal of the Park as a scenic retreat from urban conditions.(5) In the early twentieth century, playground advocates proposed numerous playgrounds in Central Park, but their opponents characterized them as “encroachments” and were able to successfully defend the Park as a landscape with a specific design and purpose.(6) While Park proponents recognized the importance of providing spaces for children’s play, they argued that Central Park was not the appropriate setting, and worried that this would set a precedent for future additions to the Park. Playground advocates, on the other hand, were responding to changing patterns of use and a growing need for additional spaces for active recreation. 

Although no such playgrounds would be added to the park for two more decades, park officials could not ignore increasing pressure to accommodate ever more active use in the early part of the twentieth century. They eased restrictions on the use of lawns to accommodate the growing crowds of children and numerous events that reflected the Progressive Era’s emphasis on physical fitness and creating a sense of civic spirit, such as group picnics, historical pageants, and May Day parties (image 10). As the largest open space in the city, Central Park was an obvious choice for such events; however, they contributed to a serious deterioration of the landscape. Playground advocates argued that by creating playgrounds and confining children’s use to designated areas, the rest of the Park would be preserved and protected from further damage. By 1926, the park administration accepted the proposal for Heckscher Playground as a solution, despite mounting protests (image 11).