Early History of Playgrounds
in the United States
In the latter part of the 1800's a national reform movement began which was dedicated to women's suffrage. An offshoot of this crusade was the Mothers' and Children's Movement. This movement flourished until the end of the 1920's and was responsible for the passage, mostly at the state level, of a series of policies designed to protect children in the labor force and to support schools, playgrounds, and kindergartens. The backbone of the reform movement was the many social groups and voluntary organizations patronized largely by married women. By creating a moral imperative and a sense of common cause at the state and local level, the women's organizations set the agenda and pressed through a whole series of social policies for children and families in the early 20th century. This was an amazing feat considering that women did not even have the right to vote!
Because of the reform movement, the urban landscape of the inner city became the focus of philanthropists and local governments. Supervised playgrounds were placed into slum areas for their value in reforming the young child. By 1905 some larger cities were making appropriations for the first time for the maintenance on these playgrounds. While the National Playground Association, whose mission was to spread the playground movement, deemed the appropriations "very inadequate" to cover actual operating costs, the Association did believe it was a "good beginning [from which] growth was sure to follow."
Many people who attended the first annual meeting of the National Playground Association of America, will never forget the long summer day in the large playing field filled during the morning with hundreds of little children romping through the kindergarten games, in the afternoon with the young men and girls contending in athletic sports; and the evening light made gay by the bright colored garments of Italians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, and a dozen other nationalities, reproducing their old dances and festivals for the pleasure of the more stolid Americans. Was this a forecast of what we may yet see accomplished through a dozen agencies promoting public recreation which are springing up in every city of America, as they already are found in the large towns of Scotland and England?
During this same period states began to sponsor recreation legislation. In 1907, New Jersey enacted the first comprehensive piece of legislation creating a playground commission. The commission was to select, purchase and conduct the state's playground sites. Three years later, the Commonwealth of Virginia followed suit becoming one of only fifteen states to enact recreation legislation.
|Design of playground equipment recommended by the |
Department of Public Instruction of Virginia, circa 1916.
Within a short period of time, some of the better known schools for teachers began to pay attention to the development of playgrounds and recreation. In 1912, the University of Virginia Summer School for teachers began educating "county school teachers in equipping their own yards with playground apparatus." The University designed and constructed a "fine playground" to illustrate and supplement the classroom instruction in playground methods. The equipment was used constantly during the six weeks of summer school session, and then was dismantled and stored away to be used again at subsequent sessions. The apparatus included: a sandbox or sand pile, a balancing tree, jump standards, a see-saw, a slide, a swing frame with sliding poles and ladder, a flying dutchman, and a giant stride. All of the equipment was home-made and inexpensive. According to state government records the boys and girls of Charlottesville, Virginia duplicated some of this apparatus at their own homes and in vacant lots around town.
Addams, Jane. The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (New York: Macmillan, 1909; BoondocksNet Edition, 2001).
Playground Proceedings I, National Recreation Association, 1907.
Recreation Legislation, Russell Sage Foundation, 1911.
Virginia Pamphlets Vol. 34, "Play and Athletics," Virginia Department of Public Instruction, 1913.
Web page, "History of Playgrounds," Charlottesville Parks and Grounds, 2001.
Web page, "Spirit of Youth," July 11, 2003.