Introduction

Central Park’s first permanent, equipment-filled playground was built in 1926. Located in the southwest corner of the Park, Heckscher Playground included an area with swings, climbers, and slides; a large wading pool; a recreation building; and open areas for active games. This concept of a playground as a separate space for the exclusive use of children containing facilities and equipment was novel. At the turn of the twentieth century, reformers’ concerns about unprecedented urbanization and its negative effects on children led to the creation of playgrounds as we know them today. Early proposals to add such self-contained playgrounds in Central Park met with vehement resistance: Defenders of the Park’s original design and purpose defined specialized facilities as encroachments on the landscaped park intended for unstructured recreation. To justify the creation of Heckscher Playground, advocates emphasized that, by protecting the surrounding landscape from overuse and damage by children, it would serve to support the Park’s greater purpose. 

Heckscher Playground represented the beginning of an era during which many “purpose-built” facilities were added to the Park to accommodate specific forms of active recreation. Under the administration of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, eighteen additional playgrounds were built between 1935 and 1936 in landscapes just inside the perimeter of the Park. During the next fifty years, a few new playgrounds were added and others removed, resulting in the twenty-one playgrounds that exist in the Park today. While not part of the original design, Central Park’s playgrounds have become a vital part of the rich legacy and tradition of play in the Park. They are the places where generations of children have begun a lifetime of recreation in Central Park.