Playground Movement

In the summer of 1885 the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association (MEHA) placed a pile of sand in the yard of the Parmenter Street Chapel, a mission in Boston's North End. The pile was called a sand garden, and its purpose was to provide a supervised PLAY area for the immigrant children in the immediate vicinity. At first, an average of fifteen children came three mornings a week. They dug in the sand, made sand pies, sang songs, and had parades. The supervisors took the opportunity to instill desirable moral conduct during play.

The sand yard became such a popular magnet for the neighborhood kids that the following summer MEHA opened three more sand gardens. In 1887 the program expanded to eleven locations–one in a school yard. The Boston School Board gave MEHA permission to use vacant school yards during the summer as supervised play areas for very young children. MEHA changed the sand garden name to playground and began transferring the responsibility for operations to the school board and park commission. School yards and park playgrounds expanded their programs to include activities for older children.

The playground idea spread to other cities through the public media and communications between settlement house workers. In 1887 the New York State Legislature authorized the purchase of property in lower New York City (immigrant ghetto areas) for small parks. In 1888 Philadelphia formed the Small Parks Association to develop playgrounds, and in 1892 the Boston Park Commission made plans for playgrounds in the midst of dense populations citywide. JANE ADDAMS, of Chicago's Hull-House, designed a model playground in 1894 to advance a higher social morality among the participants in her settlement house activities.

In 1900, fourteen U.S. cities were sponsoring playgrounds. By 1906, the year the Playground Association of America (PAA) was formed in Washington, D.C., a movement was evident, with twenty-five cities having playground operations. By 1910, there were fifty-five cities with playground programs. Also by 1910, 113 colleges and universities were offering classes in "The Normal Course in Play," a recreation leadership curriculum developed by the PAA in 1909. These classes identified the personnel and types of programs needed to operate playgrounds effectively.

The playground idea became a movement because it was an effective instrument to attract children into a fun environment so as to teach them lessons in manners, morals, and sportsmanship. Playgrounds also were designed to be safe havens in which children could temporarily escape, through play, the dire circumstances of their urban environments. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s playgrounds, supervised and guided by rules and regulations, continued to be the responsibility of public school boards and parks and recreation departments.

Play was an effective means for facilitating learning. Many municipalities and reform-oriented agencies began using organized play as the nucleus for other youth sport and service programs aimed at developing character and fitness. The Public School Athletic League, Police Athletic League, and the youth services of the Young Men's Christian Association were such programs.

World War II devastated many urban areas in Western Europe and children in these areas began creating their own play space in bombed out areas in their neighborhoods, using whatever materials and equipment could be found. These pocket play areas sparked in the United States the idea of adventure playgrounds where children could use their imagination in creating their own play environments. The playground leader's role changed from supervisor to enabler, encouraging children to act on their own ideas of play.

Today, playgrounds are a multibillion dollar business, and design, construction, and operations are too diverse for any general description to be meaningful. The National Program for Playground Safety offers up-to-date information on all aspects of contemporary playgrounds.

See also: Children's Spaces; Progressive Education; Sandbox; Social Settlements; Theories of Play.


Dickason, Jerry G. 1983. "The Origin of the Playground: The Role of the Boston Women's Clubs, 1885-1890." Leisure Sciences 6: 83-98.

Rainwater, Clarence E. 1922. The Play Movement in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Riess, Steven A. 1996. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Sessoms, H. Douglas. 1993. Eight Decades of Leadership Development. Arlington, VA: National Recreation and Park Association.


National Program for Playground Safety. 2003.