Who invented playgrounds and why? It’s an interesting question because they’re a fairly modern development, basically created in response to growing urban populations and the need to keep kids off the streets. Although before the rise of automobiles streets were usually crowded they were still used by horse-drawn carts and, most kids being short, they weren’t always easy to spot and could get run over. While the first playgrounds attached to schools were created in Germany in the 1840s, the idea of child psychologist Friedrich Fröbel, the first play area for kids that wasn’t part of a school was opened in Manchester, England, in 1859.
While that much is known I can’t find anything about who had the idea for that first playground. It was probably a collective idea, though, and, kids being kids, they probably staked out their own territory even in areas that didn’t have a designated play area. I grew up reading John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books, set in small-town Utah in the late 19th century, and one recurring spot for adventures was a vacant lot the kids were allowed to use as long as they kept it clear of trash and weeds.
Looking at contemporary playgrounds I’m a little amazed and a little jealous of how they’ve changed just in my lifetime. The playground at my first school had a collection of all-metal jungle gyms in various configurations and they were fun to play on but they also got hot in the sun. I also remember the day I was sitting at the very top of the tallest one, a squarish rectangular contraption painted bright orange, when I slipped and fell. Most playgrounds now are covered with soft material but in those days it was gravel and often crinoid fossils. I think I blacked out for a moment and I remember moaning, trying to get my breath, but, aside from a few scrapes, I was okay after a few minutes and climbed right back up.
That brings me to how I’ve heard people say, some sarcastically and some, I think, seriously, that modern playground equipment is too safe, and that all the hot metal and sharp edges and rocks toughened us up. I’m pretty sure those who are so cavalier about safety aren’t thinking about their own kids, or may not have kids at all. Anyway here’s an interesting fact: an early advocate of playgrounds in the United States was Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, the archetypal tough guy and Rough Rider believed kids needed a safe place to play. I’m sure he had his critics who felt that giving kids playgrounds was coddling them and that back in their day they were toughened up by having to play in the street.