What is the history of the playground?
The playground is something many of us consider intertwined with childhood playtime around many parts of the world. The idea of playgrounds developed in the mid-19th century, as people realized increasingly urban areas needed to create space for children to play rather than have them play on streets where it was dangerous. The movement was slow to pick up, however, as few councils and cities provided funds. Today, the playground is a permanent part of many urban areas around the world.
In 1837, the concept of kindergarten, with the term coined in 1840, was developed by the early child psychologist Friedrich Fröbel. He realized that children at early ages needed to combine play with learning and that learning were intertwined with play for young children. As Friedrich Fröbel developed an early kindergarten in Bad Blankenburg, in modern Germany, he realized the school also needed a play space to encourage his learning-play concept. The first playground was created within the area of the first kindergarten. The first playgrounds encouraged dancing and activities that were measured for their educational effect.
Sadly, kindergartens were banned by the Prussian government that came to power in 1851, suppressing the idea and spread of playgrounds in Germany for decades. In the 1880s, playgrounds did appear again in Germany, which were then called sand gardens.
In 1859, in Manchester, England, the Victorian population in the city realized the difficulties they had with children running on the street and the dangers that could cause accidents. Industrialization had made cities crowded, noisy, and polluted. The city decided that year to build the first purpose-built playground that was not attached to any school. The idea was to keep children busy and give them some space away from crowded urban areas. Nevertheless, many people did not see the purpose of playgrounds, as streets were often not that busy in many other cities and there were spaces for children to play in neighborhoods.
In 1886, Boston created arguably the first playground in the United States, and others followed as far as California. However, the idea did not prove popular among many residents in the United States, and many saw funds for public playgrounds as a waste. Things only began to change more substantially as the automobile began to be introduced. In 1901, one of the first reports to publish accidental deaths caused on streets was published. The number of children killed astonished people and soon created a movement to create play areas designated for children. Additionally, educational theories in the United States were beginning to see the relevance of Fröbel's ideas on the importance of play and education. These two effects combined to create a playground movement within the United States in the first decade of the 1900s, culminating with the founding of the Playground Association of America in 1906 (Figure 1).
Spread of Playgrounds
With the establishment of the Playground Association of America, playgrounds spread throughout the United States soon after. However, playgrounds were still very much seen as educational areas as well as for play. Playgrounds tended to be much more formal and required trained supervisors to watch and train children on lessons and activities. Playgrounds were also often dangerous, which included acrobatic equipment and climbing devices that led to injuries. Also, early playgrounds had a somewhat different layout than modern playgrounds. There were separate play sections for different activities; areas were also created for athletic play, including fields for boys and girls.
Many playgrounds had shelters and toilet or even bathing facilities. Playgrounds were also integrated as part of urban gardens and parks, with garden plots, shaded areas, and swimming pools all part of formal playgrounds. Playgrounds were almost always supervised, and children could not simply go to the playground without prior permission from supervisors of these playgrounds. Playground time was often a scheduled activity that formed part of the wider education of children.
Change to playgrounds though began to appear by the next decades in the 1910s-1920s, as manufacturers realized that playgrounds provided financial opportunities for them. They began to create new forms of entertainment for children, with ladders, chains, and new types of climbing areas created, although playgrounds were still relatively dangerous by modern standards, with injuries common. The 1910s-1920s was considered an experimental time for playgrounds, as manufacturers began to develop different forms of equipment for play and activities.
In 1922, the first playground slide may have been installed, with Wicksteed Park in Kettering, England installing the slide. Swings appeared more regularly, although the swing existed as a leisure device since antiquity. Slides had been around since the turn of the century, but they were mostly installed in amusement parks such as Coney Island. After the 1920s, the 1930s-1940s saw little development or even expansion of playgrounds, as the Depression and World War II slowed their construction.
In the late 1940s-1950s, landscape playgrounds became a new novelty. At this point, the formality of playgrounds began to wane as people began to see playgrounds as places mostly for children entertainment or places to burn off energy. The formality of playgrounds had already began to wane by the 1910s-1920s when new equipment was introduced, but this now accelerated (Figure 2).
As more playgrounds spread in the 1950s-1960s, child safety became more important, as injuries were common. Parents began to see manufacturers and park administrators as responsible for injuries incurred. This time, the material used, mostly metal (steel), became a concern. Manufacturers of metals had seen playgrounds as an opportunity for business, but the material, if not treated properly, could harm children, such as with sharp edges on slides or even rust developing. Even as new novelty playgrounds continued to be developed, such as imagination playgrounds that had rocket ships and other make-believe ideas incorporated, parents began to clamor for change. Playground equipment soon began to become more rounded in shape, particularly in edges, to avoid bad cuts.
Additionally, manufacturers began to experiment and use harder plastics for slides and other equipment such as the monkey bars and slides. Equipment also became more standardized as more parks were created with play areas for children, dropping prices and enabling the spread of different equipment.
Since the 1980s, additions such as new surfaces have become popular, ranging from wood chips to reused rubber from old tires. Imaginative playgrounds have become even more popular since then, including themes such as jungles, fortresses, and pirate ships. Playgrounds, interestingly, once again began to be seen as part of childhood education, although less formally than it was seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mazes and puzzles as part of the play were introduced more regularly to get children to be physically involved while also using their minds in activities. Today, in combating childhood obesity, playgrounds are seen as essential elements to also get children away for activities that are only indoor.
Since the 2000s, there has been a resurgence in communities raising funds to build more playgrounds, particularly in more urban areas. Inner-city areas, with limited green space, have also developed more space for playgrounds as a way to not only fight off obesity but also keep children active and busy so they do not get involved in harmful activities.
Indoor playgrounds became a novelty during the post-World War II safety drive. They have since increased not only because they are seen as safer in some urban areas but also they provide the benefit of all-year-round play for children.
Playgrounds were seen as important educational tools when they were first developed. People also saw that they kept children away from increasingly busy streets, particularly as accidents harming children began to rise in the early 20th century. While early playgrounds were formal, by the 1940s they became less so and began to be seen as a form of free or less structured play. New equipment developed but materials use for playgrounds only began to change in the 1970s and 1980s, as injuries again became a concern. Some of the equipment known well in playgrounds, such as swings, have been around for centuries, but other equipment became designed and invented for playgrounds. Today, playgrounds are also seen as part of the battle to fight child obesity and keeping children engaged and away from harmful activities.
- For more on how the concept of playgrounds firs evolved, see: Frost, Joe L. 2010. A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement. New York: Routledge.
- For more on how playgrounds spread in the United States, see: Doell, Charles Edward, Fitzgerald, Gerald B., Bank, Theodore P. A Brief History of Parks and Recreation in the United States. Literary Licensing, LLC.
- For more on the design of early playgrounds, see: Brett, Arlene, Robin C. Moore, and Eugene F. Provenzo. 1993. The Complete Playground Book. 1st ed. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press.
- For more on changing concepts and looks to playgrounds in the 20th century, see: Kozlovsky, Roy. 2013. The Architectures of Childhood: Children, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Postwar England. Ashgate Studies in Architecture. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
- For more on how safety became an increasing issue for playgrounds, see: Biondo, Brenda. 2014. Once upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920-1975. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England, pg. ix.
- For more on recent developments in playgrounds, see: Solomon, Susan G. 2005. American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space. Hanover [N.H.]: University Press of New England.