The History of Playground Equipment
To modern people, it’s obvious that kids need spaces where they can exercise their bodies and their imaginations. Playgrounds provide just that, and it’s hard to imagine childhood without them. Playgrounds provide developmental enrichment on a number of levels, from physical and social to cognitive and more.
Many of us take these special spaces for granted and have never considered how we came to know and love playgrounds. Who invented merry-go-rounds? Who invented the playground swings? Why do we even have playgrounds? It’s worth exploring the emergence of these spaces around the world and how they’ve evolved throughout playground equipment history.
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Who Invented Playgrounds?
We can thank many great minds for the genesis of playgrounds. However, the most prominent figure credited with the invention of playgrounds is a 19th-century German educator, Friedrich Froebel, who lived from 1782 to 1852. Many believe that Froebel built the foundation of modern education. He asserted that children possess unique needs and created the concept of kindergarten.
At the time, it was commonplace to view childhood as nothing more than a preparation for adulthood. However, Froebel was instrumental in changing prevalent ideas about childhood and made a case for play and playgrounds as a tool for a child’s development.
Froebel’s observations and philosophical knowledge led him to make these conclusions, among others:
- A holistic, physical, and mental approach to health is important.
- Learning is not compartmentalized, and everything links together.
- Innate motivation in children is valuable.
- An emphasis on self-discipline.
- Children have different receptivity to learning at different developmental stages.
- Children have an inner life that emerges under specific, favorable conditions.
These observations and the new approach they fostered made it clear that children needed designated spaces to play, learn and just be kids. Froebel understood the value of adventurous outdoor activity and believed one of the greatest benefits of play was children constructing their own understanding of the world from imaginative play. With this concept in hand, Germany developed the first playgrounds.
Who Invented Swings?
A key element of many playgrounds is a swing set, which is a popular piece of equipment that children of all ages can enjoy.
Between 1450 and 1300 B.C., the Minoan culture in the eastern Mediterranean region created one of the oldest art pieces featuring a swing. Thus, some scholars credit the Minoan people for the invention of swings.
However, swings have changed over time. The modern-day swing found in playgrounds is the product of an English engineer, Charles Wicksteed, and was developed in the early 1900s. Since then, swings have gone through many different iterations, including tire and multi-user swings.
1821 to 1900: The Development of Early Playgrounds
The early development of playgrounds was slow to pick up steam. The first major outdoor play space arrived in 1821. It was built in Salem, Massachusetts, at the Latin School. The “outdoor gymnasium” was inspired in part by German influence, including Froebel’s. The site was equipped with indoor-type gymnastic equipment like a vaulting horse and parallel bars.
The popularity of outdoor gymnasiums waned quickly until the industrial revolution of the 19th century renewed the need for child-specific spaces. One New York City law went so far as to ban children from playing in the streets, leading to many being dragged into court. To counter this horrifying situation, public interest in playgrounds was revived, leading to the first park playground being established in Chicago in 1876.
When Froebel’s kindergarten was introduced to America, an emphasis on nature play began to take the country by storm. Kindergarten influenced the use of sandboxes, called sand gardens in Germany.
During a trip to Berlin in 1885, Dr. Marie Zakrseska saw these sand gardens and wrote a letter to the committee of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association (MEHA), who then introduced sand gardens to the city of Boston.
In 1887, Massachusetts became home to the first sand garden, where children were encouraged to let their imaginations run wild with — you guessed it — large piles of sand. These sand gardens were supervised and organized, which led to the first serious play movement for children.
By 1891, playgrounds were becoming more like the spaces we’re familiar with today. The George Putnam School in Boston took the idea of the outdoor gymnasium and added familiar equipment to it like swings, ladders, and seesaws. This set the stage for professionals in design, building, and manufacturing to come together and form the foundation of the playground industry.
1900 to 1930: Model Playgrounds and the Playground Association
With manufacturing entering the scene, 1900 school playground equipment evolved rapidly into arrangements that are similar to what we recognize today.
In the first years of the 20th century, the term “model playground” was used to describe Jane Addams’ Hull-House playground. It had been opened in 1895, and its features were gaining popularity. In addition to sand piles, children were able to take advantage of the following pieces of equipment:
- Giant stride/maypole
- Climbing equipment
- Handball and baseball courts
Charles Wicksteed is responsible for some of the first modern iterations of both swing sets and slides. Wicksteed Park, opened in 1921 in the U.K., was the first site at which you would see slides and swings together.
The 20s also gave rise to one of the most popular brands of playground equipment: Miracle® Recreation. John Ahrens, the founder of Miracle Recreation, is responsible for the merry-go-rounds you may have experienced in your childhood.
