The Evolution of Public Playgrounds in the United States

The Evolution of Public Playgrounds in the United States

The Benefits of Playgrounds in Community Spaces

Although 71% of parents played outside as a child, only 21% of their children play outside today. Technology is everywhere, and kids spend a lot of time on their cellphones, tablets and other electronic devices. This sedentary lifestyle contributes to obesity and other health problems. Forty percent of children aged 5 to 8 years old have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

Although 71% of parents played outside as a child, only 21% of their children play outside together.

Children should be challenged physically at recess and in community spaces every day. While promoting health and fitness, school and community play spaces also help children learn basic life skills through play. Modern playgrounds promote cognitive, social, emotional, physical, language and sensory development. At the playground, children can develop gross motor skills, interact socially, problem solve, share and resolve conflicts and use their imagination.

Children need to practice behavior that is appropriate in society and learn the skills that will prepare them for the challenges of the world. A playground is a safe place for children to practice taking risks, self-control and societal roles. Consistently engaging in self-regulating behaviors at a young age can further brain development, increase attention span, help control impulses and foster communication.

Modern Playgrounds Offer Logical And Exploratory Opportunities.

Participating in play can also improve literacy, math skills and creativity. Story-telling and social interactions can improve language skills and vocabulary. Modern playgrounds also offer logical and exploratory opportunities, such as playing in sand and water, that can improve math and problem-solving skills. Inventive and pretend play can spark creativity.

Research shows that being outdoors also helps relieve stress and improve attention. Other benefits include a reduction in symptoms from attention disorders, including ADHD, and a lower prevalence of asthma.

The Playground Association of America

Henry Curtis, director of the playground system in Washington, D.C., and Luther Gulick, director of physical education in New York City schools, created the Playground Association of America in 1906 to support and grow the playground movement in America.

The PAA believed that play was essential for children’s overall well-being, and playgrounds are as necessary as schools in terms of child development. Their initial goals were to establish leadership and develop customized plans to meet local play and recreation needs. They also wanted to refurbish existing playgrounds before developing new ones.

The PAA’s publication, The Playground, greatly influenced the evolution of play in America. From the conception of the PPA in 1906 to 1924, playgrounds in America expanded to 5,006 playgrounds. Between 1914 and 1916, training programs for play leaders at high schools and colleges doubled in the United States. As the PAA’s influence expanded, recreation facilities became more prevalent and began to meet the needs and interests of communities, particularly in urban areas.

The playground movement divided into two parts. One part focused on playgrounds at schools with slides, swings, seesaws, sandboxes and other equipment. The other part dealt with municipal parks operated by boards and recreation commissions.

In 1910, PAA leaders decided to expand the name to “Playground and Recreation of America,” and the name of its journal was changed to “Recreation” to encompass the concept of community recreation areas. In 1930, the name of the organization changed again to “National Recreation Association,” and then later, in 1966, became the “National Recreation and Park Association,” or NRPA, that we know today.


The NRPA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to enrich people’s lives through the advancement of parks, recreation and environmental conservation efforts. Their mission is to see accessible and sustainable park and recreation facilities available in all communities — city, rural areas and anywhere in between.

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Early Twentieth-Century Playgrounds

Few playgrounds existed in the United States before 1900. Still uncommon at the turn of the century, playgrounds were meant to keep kids busy and out of trouble. During this early period in playground history, adults supervised and guided all playground activities, not allowing for spontaneous play. Guided activities included theater productions, parades and equipment lessons.

During the American Industrial Revolution, people migrated from farmland to cities. At the same time, an influx of immigrants began to settle in urban areas. Urban communities continued to grow, and cities were bursting at the seams. The dangerous aspects of children playing in vacant lots and other hazardous areas became a cause for concern.

At this time, concerned citizens started a movement to protect children from the dangers of cities. Humanitarians saw playgrounds as places to escape the cramped and isolated quarters of city life and began to reserve land for playground construction in urban areas.

Inspired by German physical fitness programs, early playgrounds essentially consisted of gymnasium equipment, only outdoors. Physical fitness continued to be a primary focus of playground development in the early 1900s, and manufacturers saw a financial opportunity to build larger structures such as swings, slides, seesaws and jungle gyms in school playgrounds, community spaces and city parks. Built with sharp angles from galvanized steel pipes, ladders and chains, these structures would be considered dangerous by today’s safety standards.

