It wasn’t all that long ago that there were no neighborhood playgrounds for kids to run around on. Most of us living today have memories of swinging, sliding, running, and climbing all over playground equipment while parents or other guardians chatted and watched us from the park bench. Yet many of our grandparents, few of our great-grandparents, and probably none of our great-great-grandparents raced around a playground border in the park or at school. So how did the playground come to be?
Before playgrounds, children played wherever they were. In the pre-industrial age, this meant villages, lanes, fields, and the farms near where they lived. As cities grew larger and more cramped, it became harder and harder for children to find a safe place to play. Early cities were a real danger to children and many were killed by horses and carriages. In fact, it was far more common for children to be killed by runaway horses and careening carriages in old European cities than to be killed by cars today in America! Over time, city children with little or nothing to do all day and no place to play became a public nuisance.
In Germany, the problem of delinquent street children was serious, so in the late 1800s the empress required city leaders to build “sand gardens” in public parks and encourage children to play in them. This was the first time that a children’s play space was incorporated into otherwise public spaces, specifically because everyone had noticed that when children had nothing to do and no legitimate way to use their time, the only thing left to them was causing trouble. The United States took note, and in 1886 Boston formed a “Committee on Sand Gardens” which soon became known as the “Committee on Playgrounds.”
When we think of a kindergarten today, it doesn’t connect in our minds with playgrounds unless we’re thinking about a playground in a kindergarten! But the first German kindergartens were not schools. They were to upper-class children what the sand gardens were to the poor: play and activity institutes. They were specially designed landscapes for swimming, bowling, interacting with plants and animals, dancing, racing, and play ball games.
Merging the Two
In 1906 the Playground Association of America was formed and determined to take what they had learned from Germany’s sand gardens and kindergartens and apply them as ways to provide safe, supervised, healthy diversion, and activity for children in any neighborhood. The first American playgrounds included instructors to teach the children and organize the way they played. Children might learn to use tools, put on a theatre production, or take swimming lessons in these early playgrounds. Of course, city finances and location affected how a playground was made.
Manufacturing Gets Involved
It was hard to keep up a playground if you had to pay all kinds of instructors to supervise. And, after all, who better to instruct children than their own parents? Playgrounds soon became about unstructured play, and various manufacturers began creating playground parts and commercial playsets somewhat like we have today, though by modern standards they were dangerous.
World War II and the Great Depression brought an unceremonious halt to the national playground movement, as energy, money, and materials were urgently needed elsewhere. As the nation worked to recover through the 1950s, children were encouraged to make their own adventures using the landscape around them and with very little supervision. Into the 1970s, it became popular to build playgrounds that looked like things, such as rockets or animals.
The Modern Playground
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, people began to be concerned with the safety of children on playgrounds and worked to make commercial playground equipment safer. This resulted in the rounded edges and plastic equipment that we are used to seeing today, as well as new standards about mulch, grass, and other soft surfaces to make playground falls easier on children.
The playground is something we take for granted, but we haven’t always had them. Wouldn’t your kids love it if you took them out there tonight?