Although this playground equipment sounds quite familiar, it looked a lot different than what we’re all used to. Today’s climbing equipment, for example, has a number of characteristics designed to make them safe for kids. There must be shock-absorbing material in fall zones, and there is a limit to how far a child would be able to fall.
Jane Addams brought her expertise in model playgrounds to the table in 1905 to help found the Playground Association of America (PAA). The organization was a response and call to action against the deplorable conditions for children in cities during the Industrial Revolution. Playgrounds were proposed as a means of social reform, to bring some relief to the kids in the city while giving them tools to help them become healthy and responsible citizens.
One of the most crucial accomplishments of the PAA was to create a program to train recreation and playground directors. The program they used was called “A Normal Course in Play.” Anyone who would be supervising playgrounds and other recreation facilities learned about a litany of subjects, including:
- Child development
- Play theory
- Playground management
- Playground planning
The program was remarkably robust and highlighted the shift in how people viewed playgrounds. Playgrounds were now understood to be a critical component in child development, and they merited a serious approach.
Canada’s entry into the world of playgrounds occurred in Toronto. Urban reformer and reporter J.J. Kelso founded the Toronto Playground Association in 1908. Prior to that year, Canada had numerous parks and gardens but no formal playgrounds. By 1912, a few playgrounds had opened and were a public sensation.
There were 11 playgrounds in Toronto by 1915, and the city’s parks commissioner had plans to build 20 more. Once Canadians saw the benefits of playgrounds, planners and developers carefully observed and implemented the newest and best playground trends as they arose.
1930 to 1950: Playgrounds During The Great Depression and World War II
After a couple of decades of rapid development, the Great Depression and WWII effectively halted the further enhancement of playgrounds for years. American playgrounds became empty lots that suffered from a lack of maintenance. Some sites were even raided for metal parts for the war effort.
Nevertheless, play survived in the form of “adventure” and “junk” playgrounds. Carl Theodor Sorensen, a Danish landscape architect, first gave voice to the concept of the adventure playground in 1931. He had observed that children were perfectly at home playing in junkyards and construction sites, and he saw that they seemed to derive some benefit from playing with materials in ways they were not normally allowed to.
The first junk playground was built in 1943 at the edge of Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation. This iteration of playgrounds soon gained popularity around Europe. Children could be found scaling wood planks, jumping on old mattresses, and even starting fires.
Adventure playgrounds began cropping up in England in 1948. They were operated by a combination of organizations at the international, national, and local levels. English adventure playgrounds were often built on bombed sites. Children would actually build the playgrounds themselves, though they did receive help from their parents and other volunteering organizations.
Today’s adventure playgrounds are a far cry from the ones in the WWII era in terms of equipment. To be considered an adventure playground, the space needs to have a combination of fixed structures and movable materials that kids can explore and use in inventive ways. An adventure playground might have some traditional equipment like slides and climbing structures, but it also needs to have a variety of tools that allow children to build, such as rope ladders, old tires or boards.
Today, these adventure playgrounds still exist. They are used to inspire creativity and foster independence that structured play does not. The most popular modern junk playgrounds have rules banning electronic devices, open-toed shoes, and, most notably, adults. While there are a handful of these kinds of playgrounds in America, the concept is not widely celebrated, nor has it gained much traction in the contemporary world.
1950 to 1970: Novelty and Imagination
Up until this point, playground equipment history was not very exciting. Playgrounds did not have great visual appeal, nor did they do much to stimulate kids’ imaginations. While one of the benefits of adventure playgrounds is that they force children to draw on their own internal sources of imagination, the design of novelty playgrounds is meant to provide a little extra fuel for the creative spark to feed on.
The most marked change in playground equipment from this era was the introduction of fantasy or science fiction elements. Fantasy landscapes featuring rockets, large tunnels of mazes, and an exciting variety of spaces cropped up or were added to existing playgrounds.
Rockers became quite popular, dotting playgrounds with bouncing animals, bugs, vehicles, and more. These imagination-fueling structures and equipment served as the foundation for the integrated playgrounds of the modern era, but they faded from popularity as standardization began in earnest.
As it turns out, these features were not always the safest for children to play on. Before modern playground changes and regulated equipment, there were safety hazards that could potentially cause the following:
1970 to 1999: Standardization and Certification
As big manufacturers began to get serious about playgrounds, standardization started to take hold. Slides, seesaws, swings and superstructures began to get safer little by little. Galvanized steel structures with rough welds and pointy bits were phased out and replaced by wood, plastic and painted metal in many cases.
