Berlin: The Playground Capital of the World?

I use to think Calgary had a lot of playgrounds, but not anymore. Berlin seems to have playgrounds on almost every block, sometimes two and three, especially in the Kreuzberg district.  Then I learned there are over 2,000 public playgrounds in the city, but that doesn’t include all the school and daycare playgrounds, which also seemed to on every block. 

Staying in Kreuzberg for a month was a unique urban experience given the multitude of children of all ages everywhere, every day.  One day kept track and I couldn't go a half a block without encountering a stroller.  But what made the experience most unique were the vintage playgrounds. 

Found this primitive crocodile bench early and thought it might be a bit strange and scary for toddlers. This was only the beginning. 

Found this primitive crocodile bench early and thought it might be a bit strange and scary for toddlers. This was only the beginning. 

Soon we encountered another playground with more mythical creatures.   

Soon we encountered another playground with more mythical creatures.   

Almost all of the swings in Berlin have some sort of character at the top. In this case, it was a well-weathered cartoon figure, but in most cases it was an animal. 

Almost all of the swings in Berlin have some sort of character at the top. In this case, it was a well-weathered cartoon figure, but in most cases it was an animal. 

These sculpture-like pieces of wood, reminded my of spinning tops. Note in the background is a small hard surface for soccer, roller blading or other activities. 

These sculpture-like pieces of wood, reminded my of spinning tops. Note in the background is a small hard surface for soccer, roller blading or other activities. 

Liked the use of natural trees in this playground, with roots still attached to create a swing.  

Liked the use of natural trees in this playground, with roots still attached to create a swing.  

Included this photo as it illustrates how the tree limbs of the playground mirror those in the trees behind.  

Included this photo as it illustrates how the tree limbs of the playground mirror those in the trees behind.  

Busy Busy Busy 

Not only are there a lot of playgrounds but also they are very busy. I initially thought it was because most people live in apartments with no backyards. However, the more I explored I discovered many of the apartment blocks actually have their own playgrounds and courtyards, although they didn’t seem to get as much use as the local playground.  I even encountered several places where there were sandboxes and/or a play area in the tiny front yards of ground level apartments.

And when I say busy, I am not talking about two or three families I am talking dozens.  It is like a mini festival with all of the shrieks of fun especially on weekends and after work on the weekdays.

This was our local playground on the weekends and from about 3 pm to about 7 pm weekday depending on weathe.  It is also busy during the day as there are probably 6 or more daycares in the immediate area. 

This was our local playground on the weekends and from about 3 pm to about 7 pm weekday depending on weathe.  It is also busy during the day as there are probably 6 or more daycares in the immediate area. 

This playground was busy even on a cool day in early March. It was part of a large complex with skatepark across the street, dog park and hard surface playing cages.

This playground was busy even on a cool day in early March. It was part of a large complex with skatepark across the street, dog park and hard surface playing cages.

I don't think I have ever seen more strollers and young kids on striders, bikes and scooters than as I saw in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on an everyday basis.

I don't think I have ever seen more strollers and young kids on striders, bikes and scooters than as I saw in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on an everyday basis.

It was probably two weeks before I saw a new playground which had the same elements as the old ones just more colour.  There is a strong sense of craftsmanship and being hand-made to these enchanting playgrounds. They look like something magical, out of a children's storybook. 

It was probably two weeks before I saw a new playground which had the same elements as the old ones just more colour.  There is a strong sense of craftsmanship and being hand-made to these enchanting playgrounds. They look like something magical, out of a children's storybook. 

This playground had fun theme, including a snake on a spring for rocking back and forth and other exotic shapes and characters.  

This playground had fun theme, including a snake on a spring for rocking back and forth and other exotic shapes and characters.  

This new playground had stumps and logs to walk along around the entire playground. It also served as seating.

This new playground had stumps and logs to walk along around the entire playground. It also served as seating.

Hammocks are often included in Berlin playgrounds. 

Hammocks are often included in Berlin playgrounds. 

There is a small playground behind the hill in the background, along with these three red sculpture like pieces that could be used to sit on or to climb over or jump off of.  Ping pong tables are also common in Berlin playground public spaces and yes they do get used. 

