Chicago’s Mary Bartelme Playground

IMG_4795Location: This playground is in Bartelme Park in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood at the corner of Sangamon and Adams St (115 S. Sangamon St.). More information (and a city map)can be found here.

How we define ‘play’ depends on our cultural sensibility. Think of that memorable opening scene in the movie BABIES with the little boys in Namibia playing at pounding cassava like their mothers. Therefore, our playgrounds reflect our cultural imagination of what ‘a playground’ looks like.

There have not always been playgrounds. At least, not like we think of them, with slides and monkey bars and such designed just for young people. According to a brief history I recently read in ‘Play & Playground Magazine,’ it was the car that forced the modern playground. When people thought the streets were not a safe place for kids to be kicking balls and skipping rope, they designated special play yards.

Jay Beckwith, one of the early innovators of modern playground design, goes on in this article to say: “Societies are made up of communities, and it is in these subgroups where we find the unique expressions of how the community sees itself. A community often expresses its identity most clearly in the way they provide for play.”

On a trip last fall to visit friends  in Chicago, I was impressed by the Mary Bartelme Playground. It is in a full city block of park surrounded by streets much too crowded with cars to play in. It is a different looking playground. There are no swings. But the children easily recognized it as a place to play, and they loved it.

I don’t know the back story of the Mary Bartelme playground (there’s a little here). A short Chicago@Play video explains that it took more than a decade to create this ‘innovate’ playground, which is now a ‘regional destination.’ It is lovely, even on a rainy September day.

Mary Bartelme1

Mary Bartelme

What’s to love?

Playground-Review-logoAdults:  I really liked this place. I would guess it could serve a wider range of ages than most playgrounds. I wanted to climb around and indeed many parents were with their kids, in some cases helping kids along as challenges intimidated them. I’m not sure what I think of this…on the one hand, it seems great for parents and kids to play together. On the other hand, are parents jumping in to help too quickly, not able to watch their kids struggle through uncertainty a bit?  I’m not sure. But anyway, the unusual terrain and design elements are inviting. I also like that the playground is gated, but within a larger park that is lovely and lively. There is plenty of seating, a drinking fountain, rocks for climbing, and a modern art sculpture that sprays water for cooling off on hot days.

Some of the downsides: There didn’t seem to be any shade in the playground area. There are no bathrooms. And, it’s on busy streets where parking is metered.

Three-Year-Old: She thought the hammock was neat. She preferred to go under things, finding ways to crawl around. She climbed up the ‘hills’ (the surface is tacky) but was confused about getting down them. Then she found the slide!

Five-Year-Old: She liked climbing everything and ran around exploring, trying it all. When she found the ropes course, including a tight rope with handles over head, she was really impressed. I could see her processing all the newness, pushing herself within the mild chaos of this urban zone.

Thoughts: Susan Solomon, in a useful article published on Playscapes, provides some questions for community groups wanting to ask people to imagine a different sort of playground. She suggests that is it silly to ask people what they want because they generally say things they have seen before.

Solomon says to ask kids things like: “Where would you like to go alone?” and “What is the silliest thing you have ever done?” For adults, she suggests “Do you have a favorite private space?” and “What value or sensation do you want your kids to experience: e.g.  risk, fear, failure, satisfaction, accomplishment, beauty, tranquility, action?”

My own kids are less creative in breaking the cultural mold of playground than I would think they might be. When I suggest they invent their dream playground, the result is a drawing of slides and swings. That has been the definition of playground in their experience…but places like this, and the sum of our playground adventures, are helping to break the mold a bit. Fieldtrips are great!


About Jessica Becker

I am a community outreach professional raising two daughters with my husband in an old house on an isthmus. I wake early to practice yoga, I cook dinner for my family, I bike most places I go, and I believe that happiness is a life skill. It is up to each of us to create the causes of happiness. For me, that means seeing what is going on and engaging creatively with people and places. I write about it at

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