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?
It’s often difficult to pinpoint just who invented what when it comes to playgrounds. Swings, for example, are such a simple apparatus that they’ve been around since the beginning of recorded history. One of the oldest art pieces featuring a swing was made by the Minoan culture and may date all the way back to between 1450 and 1300 B.C. Playgrounds as a concept, however, are a relatively new invention.
We have many great minds to thank for the genesis of the playground, but the most prominent figure in their development was Friedrich Froebel. This German educator, who died in 1852, was instrumental in changing prevalent ideas about children and childhood. It was commonplace in the 19th century to view childhood as nothing more than a preparation for adulthood. Froebel’s observations and philosophical knowledge, however, 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.
- Self-discipline is emphasized.
- 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. With this concept in hand, the first playgrounds were developed.
1821 to 1900: The Development of Early Playgrounds
The early development of playgrounds was slow to pick up steam. The first major outdoor playspace 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.
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:
- 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 1922 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 thanks to the PAA, the Great Depression and WWII effectively halted further enhancement of playgrounds for years. Playgrounds suffered from a lack of maintenance, and some 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 weren’t normally allowed to. The first junk playground was built in 1943 at the edge of Copenhagen.
Adventure playgrounds began cropping up in England in 1948 and were operated by a combination of organizations at the international, national and local level. English adventure playgrounds were often built on bombed sites. Children would actually build the playgrounds themselves, with the help of parents and 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.
1950 to 1970: Novelty and Imagination
Up until this point in 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.
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, and their design shifted radically, too. 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 aren’t meant to just keep kids out of trouble. They’re 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.
- 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.
Explore Playground Magic 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 design services 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.