Playgrounds Essay

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Although children have always played in open spaces in city settings and around schools, the early history of playgrounds is obscure. Formal playgrounds, however, seem to be an invention of the first half of the nineteenth century. The American educational reformer Henry Barnard (1811–1900) described a “Playground” for a primary school in his 1848 treatise “School Architecture.” It was fenced in and included a play area for block construction, and a set of rotary swings and ropes for jumping games. Barnard emphasized that the play area was under the supervision of a teacher—representing one of the earlier notions of play being regulated by adults.

Following the Civil War, playgrounds began to appear in urban areas on the East Coast of the United States. A playground was built in a schoolyard in Boston near Copley Square in 1868. By 1887, city officials had approved the construction of ten “sand gardens” in the poorer areas of the city. In 1887, New York passed a law calling for the establishment of parks and playgrounds throughout the city. Construction of these playgrounds, however, did not really begin in earnest until almost a decade later.

During the 1890s, playground development became associated with issues of urban and educational reform. The social reformer Jacob Riis (1849–1914), in works such as The Children of the Poor, argued that playgrounds would keep the poorer children in New York out of trouble and provide the foundation for a better society. Riis called for a renewed effort to establish playgrounds and parks around schools that would not only serve student populations, but provide a place where mothers could leave their apartments and take their children out to play in the fresh air. He felt that this was particularly important in the poorer neighborhoods where the possibilities for wholesome play were so severely limited by crowded tenement conditions.

Riis’s efforts eventually led to the creation of a large network of playgrounds throughout New York City, most of which are still in existence today. Other urban reformers were also concerned with the development of playgrounds. In 1894 in Chicago, the settlement house leader Jane Addams (1860–1935) developed a sand garden for the children in the Hull House neighborhood. A playground was opened in 1896 as part of the Northwestern University Settlement House and a third playground was started at the University of Chicago in 1898.

In 1906, the American Playground Association was begun. Under the leadership of figures such as Joseph Lee, Jane Addams, and J. G. Phelpes Stokes, a national movement began for the development of playgrounds in urban areas. These efforts represented an attempt to shape the experience of urban youth, providing them with a positive environment in which to grow and mature.

Modern playgrounds, consisting of standard apparatus such as swing sets, merry-go’ rounds, teeter-totters, and slides, became widespread during the period around World War I. By World War II, playgrounds had become an accepted part of the urban landscape.

During the 1940s, European playground designers began to argue for less-regimented and controlled playground environments for children. In 1943 the Danish landscape architect and educator C. Theodore Sorenson in collaboration with the Worker’s Co-operative Association, opened the first Adventure Playground in Emdrup, a small town near Copenhagen.

Adventure Playgrounds emphasized the link between the physical environment and the psychological development of the child. In the case of the Emdrup playground, its construction was largely undertaken by the children who were intended as its principle users. Thus, the idea of children having control over their own play space was emphasized. This represented a significant movement away from the models established by the American Playground Association at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the United States, playgrounds changed very little in the period immediately following World War II. By the mid-1960s designers such as M. Paul Freidberg began to develop innovative playgrounds that emphasized the use of natural materials. Richard Dattner, another leading designer, introduced new elements such as water play. These new designs moved significantly beyond previous playgrounds by incorporating both planned and free-form elements.

In an era when children are losing many of their naturally found spaces for play, and as media in electronic forms such as video games, increasingly occupy their play time, the question of how playgrounds will continue to evolve and develop is open to considerable speculation. In fact, planned play spaces have the potential to provide alternate learning spaces and protected environments for children in a postmodern culture. Playgrounds may be even more important for children than they have been in the past.


  1. Brett, A., Moore, R. C., & Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1993). The complete playground book. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  2. Cavallo, D. (1981). Muscles and morals: Organized playgrounds and urban reform, 1880–1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  3. Rainwater, C. (1922). The play movement in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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