A November Saturday, and despite the threat of rain, the Koret Children’s Quarter in Golden Gate Park is packed. Children in soccer jerseys run up ramps and across the bridges of two massive playground structures. Others wave at nervous parents from the top of a towering rope pyramid. A gaggle of 4-year olds celebrates a birthday in the picnic area outside a small red barn. There are swings. There is sand. A vintage carousel pumps out the strains of “Give My Regards to Broadway.” A hot dog stand does brisk business, selling ice cream even as the first few drops of rain begin to land.
Rebuilt and officially reopened in 2007, the Koret Children’s Quarter serves as San Francisco’s flagship playground. Grown-ups come to the park for the museums, the trees, and maybe the calm of Stow Lake. For children, the giant playground trumps all. The Academy of Science may have a living roof, but the Koret Children’s Quarter has concrete slides.
When the playground opened in 1888 as the Sharon Quarters for Children, it featured swings, see-saws, carts pulled by goats, and as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “nice, gentle donkeys for nice, gentle children.” The play area also featured a boy’s ballground and a girl’s croquet lawn. According to an 1889 Park Commissioner’s Report, on rainy days children and their caregivers could retire to what is now the Sharon Art Studio: “”¦ a handsome two-story building situated on a slight elevation, well sheltered by pine and oak trees from the prevailing winds, the lower story being used as a playroom, the second or main story as a restaurant, where milk, bread and butter, coffee and other light refreshments are dispensed to children and their attendants.” Men and older boys were not permitted on the grounds.
Playing on a 19th-century swing in the Sharon Quarters for Children. Courtesy of sfpix.com
Despite the plaque at the entrance, the Children’s Quarter is not the oldest playground in the United States. Rather, the end of the 19th century saw the opening of playgrounds across the country–a direct result of”¦.you guessed it”¦.the Playground Movement. Toward the end of the 19th century, the rise of new recreation ideologies coincided with a new belief in the possibility of public solutions to social problems. Theorists interested in child development argued that supervised play allowed adults to both observe and direct this development. Simultaneously, rapid urbanization and a rise in immigration began to create large, dense, and purportedly unruly population centers. In other words, according to the popular media, herds of wild children had begun to rove city streets. Hence, playgrounds: organized, supervised, public spaces devoted to the nurturing of young minds and bodies.
As a product of progressive social reform, the Playground Movement was directly tied to other turn-of-the-century social movements, many of which share origins, philosophies and goals. The Playground Movement arrived hand-in-hand with the Settlement Movement, whose objective was to decrease economic inequity by encouraging families of different classes to live together. Similarly, Temperance, the fight to outlaw alcohol, and the Women’s Suffrage movements rose out of activist ideologies that emphasized not only the possibility of social change, but the morality of fighting for that change. Even the more dubitable rise of Eugenics (the idea that human evolution should be directed through reproductive control) and the ongoing efforts of the anti-immigration Nativists grew from the novel idea that we-be it a community or a nation-can shape who we are. What all of these movements have in common is that they are driven by the questions denizens of the U.S. insistently and consistently ask: who, precisely, is an American? What is citizenship? And, sometimes, how do we enforce a consistency of citizenry. How, in other words, do we make sure that “we” continues to be “we” ?
In theory, playgrounds offered social reformers of the 19th century an ideologically controlled space-a place where, through play, children could be shaped to fit adult ideals. According to an English report from 1913, in American neighborhoods with playgrounds, children were more attentive, diligent, and less prone to truancy. Parents testified “as to a general gain in physical health and less mischief, the last item being endorsed by returns of the probation officers of the juvenile court.” The supervised play in playgrounds, in other words, allowed children to grow into responsible citizens. If, as Benedict Anderson has told us, the nation-state is an imagined community, then the playground is where that imagining takes place.
In practice things got a little messier. We are after all, talking about playgrounds! According to scholar Allison Butler, there is little evidence that playgrounds did in fact curb juvenile delinquency. As with any central, public space, playgrounds conform to the users as much as the users conform to them. Ironically, well over 100 years later, the Koret Children’s Quarter is, one might argue, one of the more dangerous designated play areas for children in the city. In recent years, many city playgrounds have been renovated to eliminate ’70s-era log leaps and monkey bars placed more than 10 feet off the ground. While the Children’s Quarter renovation similarly replaced much out-dated equipment, it did retain the much-beloved, thrilling and totally dangerous concrete slides. And the sheer size of the playground makes keeping track of more then one child at a time impossible-thus almost promoting the losing of children.
Looking back, the idea of supervised, gender-segregated play seems to portend a police state. But are our 21st-century playgrounds really so different? I don’t think most contemporary parents would let their five-year old drive a goat cart. Sometimes I believe, as parents of today, we err on the side of caution, thinking we can protect our children from everything. A playground near my mother’s house literally has no edges, making it astoundingly dull for any child over the age of 18 months. Still, like the founders of the Children’s Quarter, I actually don’t want my children playing in the streets. I want to find a healthy balance for them between risky, playful adventure, and outright danger. Moreover, here in the 21st century, many of us still believe that not only is it possible to shape and choose our social environment, but that these actions are actually our moral responsibility. The founders of the Sharon Quarters for Children and I may differ about what precisely constitute a responsible citizen; nevertheless, that’s what I want my children to become. And because I am a product of 19th-century ideologies, I believe that contained, yet still exciting play will enable my children to grow into healthy, happy, well-adjusted adults.
Back to this drizzly November day. An older girl surveys the scene from her perch atop one of the wave-shaped climbing walls. Watching her, I realize that 123 years later, I still turn to the Koret Children’s Quarter to provide, as the San Francisco Board of Park Commissioners hoped in 1888, “healthful recreations,” so that my children will “grow up to be better men and women than had not the munificence of the late senator Sharon provided them with these play-grounds.”
Now the rain begins to fall in earnest and the playground begins to empty. Alas, we can no longer retreat to the Sharon Art Studio for milk, bread, butter, coffee and other “light refreshments.” Instead, children and their grown-ups climb in their cars and drive home.