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From shacks to castles: the development of Russian Playgrounds

, Cities
Translator Philipp Kachalin

The history of the appearance, content and public perception of playgrounds in the Czarist and Soviet eras.

Playground at Chistye Prudy, Moscow / photo by

From December 24 through January 10 the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is host to the annual creative initiative, «Art Experiment». Here visitors get to interact with the exhibition and complement its concept with their own ideas. This time the world history of playgrounds was selected as the theme of the event and visitors have been invited to go back to their childhood and recollect their brightest memories of playing outdoors. The entire exposition involves gameplay and quest elements and features two replicas of playgrounds created by the French Group Ludic in the 1960s. In the creative workshop area, attendants are offered a chance to take part in designing a playground of their own. 

Art Experiment. The Playground Project: from New York to Moscow is the Russian edition of The Playground Project, which was created by Swiss curator and urbanist Gabriela Burkhalter. First launched 8 years ago, the project has been travelling across the world as an exhibition and has been enhanced with new features upon arriving in each new city. In Moscow, Garage decided to complement the exhibition with data on Soviet and Slovakian playgrounds. Anna Bronovitskaya, historian and author of Moscow: Soviet Modernist Architecture 1955–1991. A Guidebook conducted a study of their initial appearance and further development in Russia. She and event curator Anastasiya Mityushina told Strelka Magazine about the difference between the first Russian playgrounds and what we have today, what a climbable giraffe has to do with architectural heritage protection and which playgrounds to try out during the Art Experiment. 



Russia and Europe had the same root cause for building playgrounds. Usually funded by donors, they were created with the goal of keeping children from low-income families occupied, especially those whose parents could not afford to hire home tutors or spend much time raising the children themselves. This initiative was aimed at decreasing the risks of vagrancy and juvenile delinquency. According to Anastasiya Mityushina, playgrounds initially appeared in Europe in the mid-XIX century and by 1894 the first playground opened in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. By the start of the World War I there were more than 100 playgrounds in Russia.

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Playground at Gorky Central Park, Moscow / photo by B. Kolesnikov,

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The yard in Izmailovo / Photo: Galina Minkova /

Anna Bronovitskaya states that in the Czarist-era the creation of playgrounds was a genuine testament to civil society. City administrations only provided a site to build them, while the organisation of the building process was carried out by independent committees with funding provided by patrons. The Jewish Healthcare Society was one of the organisations involved in playground development; however, more often than not play areas were built by ordinary citizens inspired by the new idea. It’s notable that playgrounds near schools and kindergartens, a usual sight today, did not appear until the 1930s. Initially, these buildings rarely had any territory of their own, and developing play areas for children from poor families closer to their homes was deemed more pragmatic. 

«Visiting the playgrounds was free; there was a mandatory registration procedure. In order to be granted access, the child’s parents had to fill out a special form stating their family status, income, occupation and the health condition of the child. That’s how social data was gathered. The playgrounds were open both to preschoolers and teens, who often stayed there for several hours up to an entire day. The number of children attached to one playground varied from several dozen to 100 or even 150 for the larger ones. Each playground had its own administrator, sometimes with several assistants, who also wrote work reports published as brochures: sharing experiences and analysing mistakes was an important step,» says Bronovitskaya. 

Modern children seeing those first playgrounds would be surprised and even disappointed. Back then the merry-go-rounds and swing sets we have today were exclusive to fairs, sandboxes were instead placed on boulevards, and sports objects were considered unnecessary or even dangerous for the children. During that period a playground usually consisted of a wooden shack where toys were stored together with other inventory, a table and several benches. The reason behind this austerity is that back then the educational function of the playgrounds was prioritised over entertainment. Tutors usually supervised playground activities: they arranged games (there were entire manuals describing game variations), sport activities and handicraft sessions, and read to the children. Often there was also a science teacher who organised field trips and educated children on the world around them. This approach explains the minimalistic content of the first play areas, which also allowed shutting them down for the winter without any need for upkeep during that time. The first playgrounds only opened during the warm part of the year and some stayed open just through the summer vacation.



Both the appearance and content of children’s playgrounds reflected the shocks and innovations of each historical period. Post-revolutionary playgrounds were a means of propaganda: here children were taught that there was no God, that priests were scammers, that the proletariat would soon build a happier life, and they studied the lyrics of propaganda songs and poems. At this time playgrounds were also a place where food was given out to attract more listeners. 

Later, in 1931 «Ready for Labour and Defence» standards were introduced throughout the country, and the playgrounds were fitted with bars and balancing beams. At the same time, the approach to design had become more standardised: official collections of blueprints with descriptions of merry-go-rounds, slides and reading gazebos were published, standard bench and fence designs were developed (and repeatedly altered). Play areas were now created near schools and at parks, and the attendance of the supervisors was no longer required. The playgrounds were now open all year round, which meant that during the winter they became the place of choice for building snow slides, sculptures and fortresses.

