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A Quick Primer on American Playground History

Since colonial times parks have been a staple feature of American cities, following European urban planning traditions. But it wasn't until the early-20th century that playgrounds, and America's urban landscape in general, began to shift into what's recognizable to present-day city dwellers.

As eastern cities teemed with immigrants and a surging youth population, the need for designated public play spaces became more and more apparent. Private philanthropic organizations such as the Outdoor Recreation League of New York City and the National Playground Association took the lead in establishing the first public recreation areas on public park land.

New York City parks were the first to incorporate the first generation of modern playground equipment, with Seward Park in 1903 accounting for the first American playground built by a city government. The Manhattan park's design, complete with slides, seesaws and other now familiar amenities, serves as a flagship model for today's urban recreation areas.

President Theodore Roosevelt's advocacy for the nationwide establishment of playgrounds is cited as a major turning point toward establishing an enduring national commitment to public recreation areas. In a 1907 letter to Cuno J. Randolph of the Washington Playground Association, the president noted that children "must have places especially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools. This means that they must be distributed over the cities in such a way as to be within walking distance of every boy and girl."

Roosevelt was responding to the popular movement proclaiming play as an essential activity for safe and healthy children. Today this guiding sentiment of the early playground movement is aptly reflected by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: "As [playground] designs have evolved one thing has remained constant -- the essential role that the playgrounds play in the vitality of urban neighborhoods, and in particular the physical development and socialization of the city's children."

After a bit of a post-World War I lull in playground innovation and evolution, the second generation of playgrounds came about in the 1920s and '30s. The number of playgrounds in the United States skyrocketed during the Great Depression. "These playgrounds were the classic swings/slides/see-saws/sandbox playgrounds that were built on asphalt with little or no shade," wrote playground expert Nic Breedlove. "They were quite sturdy, but not very safe."

Reminiscing in the Spring Valley (Minn.) Tribune, a local self-described "little old lady" recalled the playground equipment of her childhood in the early-1940s. She happily remembers the swing and ring sets, teeter-totters, merry-go-rounds, "'the rod,' shaped like an upside-down U, from which we could hang or swing up onto, as well as the 'monkey bars.'"

In the '40s and '50s, the "Baby Boom" generation of youngsters hit the ground running with full force, inspiring the social and political call for even more playground development. The number of playgrounds during this period increased dramatically, as cities and suburbs grew very rapidly in the post-war years.

The 1960s brought about what became known as "adventure playgrounds," which Breedlove describes as featuring "rope ladders, pyramids, and many other types of climbing" structures plus thrilling but often high and dangerous swing sets, slides and merry-go-rounds based on earlier equipment designs. "These playgrounds were often designed by architects and they were very beautiful urban spaces. Unfortunately they lacked safety," Breedlove wrote.

Higher safety standards didn't start to kick in until the 1980s, and it wasn't until the '90s that manufacturers and playground administrators really put major focus on safe equipment and playground designs.

As quoted by USA Today, Plymouth, Minn. Superintendent of Parks Mark Peterson lamented, "It's all gone by the wayside. Unfortunately, from a thrill factor, the big tall swings are gone, the big tall slides are gone."

"The big steel swing set, long a staple for kids in search of high-flying thrills or leisurely daydreams with best friends, is disappearing from the American playground," according to the newspaper. "Along with other types of equipment, such as stratospheric slides and Batman-type sliding poles, tall swing sets are being replaced by safer and more cost-effective, less-thrilling modern alternatives."

Currently fixed equipment is fast becoming a thing of the past. Breedlove observed that new facilities offer "structures like banked boardwalks around the outer perimeter for kids to run on, water features, and equipment that encourages open-ended play," such as "enormous rubber balls, ships' masts, pulleys, artificial streams and water structures with locks and material to create temporary diversions and dams."

As this blog has recently covered, safe surfacing is another recent innovation in the quest for safer playgrounds. Although such impact-absorbing rubber surface materials can be costly compared to the gravel, asphalt or hard compacted earth of the past, safe surfaces beneath swings and climbing structures do significantly reduce the risk of serious injury and have become an increasingly common playground fixture.

It's possible that with more attention placed on proper supervision and safe surfacing, the thrill-factor that seems to be on the wane in the latest playground equipment could make a resurgence. This would appease those in the playground management industry who see the lack of exciting structures as discouraging young people's connection with outdoor play.

One industry insider complained in USA Today that "we have dumbed down and sanitized our playgrounds -- especially public playgrounds -- to a point where they don't hold [kids'] interest as long."

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