As the playground movement evolved, communities around the country began to see their benefits. In 1908, the state of Massachusetts required towns with a population greater than 10,000 to establish public playgrounds in their communities.

In 1917, citizens recognized that playgrounds were in terrible condition and children were getting injured. After a boy was injured on a playground in Tacoma Washington, his parents sued for damages and won. In response, schools started to remove playgrounds in that state.

The Great Depression and World War II

During the Great Depression in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a federal assistance program, known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to help get people back to work. Workers built airports, hospitals, schools, highways and playgrounds. But construction halted during World War II, as the country needed manufactured equipment for war efforts.

Adventure Playgrounds

Adventure Playgrounds Gained Popularity After WWII

The construction of adventure playgrounds – also sometimes called “junk playgrounds” – gained popularity worldwide after World War II. Adventure playgrounds were constructed from building material scraps and other discarded materials, trees and plants. Trained play leaders and workers helped children build huts and houses, take care of animals, cook over a fire, garden, play in the sand or dirt and other activities. Play leaders also facilitated games and play activities that challenged children.

During this time, parents and educators were concerned with the safety and appearance of these parks and didn’t understand the importance of creative play. The lack of promotion and funding resulted in the closure of most adventure parks in the U.S. by the mid-1970s.

Novelty Play Structures

In the 1950s and 1960s, designers and recreation specialists in the U.S. came together to create novelty play structures. Novelty playgrounds were intended to spark children’s imaginations and encourage dramatic play among historical and cultural structures. Playgrounds had large, multi-colored structures made to look like animals, space rockets, fantasy figures and geometric shapes. Covered wagons, stagecoaches, submarines and domes were also popular structures at that time.

Novelty structures were not only massive and expensive — they were also often hazardous. Playground pieces were made of rock or concrete. Swings incorporated heavy animal structures that caused serious injuries and even fatalities in some cases. The CPSC eventually banned these pieces, and swings bearing light-weight straps took their place.

Novelty structures were not particularly exciting to children as they didn’t inspire creativity or interaction. Structures were fixed and resistant to change and movement. The novelty playground era failed because it didn’t match children’s interests or encourage imaginative play. Joe Frost, known for his advocacy of child development through play, described the novelty era as a time focused on adult interests, such as aesthetics, culture and history. Frost himself observed children at novelty parks bypassing structures and sliding down hills in cardboard boxes.

The 1970s and 1980s

Modular Playgrounds Made From Wood Appeared In The 1970s And The 1980s

During the 1970s and 1980s, modular playgrounds made from wood came to the forefront. Linking structures together promoted continuous motor activity and conserved space. Although criticized for their cookie-cutter appearance, modular playgrounds offered lots of opportunities for improved strength, coordination and flexibility. Modular playgrounds integrated structures for climbing, balancing, sliding, swinging and using arms to swing from one play structure to another.

Into the Twenty-First Century

By 2012, the construction of integrated playgrounds started to expand across the United States. Playground designers and architects began to see the value of experiential learning and developed community spaces that combined play structures with gardens and natural habitats.

In many playgrounds and parks today, children can experience a variety of play opportunities while developing life skills in a safe and healthy environment. Integrated playgrounds combine opportunities for physical, social, cognitive and language development. A cohesive environment is beneficial to a child’s overall development and can be therapeutic in an aesthetically pleasing setting. Sand, tools, water and other materials encourage make-believe and constructive play. Paths for wheeled vehicles and toys encourage socialization. Other areas encourage children to tend to plants, care for animals and use art materials.

Design, Construction & Safety Standards

Designers and architects have had a great influence on playground construction over the years. They’ve designed safe structures that have sparked children’s imaginations and promoted creativity. Modern designs are also accessible, inclusive and promote child development.

In 1981, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) published the first set of guidelines for playgrounds nationwide. In 1993, the American Society for Testing and Materials published standards that provided more technical information for manufacturers.

The CSPC Guidelines and the ASTM Standards are recognized for setting the state of the art for playgrounds in the United States. As safety guidelines and standards were revised, older equipment no longer complied, and municipalities and schools were compelled to either update their playgrounds or remove them. Changing or replacing equipment was often not a viable option due to budget restraints and the expense and difficulty of retrofitting obsolete equipment.

