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How the Playground Movement Made a Case for Play

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Article on a new city playground in Missoula, Montana, 1911

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a new movement was being born in town halls and private meetings around the country – one that its advocates believed would reduce crime, increase health, and increase the happiness of all people. “This is a great work, of vital importance to the city and the nation,” one supporter claimed. Another described it as “an absolute necessity for the welfare, not to say the very existence, of our cities themselves.” What was the great cause that brought together civic leaders, public health officials, and the president of the United States? Playgrounds.

Today we might take them for granted, but at the turn of the twentieth century planned public play spaces were uncommon. In the nation’s booming cities, children played in streets, alleys, and vacant lots, largely unsupervised. Reformers were concerned that the lack of open space, play equipment, and adult supervision led to decreased physical activity, increased risk of traffic accidents, and exposure to unhealthy habits and criminal behavior. Due in large part to the advocacy of groups such as the Outdoor Recreation League and the Playground Association of America, thousands of municipal playgrounds, many of which are still open today, were built in towns and cities across the nation, making playgrounds a widely accepted feature of the public landscape.

The playground movement accomplished many of its goals, but some of its members’ claims–that playgrounds would dramatically reduce crime, for example, or put poolrooms out of business–now seem extreme. The historic newspapers that the Library of Congress makes available in Chronicling America allow students to immerse themselves in the speeches and debates around the playground movement. By examining these primary sources, students can speculate about why this movement was so successful and analyze the language and rhetorical strategies its advocates used.

Article on the International Recreation congress meeting in Chicago, 1916

Students might search Chronicling America for “playground movement” between the years 1900 and 1920 for examples of the speeches, lectures, and articles playground advocates used to make their case. In addition:

  • Direct students to the article “Public Playgrounds” from the Iowa County Democrat, May 13, 1909. Ask them to find the lecturer’s five reasons why there should be more public playgrounds. Which of these reasons seem most convincing today? Students might also compare the lecturer’s five reasons with the reasons the author of the article includes. To what extent do they agree?
  • Introduce the article “City to Buy Park-Playground” from the El Paso Herald, January 8, 1915, and focus students on the sections from “Analysis of Population” to “Playground is Antidote.” What evidence does the speaker quoted in this article use to support his advocacy for playgrounds? Based on the evidence he uses, what assumptions do you believe he makes about his audience?
  • As a class, brainstorm other successful advocacy campaigns. What persuasive strategies did they use?

The years of the playground movement’s greatest successes also saw the rise of newspaper articles headlined “Injured on Playground.” Ouch!


Comments (4)

  1. Here we are, 100+ years later, and maybe this needs revisiting, since kids seem to spend very little time outdoors. There’s a lot to be said for running around in a safe area and wearing yourself out having fun. Parents seem so reluctant to allow their kids to play in public spaces, though.

  2. The is still timely and crucial in today’s digital society. All children deserve safe venues for “playing outside.”

  3. Ahhhh…many wonderful hours my former spouse and I spent playing with our daughters in many playgrounds Thanks for this article. When I return to full time teaching my students will access LOC primary sources for research.

  4. My mother was born in August 1916, and her first job was as a playground supervisor in a small town south of San Antonio, TX (Floresville). This would have been sometime between 1930 and 1933. However little the city paid her, it was something. As I see public space in my own booming city being transferred to private hands for financial reasons, I think about priorities.

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