THE FIRST PLAYGROUND in the United States was a pile of sand. Built — or maybe dumped is the better word — in 1885 on a churchyard in Boston, the pile was paid for by a group of what Alexandra Lange describes as “female philanthropists” who believed the city’s immigrant children needed a safe place to play away from the increasingly crowded streets.

Though it seems gritty in comparison with the NASA-grade rubberized surfaces and apparatuses of the playgrounds many lucky children use today, the pile was important for reasons both practical and philosophical. First, it moved Mayor Josiah Quincy VI to put a playground in every ward in the city. And it revealed some deep thinking about the kinds of materials that children want and need most.

The imaginative malleability of sand — like that of the cardboard box or the stick, both all-time childhood favorites — reinforces the pedagogical values that Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi laid out 84 years earlier in his book How Gertrude Teaches Her Children (1801). As Lange writes in her new book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (2018), “[C]hildren learn best when they follow their own interests; that perception is the source of all learning; […] [and] that children learn best through activity.”

Lange, the author of three previous books, including Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (2012), is a design critic and architectural historian with bylines in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Curbed.com, where she posts a regular column. Despite not having a permanent post at a newspaper or magazine — or maybe because — she might be the most influential design critic writing now. She brings her considerable powers, both as an observer of objects and spaces and as a writer of sentences, to The Design of Childhood, which provides history and commentary on toys, houses, schools, playgrounds, and cities — organized in that order, from the small to the large, like the nesting dolls that my two-year-old daughter can’t get enough of.

But back to the pile. “What,” Lange asks, “were children doing in the sand?” As she frames it, the children were participating in a kind of history themselves. Sand, piled in a Boston churchyard, had been introduced first in German kindergartens. Eventually, it became codified as an elemental part of the design vocabulary of play as a “sandbox,” which has since turned into a catch-all description of any imaginative activity, even computer games like SimCity and Minecraft, where the world is just structured enough to give children boundaries within which they can explore. To Lange, sand is not just sand: it is material and metaphor. Discovering textures (and, let’s face it, tastes), having conversations, forming habits, building cities — what weren’t the children doing in it?

Throughout The Design of Childhood, she looks just this closely at a range of exceptional objects and spaces — from Lego blocks to walkable Rotterdam neighborhoods — that designers have made. And the discussion of exceptional models, of course, makes you reflect on your own childhood — which was, I will guess, unexceptional. As Lange praises “the child-size universe” that Perkins+Will took such care to design at the 1940 Crow Island School in Illinois and the “contemporary pleasure park” that West 8 has achieved at the new Governors Island in New York City, your mind is liable to revisit the classrooms and parks that shaped you, for better and worse. In this way, The Design of Childhood reveals some significant social inequities — a cliché, unfortunately, that still deserves repetition: not all communities have access to the kind of thinking that Lange admires. Of course, she’s aware of this, too. As she writes, for example:

In 1921, of 3,969 municipally operated playgrounds and recreation centers in the United States, only fifty-six reported having a playground available for black children, and only fourteen cities ran integrated playgrounds.

I wonder what Lange would have to say about my elementary school in rural Indiana. I remember cinder blocks, tile floors, dropped ceilings. The classrooms opened out to an O-shaped corridor. We were like processionary caterpillars, following each other in a circle in and out of boxes all day long. Despite the creativity of my teachers, who taught ably, the space reinforced some of the harder lessons — constriction, conformity — of the small town itself. We lined up after recess, our hands clasped behind our backs, lips pursed, and we entered the straight and narrow. My hometown — like many others across the country, which now have to worry as much about providing students enough daylight as they do about protecting them from shootings — could never have afforded Perkins+Will or West 8.

Though Lange invites us to examine the ingenuity and sensitivity that goes into the best designs and study the exceptional models, it is possible for something else to slip in — a resentment that it can’t be this way for everyone.

Maybe that’s naïve. But it is something I worry about as a parent. You want to make sure you are doing everything you can for your daughter to have a chance to discover who she is, and then love what she discovers. I read The Design of Childhood in a two-minded state, in awe at the attention to the wants and needs of children that designers like Aldo Rossi, planners like Brent Toderian, and even philosophers like John Dewey took to their work, and panicked that I won’t be able to do enough for my own.

Sometimes it’s because. Sometimes it’s despite. We all survived our childhoods. I think the real lesson of the book is that it’s possible to do more than that. Here, Lange seems to argue. This. These are the tools — no, the toys — that we can use to grow up into the people we most want to be.

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Allyn West edits and writes for the Houston Chronicle. Before, he worked as a writer for the Rice Design Alliance at Rice University.