History of Children's Playgrounds

Children of today - and also those of us in their parents' generation - are certainly familiar with playgrounds. Climbing toys and swingsets seem to fit right in, dotting the landscapes of parks and schools. Have you ever wondered where the idea of playgrounds come from? Playgrounds are an iconic image of youth and community. Sand boxes, monkey bars, swings, slides and merry-go-rounds. But where did the idea of the playground originate?

Prior to the invention of the TV, computers, videogames, and cell phones, children occupied themselves by playing a variety of games that originated on streets and in back yards. Baseball, basketball and American football were all, essentially, invented in the early part of the twentieth century. The first playgrounds were developed in the United States during the early 1920s. Along with the women's suffrage movement came increased political attention on the family. In the 1920s, state and federal governments passed a number of policies aimed at fostering a safe and healthy environment for children.

As life shifted towards cities, playgrounds became safe places for children to play. The dangers of urban life seemed to threaten the safety of children, who, without a safe place to play, might have resorted to busy sidewalks and streets. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt advocated for playgrounds, noting: "City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger... Neither do small back yards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children. Older children who would play vigorous games must have places especially set aside for them." The playground movement had officially begun.

With the support of communities; state and federal governments, and President Roosevelt, playgrounds became an important aspect of urban development. The essential need for a safe place for children of all ages to gather and play was a clear and recognized necessity. For most kids growing up in urban and suburban landscapes in the mid and late twentieth century, the word "playground" conjures nostalgic memories of youth.

Over time, the proliferation of playgrounds has stretched to most kindergartens, elementary schools and communities across the United States. But playgrounds are not exclusive to the United States. Today, a variety of different playground structures and configurations can be found across the U.S. and the world. All are intended to serve the original purpose: to provide a safe place for children of all ages to play games of any sort. Exercise, community, and safety seem to be the essential components of playgrounds, and that concept doesn't seem to have changed much over the decades.

What is the future of the playground? Some point to the modern "sue-happy" culture for the potential demise of playgrounds, as builders afraid of being sued replace previous styles of playground equipment with those deemed "safer," along with rubber padding, higher fences, and strategic locations. Others point to a push to get kids active, outdoors, and away from their electronics. In fact, there is a huge movement towards classic outdoor toys, including swingsets as well as hula hoops, soccer balls, pedal cars, anything to get kids moving!


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