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Playgrounds For The 21st Century

Kid on a swing
AP Photo
Kids today are lucky. Playgrounds have evolved from the jerky seesaws and galvanized jungle gyms many adults grew up on. They are light years away from the very first playgrounds in this country, which were put up in the late 1800s.

"Playgrounds aren't just toys," Darrell Hammond, founder of Kaboom, a nonprofit organization that builds playgrounds, told CBS News correspondent Joie Chen. "They're where imaginations soar, and they're where dreams become reality."

Kaboom partners with big-money donors like Home Depot and is more than halfway through one of its goals — putting up 1,000 playgrounds in 1,000 days.

"A lot of people refer to us as the Habitat for Humanity for playground and skate parks," Hammond said.

On empty lots around the country, the playgrounds go up like an old-fashioned barn-raising. It's a real community project. Hundreds of volunteers with tons of sweat equity build the playground from the ground up in just one day.

Each Kaboom space is different. But since the organization buys more playground equipment than anyone else, a lot of the same equipment pops up in different playgrounds.

Architectural historian Susan Solomon doesn't like that. She says in her book, "American Playgrounds," that "existing American playgrounds are a disaster." To be fair, Solomon has softened on that since her book came out two years ago, but says that people should imagine a different kind of playground space, one that looks less like a fort. Solomon advocates for a more open space where kids can just imagine, like the space at Harlem's Thurgood Marshall School.

In San Francisco, landscape architect Walter Hood designed the Children's Garden of Enchantment at Golden Gate Park. Children there can engage in sensory activities that help forge a connection between imagination and the world around them.

"You could imagine running along here and then every hour on the hour, fog comes up from below," he said walking through the park's fog field. "It's a place you can come and you might dig into the dirt. You might climb on something. You might run. You might sit. You might question. You might get frightened. You might be happy. It's much more coming here and looking and saying, 'Wow, this is an environment that looks like our kids will enjoy.'"

Two cutting-edge playgrounds are in the works in New York City. One will be from avant-garde architect Frank Gehry. The other comes from designer David Rockwell, whose creation will replace a Manhattan parking lot. He says kids want water.

"They want options," he said. "They want to get their hands in the dirt."

Better known for his playgrounds for grown-ups — like some of New York's hottest restaurants — Rockwell, who is a dad himself, has turned his attention to how kids play and what they want to play with.

"What's surprising is, watching kids play — (they) use something in the way that isn't what it was intended for," he said. "They'll always take something and turn it upside down, and look at it differently."