Playgrounds From The Space Age

Jan 25, 2017 4 comments

The rocket holds a special place in history. It’s an icon of technological progress that’s both revered and feared at the same time. During the sixties of the last century, the United States and the Soviet Union was gripped by the space-age fever, and the rocket emerged as the fundamental symbol of the space rivalry. Throughout America, as well as the Eastern bloc, rocket shaped structures began popping up across children playgrounds to foster curiosity and excitement about the space race among kids. Aside from rockets there were other fixture resembling various space-age equipment such as satellites, radar tower, planets and even submarines that kids can climb, swing and slide from.


A rocket slide at a playground in Iowa, United States. Photo credit: Carl Wycoff/Flickr

Many of these space-age playgrounds still stand, and have met opposition from the public when efforts were made to remove them, but others are fast disappearing. In 2008, the city of Richardson, Texas, tried to dismantle an "atomic playground" installed in 1965, quoting reasons that "as children grow and develop, their playgrounds must evolve to meet ever-changing play needs and interests". The rocket ship, they said, had "very little play value", and had "hazardous conditions that present a great danger to young children". But the locals opposed and authorities had to keep their hands off.

Some of these relics of the Cold War has been designated a heritage property, as is the 26-feet tall metal rocket in a playground in Calwa, California, that still stands "as an affectionate symbol of an earlier time".

Today’s playgrounds are a bastion of safety. Fiberglass and wood have replaced metals and rusted bolts. Slides never go higher than five or six feet, and have pits of sand underneath rather than hard asphalt or grass.

“The transformation began in 1973,” writes Lisa Hix on Collector’s Weekly, “when the U.S. Congress established the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which began tracking playground injuries at hospital emergency rooms. The study led to the publication of the first Handbook for Public Playground Safety in 1981, which signaled the beginning of the end for much of the playground equipment in use.”

“The American Society for Testing and Materials created a subcommittee of designers and playground-equipment manufacturers to set safety standards for the whole industry. When they published their guidelines in 1993, they suggested most existing playground surfaces, which were usually asphalt, dirt, or grass, needed to be replaced with pits of wood or rubber mulch or sand, prompting many schools and parks to rip their old playgrounds out entirely.”


The rocket ship slide in Torrance’s Los Arboles Park, installed in 1960. Photo credit: Daily Breeze

Brenda Biondo, a freelance journalist who photographed many old playgrounds across the US, added that “the Consumer Product Safety Commission never issued requirements, just suggested guidelines. But manufacturers felt that if their equipment didn’t meet those guidelines, they’d be vulnerable to liability. Everybody went to the extreme, making everything super safe so they wouldn’t risk getting sued.”

Playgrounds across the country began retiring old equipment. The Carson playground, in Wisconsin, lost their rocket despite pleas from the public not to remove the beloved fixture.

“Of all the pieces of equipment, the rocket had the most memories associated with it … a lot of the play value went away with the new guidelines,” laments Phil Johnson, the Superintendent of Parks & Recreation.

But lower heights and softer landing haven’t made playgrounds any safer. On the contrary, injuries seems to have risen. As David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London, explains, when playground equipment was higher and had asphalt instead of sand or rubber, kids knew they had to be careful and learned to assess risks. Nowadays, with everything lower and presumably safer, children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, and take more risks leading to injuries.


A jungle gym in Riverside Park in Manhattan, which has disappeared now. Photo credit: Dith Pran/The New York Times 


Children playing on iron pole playground equipment at Trinity Play Park, circa 1900. Photo credit:


Girls’ playground, Harriet Island, St. Paul, Minn. 1905. Photo credit:


Broadway Playfield, 1910. Photo credit:


Rings and poles, Bronx Park, New York. 1911. Photo credit:


Hiawatha Playground, 1912. Photo credit:


A rocket shaped playground apparatus in Thetford, England. Photo credit: Sludge G/Wikimedia


A rocket in Levy Lowry Memorial Park, Princeton, Missouri. Photo credit: Nels Olsen/Wikimedia


A rocket-shaped playground equipment in Bakerview Park, Mount Vernon, United States. Photo credit: amanda/Flickr


A rocket slide at a playground in Chillicothe, Missouri, United States. Photo credit: Nels Olsen/Flickr


A rocket slide at a playground in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, United States. Photo credit: clarkmaxwell/Flickr


A rocket slid at a playground in Benalla, Australia. Photo credit: Peter Ermel/Panoramio

Sources: Wikipedia / Mineral County Independent News / Collector’s Weekly / NY Times


  1. This is Sputnik build by sculptor Zdenek Nemecek in 1960 in Prague:

    Other Czech playgrounds from sixties:

  2. "Rocket Park," near St. Louis. This rocket was a new construction to replace an older version.

  3. Excellent examples of the types of playgrounds I remember as a kid in the 1970s, nearly all gone by the late 1990s. I've been disappointed many times to find the replacements since then are small, lack interest, and appear too "safe" to have appeal for anyone over the age of eight. I appreciate your input within the article regarding kids who, then, were required to possess a certain amount of "risk assessment", which actually may have unwittingly taught many of us an important lesson while having fun. Thank you. - Scott in DFW


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