Until the beginning of the 20th century, the children of the capital used the squares and green spaces at their disposal as places for social activities. The cities becoming more and more crowded created a need for a separate area for children to play together. Meanwhile, traffic was also a growing threat to the lazing little ones, and the younger age group, which did not spare flower beds and lawns, was not welcomed in the public parks, so separate playgrounds were needed.
In Ferenc Molnár's youth novel, set in 1889, the subject of the struggle between the boys of Pál Street and the Red Shirts is their sovereignty, the supremacy over a sandlot. The realm of children in the novel is a lumberyard on an empty plot that was the playground of the era.
By the end of the 19th century, it was already recognized in schools that students needed an area where they could move freely. In 1897, for example, a decree regulated that 300 square meters of playground must be accessible for the children of elementary schools.
To remedy the lack of space due to crowdedness, a news article of 1901 in the Evening Newspaper considered the possibility of creating playgrounds on rooftops:
“If it was possible to create a flat area on top of the Urania Theatre where the entire ballet group of the Opera House could dance in the sun so that the cinematographs of Urania could do well, the roofs of Budapest schools and other public buildings could also be transformed into such flat surfaces, which would be great playgrounds for children." - Evening Newspaper, 1901
The above excerpt comes from a letter from a reader mentioning the “paediatric health crate” established at the intersection of Andrássy Road and Nagymező Street, which was practically a sandpit surrounded by planks. This was one of the first efforts to offer children outdoor activities within the narrow confines of the big city.
“So it is an unfounded charge and a malicious slander to say that small children are being persecuted in our capital and nothing is done for their health. And to say that they are not provided with sandy playgrounds, where they could rummage freely, build castles and could even roll in the sand, which activities are said to be one of the best antidotes to rachitis, scrofula and other childhood diseases associated with osteomalacia.” - Evening Newspaper, 1901
The first playground in Budapest opened its doors within the zoo in 1912. The Sunday newspaper reported on the event, which was still special at the time, and the significant demand for playgrounds:
“It wasn’t long ago that they made the first children’s playground, sanding out and planking around a few meters of land on Mátyás Square. The result was staggering in some ways. (…) Because the first playing field was so full that the happy little children could hardly move in the crowd, let alone play freely.” - Sunday Newspaper, 1912
The article reports in connection with the new “kindergarten” that many have not yet encountered a swing, a “slider”, so their usage caused a headache for an average person.
“There’s a ladder, a ring swing, a pole and a climbing rope here. There is a high carousel, where five people can fly around at once. Then for the little ones, a double-swing with comfortable seats and a seated, safe baby-swing for the smallest ones’ passion.” - Sunday Newspaper, 1912
World War I hindered efforts to build more playgrounds in the capital, but afterwards, many playgrounds were built in Városliget, Tisza Kálmán Square (now II. János Pál pápa Square), Klauzál Square, Marczibányi Square, and Gellért Square. About the latter, Képes Pesti Hírlap reported as follows:
“(…) Now, in 1929 (after a playground had been built in Tisza Kálmán Square), the happy sensation of children's world was finally born in Budapest - the magnificent playground on Gellért Square. (…) Slides, merry-go-rounds, sand castles, splashing pools form the districts of the play-town here.” - Képes Pesti Hírlap, 1929
The playground on Gellért Square can also be seen in a contemporary film in a Hungarian Newsreel of April 1930.
The writing points out that the construction of this playground was already planned in 1912, but the Chief Medical Officer vetoed it: "How can gentlemen think of public, mass children playgrounds? Aren’t they afraid that toys will spread childhood diseases?" (Képes Pesti Hírlap, 1929) It is a fact that at that time, in the absence of compulsory vaccinations, the children were more exposed to the risk of epidemic childhood diseases.
In 1937, Budapest had sixteen playgrounds. After World War II, this figure increased significantly. In the fifties, the so-called “playstreets” appeared, which were parts of streets blocked from traffic, where children could play ball games and move more safely. In 1960, nearly three hundred playgrounds were registered officially. In the sixties, overcrowding was still a problem in the city centre, which did not favour outdoor children's activities, but a number of housing estates were built in the outer districts, and a playground was added to each.
“As early as 1964-65, 16 types of play equipment and sports equipment were installed on the squares. Concrete ping-pong tables appeared, so the kids' became more interested in ball games. Various climbing frames and grids developed skills and courage. The balancing beam become very popular; the giant chess, the football kicking cage, and various mini-sports-fields were the favourite ones recently.” - Hungary, 1968
In many cases, the local community balked the growth of playgrounds, as reported by the Evening News in 1967:
“There could be a children’s playground in every new housing estate. It has been planned more recently, but unfortunately, but actually, plans will not always be realized, because of the behaviour of the residents. A spokesman for the Budapest Horticultural and Park Construction Company said the residents had dug out the installed swing stand at Üllői Road at night, saying that if children were playing there, it would disturb their peace.” - Evening Newspaper, 1967
An article from 1978 in Pajtás magazine reports on a new eighty-acre children's empire in the City Park (Városliget). According to the article, Budapest is a city of playgrounds with 1,403 playfields.
From the 1980s onwards, the playground-constructing trend declined and the conditions of existing ones began to deteriorate. Since 2003, toys must be constantly inspected and repaired officially. The European Union standard aims to provide the safest conditions for children in playgrounds. Some toys have been rubber coated as needed, and a rubber mat or a sand-bed protects the infants when they fall.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Gergely Földváry: Gyerekek budapesti Eldorádója - A játszóterek története a fővárosban. PestBuda