The origins of the first children’s slide is a subject of uncertainty. The BBC credits historians with the discovery of archival photos of a planked wooden structure by engineer Charles Wicksteed that resembles a widened stair-rail. Built in 1922 in Kettering, Northamptonshire, the slide is mounted by a nine-foot-tall ladder that leads to the top of a smoothly hewn platform from which you might find a daredevil skateboarder gliding down before going airborne.
Several blogs have largely debunked the idea that these are the world’s first children’s slides. Paige Johnson’s eloquent Playscapes cites several earlier slides, such as “the rooftop playground slide in New York in 1900, or the young Tsarevich’s slide at Tsarskoe Seloe (1910), or the forty-five foot long waxed wooden slide at the Smith Memorial Playground in Philadelphia which was installed in 1904 (renovated and reopened in 2005), or the c. 1905 Coney Island Slide.” PlayGroundology shows photos recovered from the U.S. Patent Office of a ponderous spiraling slide by W.H. Logan patented in 1905, and offers this curious historical theory:
“I believe the slide originated in the northern hemisphere, in areas with hilly terrain. Long, cold winters were the norm. Sliding down snowy embankments was great organic entertainment. In North America, this was happening before the Europeans ever arrived on the scene. However, with the introduction of the horse, it’s entirely possible that aboriginal peoples of the northern plains tried to replicate sliding fun in warmer weather. When the family was taking a rest on the trail or setting up camp, it’s plausible that the younger kids would get to zip down a makeshift slide constructed with travois poles.”
Whatever their origins, slides appear to be evolving in the direction of more imposing heights, steeper inclines, and more architecturally adventurous designs. The dragon’s tongue slide at the Parc de la Villete in Paris, France, is an 80-meter-long thrill ride supported by free-standing tubular supports. Gulliver’s hairy slide in Valencia, Spain, named after Jonathon Swift’s titular character, is part of a massive cubist sculptural playground reimagining a scene in which the literary giant is tied down by the Lilliputians. Closer to home, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago includes a 30-foot tube slide descending from the top of a suspension bridge into a sunken landscape called the Slide Crater.
Among the more exciting trends in slide design, as we’ve touched on in “King of the Hill: Topography in Children’s Playgrounds,” is the use of embankment slides that hug the contours of natural or constructed slopes. These can be found from New York City to Adelaide, Australia, as seen in a wonderful galley put together by Playgroundology. San Francisco’s Lafayette Park Playground by Miller Company Landscape Architects features a custom-built eight-foot-tall tunneling embankment slide supplied by Goric that follows the grade of the poured rubber surfacing, which itself provides an accessible route to the top of a mountain.
In our best of 2016 entry, we looked at a collection of four slides at Slide Hill at Governor’s Island in New York, including the longest in New York at 57-feet-long, that show where the industry may be headed — in a word, toward more daring designs that are not afraid to use stainless steel because of its wear resistance and near-frictionless speed. Here’s how a blogger for Mommy Poppins, a guide for parents of young children living in New York, described her trip to the playground:
“My 10-year-old took a few runs on the big slide, but it really hit the sweet spot for my 6-year-old, who couldn’t get enough, scaling up the natural timber-and-granite steps and trying different speed-maximizing techniques each trip down. Her pro tip: Lay on your back and lift your feet slightly off the slide. By her count, she sped down that slide 21 times, even asking for a second round of runs following our picnic lunch.”
Of course, as slides get higher and faster, safety will loom large as a concern among manufacturers and designers. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers a comprehensive set of guidelines for slide platforms, chutes, and fall zones. These guidelines keep playgrounds in the Unites States relatively tame compared to those in Sweeden and Germany, according to Nathan Elliot, ASLA, a principal at the Office of James Burnett. “We want people to be safe, and we live in a litigious society. It is important not to expose yourself, clients, or the general public to risk and injury. At the same, we want kids to have authentic and valuable experiences and play is essential to that. We’re adults and we need play. Some of our happiest moments come from doing things like children, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that,” Elliot said.
With a suite of stainless steel slides that are easily installed on embankment mounds, Goric is at the vanguard of slide innovation, balancing children’s need for safety with their desire for a good ride. Two slides installed at Rainy Park in Queens, New York, as part of the New York Parks Department project, follow the grade of impact-attenuated, rubber-surfaced mounds. High-lipped chutes keep children happily contained, while whisking them along a gently curving path. The beauty of embankment slides, apart from the fact they are pure fun, is there is nowhere to fall. The slides are embedded in the rubber surfacing, which itself becomes a medium for play.
Since there is no ready-made template for a topographical playground, modular slides are growing in popularity. Goric offers several standard-sized wide bedway hill slides, from 5 to 10 feet in height, easily installed in indoor playgrounds, outdoor play areas, and other settings. For more fanciful projects, the hill slides can be built to spec. They have a clean, svelte look, inspired by the beauty of European sculptural playgrounds and finished by glass bead blasting, pickling, or polishing.
And, let’s face it, a playground is only as good as its slides. They are where children gravitate, where they can experience that sense of joy and abandon that is so vital to their development. And to that, it’s perhaps appropriate to end where we began, with a lovely passage from a Wicksteed company catalogue from 1924. “It was at first thought that children would hesitate about climbing so high a ladder; this has proved to be quite a mistake, they go up without fear or trembling.”