Playgrounds were now everywhere in the U.S., giving rise to unprecedented issues. The number of playground-related injuries increased quickly enough that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) developed the first Handbook for Public Playground Safety in 1981. The Handbook helped zero in on the biggest problem plaguing playgrounds: falls from equipment. The document sets forth guidelines on things like what impact-absorbing materials are acceptable for use in areas where children might fall. However, the guidelines in the Handbook were voluntary and did not include technical specifications that would be necessary for a testable standard.
Canada put out a more developed standard for children’s playgrounds and their equipment in 1990. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) created a more robust set of standards with technical specs for manufacturers to follow. While the standard is still voluntary today and no official entity exists to enforce it, there are some Canadian jurisdictions that require operators of public playgrounds to ensure their spaces and equipment meet CSA standards if they want to obtain an operating license.
While both the Handbook for Playground Safety and the guidelines from the CSA made an excellent foundation for improving playground equipment, neither issuing body provided any type of certification. The Playground Equipment Section of the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA) petitioned the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) to create a standard for new playground equipment that could be measured and certified. Multiple industry professionals and consumer advocates worked on ASTM Committee F15, which led to the development of ASTM Standard F1487: Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specifications for Playground Equipment for Public Use. Some of the initial factors addressed by ASTM F1487 included:
- Spacing that might cause the head to become entrapped
- Hardware or railings that protrude and might cause lacerations
- Inadequate railing or barriers that could allow children to fall accidentally
- Slides with gaps that could entangle a child’s clothing
Although ASTM F1487 provided a uniform set of standards, a third party was needed to create a robust certification process that would be credible and consistent. Recognizing this need, 13 surfacing and equipment manufacturers came together over the summer of 1995 to form the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). IPEMA began working on testing procedures immediately, contracting Detroit Testing Laboratories (now called TÜV SÜD America) as a third-party evaluator.
The IPEMA Equipment Certification Program was finalized in 1996 and updated to include standards from the CSA in 1999. When designing a children’s play space, IPEMA-certified equipment is a must for playground safety.
1999 to Present: Integrated Playscapes
With safety standards developed and firmly in place, the late 90s and beyond represented another large leap in the evolution of playgrounds. The earliest playgrounds were nothing more than a collection of equipment in an empty lot or field. The novelty and imagination era of playground equipment marked the beginning of playgrounds as an environment rather than just some stuff in an empty space, but this concept blossomed near the turn of the 21st century.
The purpose of playgrounds had shifted dramatically from the social necessity of the Industrial Revolution. In addition, their design shifted radically. The playgrounds of the 2000s are marked by an astonishing degree of integration, which brings together elements of nature with innovative equipment to create what feels like a whole world unto itself. These immersive environments are not meant to just keep kids out of trouble. They are meant to encourage social, emotional, and physical health.
The following playground concepts are still being improved upon today:
- Intergenerational Playgrounds: These spaces feature equipment designed for multiple generations to enjoy, such as the generation swing. The generation swing seat allows both toddlers and small children to swing with older kids, parents, or grandparents.
- Accessible Playgrounds: For playgrounds to have their maximum social impact and benefit the most children, accessibility needs to be taken into account. Many of today’s new playgrounds feature inclusive equipment for children with different abilities in different stages of development.
- Sensory Playgrounds: Playgrounds have begun to incorporate elements that stimulate the visual, tactile, and kinesthetic senses. While these were developed to appeal to children with autism, all kids can benefit from this type of equipment.
- Nature-Inspired Playgrounds: Instilling a passion for the natural world is just one of the many benefits of nature-inspired equipment. Children can enjoy the sights and textures of mother nature without the risks associated with natural playgrounds.
- Outdoor Exercise Equipment: Adults and children alike can enjoy outdoor fitness equipment. There are solutions for improving strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, agility, and stamina. Having this kind of equipment can encourage people to be more active and live healthier lives.
- Cyber Playgrounds: Some equipment manufacturers are partnering with tech companies to develop playground features that allow kids to use devices like smartphones to interact with equipment and structures.
Modern playgrounds can become the epicenter for communities when they are thoughtfully designed. Amenities like picnic tables, bike racks, and shade structures can make playgrounds a place to gather and socialize for people of all ages. The design options are nearly limitless. Moreover, guardians are more likely to bring their children to play areas that have features that appeal to all age groups.
Explore Playground Thrills With Miracle Recreation
Whether you’re looking to purchase playground equipment for a school, a church or place of worship or a park, finding the right vendor is essential. Miracle Recreation is proud to offer a variety of playground equipment, site furnishings and more — and our custom playground equipment can make your play space as unique as the children it serves.
Thanks to more than a century of research and development, playground equipment is safer, more inclusive and more engaging than ever before. If you’d like to know more about a particular product or want to take the next steps toward building an exciting place to play, you can request a custom quote through our online form.