Drawing, "Child Volcano Play Sculpture," 1958-1960 / THF140518
Designer Robert Propst was best known for leading Herman Miller’s development of the Action Office cubicle system. In the mid-1950s, though, he created a number of toy designs, including the Fun Sticks game, a Fun Duck scooter, and the Fun Swing—a piece of playground equipment safety experts might cringe to see in action today.
In 1958, Propst drew up designs for playground sculptures cast in fine cement—no sharp corners in sight—covered in red, yellow, and blue plasticized paint. Park plans show the curiously labeled “Child Volcano” nestled between slides and biomorphic hide-and-seek structures. Inside the volcano’s hollow core, ladder rungs allowed children to climb out the top and tumble down its sides like flowing magma.
Drawing, "Park Playground," October 30, 1958. The Child Volcano is the yellow structure in the lower right. / THF623880
Playgrounds seem to contrast with the controlled systems Propst is celebrated for. However, this approach—proposing a spectrum across structured activity and free exploration—not only encouraged creative thinking paramount to learning and growth but informed his vision for flexibility and problem-solving in the office.
I got excited when I learned a playscape was in the works at Greenfield Village.
Actually, at first, I got a little nervous.
I couldn’t picture the typical playscape situated anywhere in the landscape of Greenfield Village. When I learned the overall theme suggests a 1920s-era construction site, I was definitely intrigued.
Then, I saw the location – which is ideally situated behind the carousel, near a restroom and in close proximity to food and the Smith’s Creek Depot. It’s a perfect spot for a respite. Oh, and it’s fenced in, allowing a safe play area and a more relaxing experience for the adults minding their children there.
So last week, I was thrilled when I learned from The Henry Ford’s president, Patricia Mooradian, the plan does not include the trademark red or yellow fiberglass slide familiar to playgrounds, but it does include the opportunity for children to play and explore some real artifacts, including a boardable 1931 Ford Model AA truck and a 20-foot-long boiler tunnel that originally sat near the Armington and Sims Machine Shop inside the village.
That just reinforced what I already know: That even when it comes to adding a contemporary feature like a playscape – The Henry Ford is all about guests experiencing history in a unique way. The playscape provides another opportunity – this time directed at children – to climb right inside a piece of history. (Think about taking a seat inside the Rosa Parks Bus, a tour of the Dymaxion House, a visit to the Wright Brothers’ shop, and eating a meal Lamy’s Diner – you get the picture). The playscape gives children access to artifacts in a way that is meaningful for them – with the added bonus of a spot to run off some steam. (Which I so gladly welcome.)
I thought: Nice, that really takes the cake.
That is, until I learned that the new playscape is carefully designed for enjoyment by children of all abilities, and most of the activities are ground-level accessible or accessible by ramp. There are varying sculptural swings so all children – whether fully-able or without full control of their arms and legs – may enjoy them.
“We hope that this playscape can serve as a model for others to become more aware and more willing to adopt design principles that address the interest and needs of people, especially children, of all abilities,” Patricia told guests at the groundbreaking ceremony.
This playscape and The Henry Ford’s recent partnership with Autism Awareness Alliance of Michigan, are examples of forward thinking that continue to honor Henry Ford - the man – while realizing the institution’s mission: to provide unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America's traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation.
I love that through these two initiatives, The Henry Ford goes beyond addressing challenges of just accessibility for visitors all abilities – but keeps focused on its purpose – which is to inspire them for a better future.
I know I’m inspired – yet again – and I can’t wait for my little ones try it out.
Anyone who has visited Greenfield Village’s 80 acres knows that there’s a lot to see and do during any given visit. Despite having numerous open spaces throughout Greenfield Village, guests have asked us for a safe, contained space that offers children a chance to run and play while parents take a minute to relax and enjoy their surroundings. We heard you loud and clear – we needed a play area for our younger visitors.
A while back, The Henry Ford began exploring what a playscape might look like in Greenfield Village. Thanks to an early planning grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, our teams were able to explore a design for the area. Designing a playground for an open-air museum provided a bit of a challenge – it needed to be historically themed, for one thing. We also wanted to make sure that the playscape offered endless amounts of fun and lots of challenges as children played, no matter their abilities.
Today we’re pleased to break ground on our Greenfield Village Playscape. Thanks to a generous donation from long-time Dearborn residents and dear friends of The Henry Ford, Mary and Don Kosch, our playscape will be ready for guests to enjoy this fall. What we came up with is a construction-like setting featuring both artifacts and state-of-the-art playground equipment. Located behind the Herschell-Spillman carousel, the playscape’s home is a natural fit for that area of Greenfield Village; on any given day we see families relaxing there, enjoying a snack, or getting ready for another ride on the carousel.
What will you find inside the playscape? Quite a bit! Features include:
a water tower
water feature with tanks
sluice and hand-pumps
work building; work tables
boardable 1931 Model AA truck
large platform seesaw
interactive boiler sculpture
Because we wanted our new playscape to be enjoyed by all, most of the activities are ground-level accessible or accessible by ramp. The area is fenced in with ramp accessibility. Our sculptural swings vary in design so that all children, whether fully-able or without full control of their arms and legs, may enjoy them.
Will our playscape look like other playscapes in parks or at schools? No. Our playscape will have an authentic, era-appropriate look that will fit right into Greenfield Village’s backdrop.
We can’t wait for children to enjoy the playscape later this year. While we’re looking forward to seeing all of the great memories made season after season, we’re also hoping that our commitment to creating an all-ability environment will spread to other family destinations, too. Hopefully you agree.
Make sure to follow along on Facebook this summer as we share updates on the playscape’s progress. The next time you visit Greenfield Village make sure to stop by the construction area to see what’s new.