There is a small playground behind the hill in the background, along with these three red sculpture like pieces that could be used to sit on or to climb over or jump off of.  Ping pong tables are also common in Berlin playground public spaces and yes they do get used. 

Vintage Fun

Berlin’s playgrounds are also very different from North America’s as there is none of the Crayola meets Fisher Price, Ikea-looking playgrounds. Most of the playgrounds are pretty much void of any colour, which is totally the opposite of other elements of the city’s urban fabric, which is full of colour. 

In fact most of the playgrounds have vintage look, as the equipment and benches are all still made of wood, with twisted tree limb shapes as if they just cut off a few limbs and stuck them in the ground.  And while there are still some traces of the original paint, they haven’t been painted in decades, creating a grey weathered look.

Berlin’s playgrounds are like one mega sand box (no pea gravel or rubberized surfaces here), with strange looking forts, ships and other structures (by North American standards) that families are invited to climb, jump, bounce and play on. The most intriguing element are the mysterious carved animal heads on springs to rock back and forth on.  

They look like they belong in an anthropology museum – there are probably thousands of them.
Soon the thrill of the hunt for me was to find old playgrounds and photograph their primitive creatures and characters.  Here are a few samples.

Soon the thrill of the hunt for me was to find old playgrounds and photograph their primitive creatures and characters.  Here are a few samples.

Found this new hand carved creature which is very cute and charming today, would be interesting to document how it changes over the years. 

Found this new hand carved creature which is very cute and charming today, would be interesting to document how it changes over the years. 

These family-sized rockers were very popular.  Mom, Dad and several kids could rock on them, or a bunch of kids could hop on and have fun. 

These family-sized rockers were very popular.  Mom, Dad and several kids could rock on them, or a bunch of kids could hop on and have fun. 

Caged in?

All playgrounds have a low fence that keeps the kids and balls in the area encloses all the playgrounds.  As well, many playgrounds will also have a high fenced-in hard surface nearby that can be used as both a place to play dodge ball, soccer and basketball.  The high fence that encloses the courts gives them a strange cage-fighting ring look, at least to this North American. These multi-use courts were well used by older children and adults.

An example of a caged court for playing soccer with a basketball court next to it. 

An example of a caged court for playing soccer with a basketball court next to it. 

Another example of caged arena-like play area.  Note it is typical for there to be lots of graffiti in and around the playgrounds, nobody seems to mind.

Another example of caged arena-like play area.  Note it is typical for there to be lots of graffiti in and around the playgrounds, nobody seems to mind.

Shade, Sit & Skate

Berlin’s urban trees are amazing. Huge six story trees line many of the streets and dominate the parks, creating lovely shade in the summer but letting in the sun in during late fall to early spring.  I was also impressed by the abundant places to just sit, and how Berliners have mastered the art of sitting. 

And we are not talking about fancy benches and seats; again they are usually old wooden benches that you would rarely see in North American cities.

The number of small neighborhood skate parks was also impressive. Sometimes I wonder if Calgary made a mistake building a mega skate park at downtown’s Millennium Park instead of creating several smaller neighborhood skate parks. 

Loved this vintage curved bench with its weathered patina. It adds a lovely sense of character, charm and time that is Berlin. New is not always better?

Loved this vintage curved bench with its weathered patina. It adds a lovely sense of character, charm and time that is Berlin. New is not always better?

Last Word 

While Berlin’s playgrounds and parks are not pristine by any standards, they are well used. There is little to no grass in most of the parks, that is either because it is hard to grow grass in the sandy soil, or the parks and playgrounds are so heavily used the grass just gets worn out.  I believe it is the latter.

And while many of the playgrounds look old and dreary by North American standards, the kids don’t mind and the little ones love playing in the sand. 

It is a reminder to me we don’t necessarily need to always have the newest, brightest, cleanest public spaces to make them successful.

Note: Most of my time was spent in the hipster, bohemian areas of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Mitte, Neukolin districts of Berlin, so these observations may not be indicative of all of Berlin.  It should also be noted these communities seem to be home to a disproportionate number of young adults who have young children. Berlin’s sidewalk ballet is a kaleidoscope of pedestrians, buggies, striders, scooters and bikes of all shapes and sizes weaving in and out trying to avoid each other.  It is chaos but it seems to work, we didn't see a single collision. 

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