The History of Play: Part 1

June 1, 2017 | | View Comments

To kick off the launch of our Design & Play Kickstarter campaign we’re taking a look back at the history of play and its role in our society! Haven’t seen our Kickstarter yet? Check us out here!

Throughout the entire human existence, children and adults have partaken in playtime activities; but much like our culture and society transforms over time, the way we play is always changing and evolving!

Over the past two hundred years, playgrounds became the center of play for children. Although it may seem as if playgrounds always included slides, swings, and climbing structures, that wasn’t the case. Follow along with us as we explore the historical developments of play and playgrounds in the US and Europe, starting as far back as 1837!

1800–1900: The Birth of the Playground Movement

The concept of outdoor playgrounds originated in Germany, most notably with Fredrick Froebel, the founder of the first kindergarten. Early on playgrounds were connected to schools and emphasized immersion in nature, exploration, and free play. As industrialization and urbanization grew in America, so did concern for public welfare. US kindergartens and nursery schools followed Froebel’s example and added playground equipment, gardens, and toys for supervised creative activity. Ultimately, outdoor playgrounds became a solution to cramped quarters, poor air quality, and social isolation.

Merry-go-round at the Golden Gate Children’s Playground in 1951.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Library.

  • 1837: Friedrich Froebel developed the first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany.
  • 1887: The first public playground in the US was built in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It included swings, slides, a carousel, and a goat-pulled riding cart.
  • 1889: Chicago developed the Special Park Commission (SPC) to create playgrounds in the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods.
  • 1890s: Shocked that police arrested children for playing in the streets — Joseph Lee established his own playground in Boston in the early 1890s. Lee’s public park included a special area for small children, a boys’ play area, individual garden spaces, a sports field, a building for basketball and club meetings, and staff recreation leaders.

1900–1920s: Model Playgrounds

Model Playgrounds are considered the second stage of historical playground development. The term was first used in connection with Jane Addams’ Hull House playground in Chicago. Chicago established this playground in 1889 and contained sand piles, swings, blocks, a stride or maypole, benches, and handball courts. As equipment manufacturers entered the scene, the traditional playground was outfitted with new swinging, climbing, and slide structures. By 1917, playgrounds appeared in small towns, and schools set aside play periods for young children.

Play structure at Hiawatha Playfield, Seattle, 1912.
Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives 29284.

  • 1906: The Playground Association of America (PAA) formed to promote playgrounds to communities.
  • 1906: Portland, OR joined other cities in embracing the “Playground Movement.” Portland built its first playground built in the North Park Blocks between Davis & Flanders Streets in December 1906.
  • 1910: The McMillan sisters established a small London children’s hospital that evolved into a safe play environment for children to combat child labor and widespread poverty.
  • 1910: As motor vehicles in urban areas increased, children were prohibited from playing in streets. As a solution, playgrounds were developed in vacant lots, closed streets, housing areas, and backyards.

1920s–1940s: WWII Era Playgrounds & Decline

President Roosevelt’s 1933 Works Progress Administration provided employment for roughly 3 million workers, building highways, schools, hospitals, playgrounds, and more. However, the Great Depression and WWII brought the development of the early playground movement to a halt. America’s new priorities of industrial production resulted in what many saw as a degraded public landscape and the irrelevance of parks and playgrounds. During the war years of 1941–1945, the production of steel playground equipment was at a standstill — metal was instead diverted to the war effort.

Model for the United Nations Playground. Bronze, 1952.
Courtesy of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

  • 1923: Cities and towns expended nearly $14 million for recreation in the United States, equivalent to roughly $202 million in 2017.
  • 1930: Starting in the 1930s, sculptor Isamu Noguchi proposed several models for avant-garde playgrounds, demonstrating the belief that some of the most significant art resides outside of the museum. He believed that these playgrounds should work for people and integrate seamlessly into the environment.
  • 1943: Denmark built the first “junk playground”  in Emdrup. Filled with wood, tires, bricks, rope, old furniture, and vehicles, the playground was inexpensive and contained no static parts.


Keep an eye out for part 2, and to learn more about play, check out the Design Museum Foundation’s first book: Design and Play!