Evolution of American Playgrounds

February 11, 2019
Evolution of American Playgrounds

Evolution of American Playgrounds

The word playground is a bit of a blanket term and can apply to a lot of different things. Playgrounds can be at schools, parks, zoos, camps, casinos, dog parks, on streets, on cruise ships, rooftops, and even out in the wilderness. Not only do playgrounds vary by location but they can have different materials, purposes and functions.

It was at the beginning of the 19th century that an outdoor play and exercise training program began in Germany. The ideas behind it were extended by a group of people in the Jahn gymnastic associations. They were the ones to organize the very first system of a school play. This was organized with very deliberate motivations. They were doing it for the sake of health and physical fitness, but also more nationalistic reasons. It became a part of developing the fitness of young men for service in the military, and for women to be mothers. They also hoped it would reduce the amount of childhood disease.

The play movement that happened in England was linked to the sudden changes in lifestyle of the people there. They began considering how the ‘streets ‘ were treating the children. It was in the United States in the late 19th century that they started becoming aware of these types of social issues and wanted the children to be protected from temptations and dangers, especially on the streets in large cities.

In 1821, at the Latin School in Salem, Massachusetts, an ‘outdoor gymnasia‘ was built. The inspiration for this structure was attributed to physical training sources in New England. There are a number of things that point to these ‘playgrounds’ having German influence. Breaks were given at school for play time, and they were called ‘recess’ which means ‘playtime’ in the UK. Unfortunately, this fad of outdoor gymnasia faded, and most people lost interest by about 1830. For the next half century, only a small handful even existed. It wasn’t until 1887 that the plight of children living in the slums became extremely obvious, and this is when Berlin’s sand gardens were adopted.

It was during the industrial revolution and the early years of the twentieth century that immigration from several countries resulted in large areas of poverty in some of the biggest cities in America. During this time, many children lived in deplorable conditions, having to fight hard to simply survive. It was during this time that a law was put into place that prohibited any child from playing in the streets. This resulted in thousands of children being dragged into court. Witnessing this for some time, many different groups of people finally banded together to create what they called the child saving movement, which pushed for play and playgrounds to be allowed. The sand gardens were instrumental to this movement.

It was during the 1880’s that a German political leader started placing piles of sand in the public parks of Berlin, where children were playing. Dr. Marie Zakerzewska was an American visiting Berlin and she was impressed by this idea. She recommended it to the Chairmen of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association in 1886. They adopted the idea and placed piles of sand in the yards of the Children’s Mission located on Parmenter Street in Boston. These are considered the first organized, supervised playgrounds in the United States, and they have been credited with starting the very first legitimate play movement for the children of America. By 1891 playgrounds were becoming more and more diversified and they began growing quickly. Things like ladders, swings, and seesaws were being added, and by the turn of the century, everything was set for designers, builders, and manufacturers alike to enter the beginning of the playground industry.

While sand gardens are considered the “first stage” of playground development, model playgrounds are what made up the second stage. The term was first used in connection with a famous playground by Jane Addams called Hull House playground, located in Chicago, and it was intended for both big and little kids alike. The playground was very versatile as it contained sand piles, benches, building blocks, swings, a may pole for the younger children, and baseball and handball courts for the older kids. The playground was supervised by a police officer as well as a teacher.

Model playgrounds that existed around the start of the 20th century were the basis for the playgrounds that we see today, although back then they served a different purpose. As they began to gain popularity and more and more places, especially school yards, wanted to build them, they needed to determine how much supervision would be needed and which elements of the playground were most popular. So, the playgrounds were studied. The available equipment was similar to what is around today, but there were also designated places for organized sports and games. These playgrounds were funded by both private and public sources. The concept of the playground spread quickly, and more and more cities picked up on it. As it became increasingly popular, equipment manufacturers became interested in the scene. New and innovative types of swinging, sliding and climbing were created and advertised.

Despite the fact that playgrounds were rapidly growing in popularity, they were still largely unregulated, and some claimed they were hazardous. It was recommended that they be bigger, be more supervised, and stay open even after school, on weekends, and during summer vacation. It was in 1910 that the Playground Association of America actually published a set of recommendations for public playground supervision.

Motor vehicles soon began to multiply and become more and more common in city areas, and children were soon prohibited from playing on the crowded streets. Playgrounds were soon being developed on closed streets, in housing areas, backyards, and vacant lots in addition to those at schools and in parks.

It was in 1906 that the PAA was officially founded, and Luther Gulick was named president. Theodore Roosevelt was named the honorary president and was very involved in the organization. On the day of its creation, the organizers met at the White House, with President Roosevelt himself. Over the course of few meetings, a publication was created, simply called “The Playground.” This document played a huge role in the development of the play movement and inspired many of the courses for play leaders within schools.

At the time of the PAA’s beginning, 41 cities had operating playgrounds. By 1924 this number had grown considerably to 5006 playgrounds which employed 15,871 people. The number of schools offering training programs and courses for play leaders was growing considerably as well. Due to the continually growing popularity, they ended up splitting the movement into two parts. The first part focused on the schoolyard playgrounds, which contained mostly swings, slides, seesaws, and sandboxes. The second part moved to focus on developing municipal and park playgrounds which would be operated and developed by park boards or special commissions. It is these park playgrounds that were usually the most costly as they would occupy several acres and be manned by multiple physical directors.

By about 1910, the idea of playgrounds was growing so fast that PAA leaders decided “playground” to be too narrow of a term. They changed their name to “Playground and Recreation Association of America” (PRAA). The name of their official journal was also changed from Playground to Recreation in order to match this change of focus. They were moving from just playgrounds, to a much wider range of social and civic recreational affairs. In 1930, only one fifth of children in America had access to playgrounds. Due to the work and influence of the PRAA, this number began to increase. They focused primarily on urban areas and did their best to match the leisure-based desires of their citizens.

They eventually decided that the term “playground” was simply too restrictive overall and it was ultimately removed from the name of the organization. The name was changed to simply “National Recreation Association, or “NRA.” By 1966 the NRA had merged with a few other organizations to form a new group called the “National Recreation and Park Association.” This organization became very powerful as it placed even more emphasis on playgrounds and play time in the first several years of the 21st century and onward.

From A simple idea that just wanted to keep kids off the streets, to a universal concept that is backed by governments and organizations all over the world, playgrounds have certainly come a long way. Not only do playgrounds and encouraged play time keep kids happy and in good physical condition, but the whole industry creates jobs as well. From manufacturers, to designers, and even supervisors, playgrounds definitely make their contribution to society. Their most important purpose, however, is simple and clear: allow kids of all ages a safe and productive place to play and express themselves. Playgrounds have come such a long way over the years and have improved so much in their ability to allow kids this fun and easy way to enjoy themselves and just play.