Playground at Aivasovsky St, Moscow / photo by Vladimir Rubtsov,

«After the war, there were now many more well-equipped playgrounds with swing sets, slides and sandboxes. This was possibly a result of what Russian troops saw in Europe during the war or something that was borrowed from the allies: collaboration in education was extensive, and a general discussion of how the destroyed cities should be rebuilt was on everyone’s agenda,» says Bronovitskaya. «The new playground designs featured fairytale images and national symbols, which originally were employed to boost patriotism during the war. Artists involved in the decoration of the playgrounds used the fairytale motifs (often inspired by Ivan Bilibin illustrations) to express their creativity and create something genuinely human, detached from the official narrative.



According to Anna Bronovitskaya, Soviet playgrounds underwent major changes once mass construction of micro-districts took off. Earlier playgrounds had usually been stuffed into one corner of the yard, but now larger spaces between the buildings provided the option to scale up. Moreover, statues of pioneers, bugle boys and schoolgirls, typical elements of Stalin’s socialist realism, were replaced with new, more abstract (and more climbable) designs. The new slides were designed to resemble elephants; the balance beams were made to look like crocodiles or trains. The designers took advantage of local landscapes and carefully arranged the paths to prevent playing children from accidentally running into the roadway.

Playground at Bolshoy Kharitonyevsky Alley, Moscow / photo by Yevgeny Khapov,

Knee-deep splash pools gained popularity for a brief period of time, but their mass development was rapidly abandoned as soon as it became evident that keeping them clean was impossible. Recently, a kindergarten playground at Marshala Vasilevskogo Street with a splash pool and elephant statues has been officially listed for preservation. The kindergarten, built in the 1930s, barely avoided demolition: the building failed to pass modern technical standards. However, in August 2016 both the building and its adjacent territory entered the list of cultural heritage objects. 

In Russia, unlike most other countries, building playgrounds was considered a public effort. Finding the names of their original designers is almost impossible. Sometimes the blueprint collections mention which artist created this or that object. However, certain swing sets or climbable objects designs can be found in multiple editions, and some were direct copies of foreign designs. One of the rare exceptions is the playgrounds developed for the Novyye Cheremushki district. «The playgrounds were developed by a team of landscape designers led by Alexey Baldin, who was also the first director of the Monument Protection Inspection (the predecessor of the Cultural Heritage Department). He basically created the system for the protection of architectural heritage in Moscow. Playground rocketships and climbable giraffes designed by the team were quickly copied in multiple other locations,» says Bronovitskaya.

Playground across 18/1 Novoalekseevskaya St, Moscow / photo by

Unfortunately, along with the mass construction of near-identical micro-districts, playgrounds also started to lose their individuality. The design work was now carried out by public utility providers rather than by landscape artists. There were some exceptions to this, such as playgrounds managed by large enterprises, or play areas that were for some reason or other assigned the status of exemplary. These playgrounds often had miniature castles, ships or chicken-legged huts. Often local citizens and artists took it upon themselves to enhance the play areas with hand-crafted sculptures and art objects. The year 1986 could have become a new turning point for Russian playgrounds when the USSR Decorative Arts magazine held a dedicated discussion with invited experts and representatives of project institutions. The discussion resulted in the development of new recommendations and project drafts, but due to historical reasons, these ideas never saw the light of day.



According to exhibition curator Anastasiya Mityushina, Garage’s project showcases the history of Russian playgrounds as one of its 17 micro-narratives, presented through a short film, archive footage and an exposition arranged by MEL Space architecture studio. Upon entering, each exhibition attendant is provided with a booklet containing a simple quest inviting him to visit the workshop area at the exhibition. 

«The playgrounds of the 1960s are the centrepiece of The Playground Project exposition and research. This era was a time of educational experiments and trying out the hidden potential of these objects. For the exhibition, we chose to create a replica of a playground developed by the Ludic group. Their project was a series of beam-supported interconnected spheres where children were free to sit, play and move around, fully hidden from their parents’ prying eyes. Today playgrounds like this are an exception: we seem to have less trust in our kids’ judgement,» says Anastasia.

Another object replicated at the exhibition is a fragment of a play area designed by artist and architect Palle Nielsen for Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Nielsen thought that children should not comply with preset game rules and should instead be provided with an enclosed area with full freedom to express themselves. His playground was essentially a combination of tires and styrofoam (replaced with special foam at Garage) within a multi-level parapet, which provided tools for any kind of creative expression, from painting to carpentry. This concept echoes the underlying idea of the Art Experiment: the visitor is the centrepiece of the museum, and his reaction, whatever it is, is the most precious exhibit. «Will the visitors attempt to jump on the foam, will they even dare to jump inside the museum? What kind of playgrounds will they design? An action is a reaction in its full glory,» says the curator.

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