The Playground: Whose Idea Was This?

There are few places in the developed world that don’t have playgrounds. They are in public parks, municipal recreation areas and schoolyards and almost all children have access to at least one as they grow up. 

While we think of playgrounds as a recreational outlet, the first playgrounds were conceived by 19th century educators who thought of them as part of a young child’s education. These educators thought in terms of a child’s education being outdoor as well as indoor, environmental and featuring free time as well as structured.

The inspiration for playgrounds is generally thought to have come from Germany. The playground was part of the kindergarten movement. Friedrich Froebel coined the term kindergarten or “garden of children” for a school he founded in Brandenburg, Prussia.

Froebel was something of a journeyman before he focused on education. Originally trained as a forester, he tried several professions and at one time was jailed for indebtedness. Eventually he landed a job as a teacher and settled on a career in education. He would publish several works on early childhood education and is thought of as a pioneer in the field.

Froebel emphasized the importance of nature, natural materials and free play for his schools. That meant school playgrounds and in the German kindergartens they took the form of “sand castles.” The first were in 1850. They caught on quickly and in towns throughout Germany piles of sand were dropped in public parks where policemen would supervise the children playing.

'Sand castle' in Berlin
‘Sand castle’ in Berlin

The “sand castle” idea was carried from Berlin to Boston by a pioneering female doctor named Marie Elisabeth Zakrzewska. She is best known for establishing the New England Hospital for Women and Children. A native of Berlin, Zakrzewska had seen the children playing in sand piles during a visit to that city. She brought the idea to an organization in Boston called the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association. They paid to have a pile of sand dropped near the Parmeter Street Chapel. This was in 1885. Two years later there were ten sand gardens in Boston and by 1899, there were 21.

Boston sand garden
Boston sand garden

While the growth of the playground in the U.S. is directly traceable to the Germans, Froebel was not the first to think of it. Henry Barnard, who served a spell as Secretary of Education in both Connecticut and Rhode Island, and who later became the first U.S. Commissioner of Education, wrote a book in 1848, “School Architecture” in which he speked out a concept for a playground. The Barnard vision for a playground included a shaded area for teachers and a play area with wooden blocks, toy carts, and two rotary swings. Like Froebel, Barnard envisioned the playground as a part of an early childhood school.

Barnard’s work referenced an even earlier work by an English educator Samuel Wilderspin. He founded something in the neighborhood of 2,000 schools in the U.K. Like Froebel in Germany, he is considered a pioneer in the development of infant schools in his country. In a 1923 book titled “On the Importance of Educating the Infant Children of the Poor,” he wrote:

“To have one hundred children or upwards in a room, however convenient such room might be in other respects, and not to allow the children proper relaxation and exercise, which they could not have without a play-ground, would materially injure their health, which is a thing in my humble opinion, of the first importance.”

Rotary swing
Illustration of the Wilderspin rotary swing

Wilderspin’s vision of the playground was one paved with bricks (skinned knees apparently not being a concern). His vision included planting a surrounding wall of fruit trees and flower gardens. And, as a centerpiece for the playground, Wilderspin offered up a “rotary swing” that involved attaching four ropes to a 17 foot pole with a pulley that would allow them to rotate.

He further noted: “The absurd notion that children can only be taught in a room, must be exploded. I have done more in one hour in the garden, in the lanes, and in the fields, to cherish and satisfy the budding faculties of childhood, than could have been done in a room for months.”

While Wilderspin, Barnard and Froebel offered up their ideas in the early and mid-19th century, it wasn’t until later in the century that their concepts really began to take hold. As countries like the U.S., England and Germany became increasingly industrial and urban, the playground proved a solution for the growing population of poor and working class children without easy access to safe outdoor play space.

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9 Responses to The Playground: Whose Idea Was This?

  1. I’ve never thought of the origins of playgrounds before, and it’s history is much more interesting than I thought! Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Adam Zucker says:

    Fantastic, Ken! Playful minds think alike, I recently published a post about artist created playgrounds

    Liked by 1 person

  3. retrosimba says:

    A fascinating and informative read. We could sure use more like Friedrich Froebel today.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You learn something everyday. I had no idea that’s where the concept of playgrounds first came from.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Playground: Whose Idea Was This? – Urban Fishing Pole Lifestyle

  6. A.P. says:

    That’s fascinating. I’ve never pondered the origins of the playground before either.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with the notion that children learn more while playing outdoor. Also, it seems economically advanced countries pay more attention to children and their playground than poor countries do.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: America’s First Public Playground: A Park for Everyone? | off the leash

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