When they first began appearing in American towns and cities in the early 20th century, public playgrounds were far from the frivolous invention the name implies. Rather, the establishment of designated child activity areas, with exercise equipment, was part of a Progressive Era social agenda that aimed to educate and socialize underprivileged and immigrant children and keep urban youth from crime.
"They were part of the reform movement at that time. People were trying to keep kids off the streets and keep them from getting into trouble, so they started building these playgrounds," said Manitou Springs photographer Brenda Biondo. "It's interesting to see the evolution over the ages."
Biondo documents that evolution in her new book "Once Upon a Playground," which celebrates the playgrounds that sprung up across the nation between 1920 and 1975. The book includes more than 160 contemporary photographs, along with vintage images and a forward by playground historian Susan G. Solomon. An exhibit related to the book is up through Sunday at the Manitou Art Center.
About a decade ago, Biondo was mentally casting about for an inspiring theme for a new photo project, when she found herself at a Manitou Springs park with her then-infant daughter.
"I was looking around and they had a newer piece, a small plastic structure with a slide and I started thinking, 'Where is all the great playground equipment I remember from my childhood - seesaws, metal slides, the merry-go-round?'" said Biondo. "I started visiting parks around here to see if I could find any, and I realized quickly there wasn't that much of the original playground equipment left."
She'd found her perfect subject.
"So many of us grew up on this equipment and have good memories of playing on it as kids," said Biondo, whose children are now 9 and 11. "I thought it would be a great photography project to document the pieces of equipment that are still standing."
For eight years, the former freelance writer traveled the nation in search of forgotten and derelict playground equipment, from Arizona to Pennsylvania to Virginia to New Mexico - with lots of examples from Colorado and the Front Range.
Historical themes proved consistent, coast to coast: Playgrounds built during the Space Race had equipment shaped like rockets; before that, timely playground themes included cowboys and Indians, "The Wizard of Oz" and Charlie Brown.
"The playground styles changed and reflected what was going on in society at the time," says Biondo, who sees her work as an homage to an almost-bygone America. "Even in the years I was shooting, it was starting to disappear. I'm sure at least half the pieces of equipment featured in the book have been taken down since I took pictures of them, which is really a shame."
Stephanie Earls, 636-0364
Photographer Brenda Biondo will sign copies of her book, "Once Upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920-1975," 6-8 p.m. at Venue 515 at Manitou Art Center, 515 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs. Biondo's images are on exhibit at the gallery through Sunday.
Info: brendabiondo.com, 685-1861, onceuponaplayground.com