In the early 2000s, the CPSC estimated that approximately two hundred thousand kids visited emergency rooms each year due to playground injuries. According to the CPSC, most playground injuries occur when children fell from a piece of equipment to the ground.

The CPSC understands that surfacing plays a paramount role in playground safety. According to the CPSC, surfaces such as asphalt, carpet, concrete, dirt, grass and bare earth are not acceptable playground surfaces. Acceptable energy-absorbing and impact attenuating materials such as rubber tiles, pour-in-place rubber and loose-fill material, such as engineered wood fiber, are required under and around playgrounds.

Surfacing Plays A Paramount Role In Playground Safety

ASTM standards include required performance criteria, testing methods and safety considerations. Since different concerns surround public playgrounds and home playgrounds, the ASTM addressed their standards separately. The Standards also address the age appropriateness of certain playground equipment based upon the developmental abilities of children in different age groups.

Many states have their own regulations for playground safety. Unfortunately, most states are not consistent with national CPSC Guidelines and ASTM Standards. The following states, however, have adopted all or parts of the guidelines and standards to regulate and improve playground safety:

  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • Arkansas
  • Tennessee
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Utah
  • Wyoming
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • California

The implementation of safety standards has helped reduce fatalities and serious injuries on playgrounds. The hazards of certain obsolete equipment that accounted for the bulk of injuries in the past have been designed out of modern playgrounds, and today’s playgrounds are both safer and more exciting.

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Safety Standards Have Reduced Fatalities And Serious Injuries On The Playground

The Future of Playgrounds and Playground Design

Designers predict that future playground development will incorporate shade, be more sustainable and allow for more inventive play. Progressive facilities are currently researching the integration of vegetable, herb and butterfly gardens, greenhouses, gazebos, animal habitats and wetlands. City farms are also a growing trend, where children and adults play and work on agricultural and environmental projects, learn about their surroundings and how to exist with nature.

Inclusive Playground Design

Thirty-six percent of the population, or one in three people, is touched by a severe disability. Kids and their families want to be included – they want to be part of something. Inclusive playground design, one of the latest concepts in playground design, encourage children of all ages and ability levels to play together. Children with limited abilities can play with everyone else, and other children can learn acceptance. Special needs sections don’t exist in an inclusive setting because all children are challenged by the environment.

Inclusive playgrounds are not only accessible, but they also incorporate equipment with physical, sensory and social benefits. According to the American Disabilities Act (ADA), all playgrounds should be accessible and support children with limited mobility, such as those in a wheelchair, by providing a user-friendly space. When a playground design is inclusive, it also encourages children to express themselves physically, socially, mentally, musically and through exploration and motion exercises. Inclusive playgrounds are spaces for all children, including autistic children and those with sensory processing disorders.

Activity panels are an example of inclusive playground equipment where children engage in mental activities, music, exploration, exercise and imaginative play. Talking tubes allow for downtime in a one-on-one setting. Other inclusive features include double rails on ramps, gliders and spinners for children in wheelchairs, therapeutic rings, ground-level play panels and therapeutic swing seats.

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Sensory Playground Equipment

Sensory equipment and activities inspire and promote development by stimulating the senses. It also promotes inclusivity for children with varying play styles. For children on the autism spectrum or anyone who gets overwhelmed by noise, private areas offering tactile experiences are set away from the noisy areas of the playground.

little boy play with sensory panel

Sensory playground equipment stimulates the five senses in a few key ways:

  • Auditory: Children make their own sounds and make choices about the volume levels they’re comfortable with.
  • Visual: Colors and shapes create a rich learning environment and help with brain-eye coordination.
  • Tactile: Children explore different textures and make decisions about their own levels of tactile input. These experiences can also help children process visual and auditory cues.

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Nature Play Design

Nature play has become a popular trend in modern playground ideas. These structures and foundations incorporate lifelike nature experiences to enhance the play area and integrate the joy of exploring with learning. Playing in nature offers a rich sensory environment with extensive learning opportunities. Natural environments help children reduce stress and increase attention levels. Designing playgrounds with nature in mind can also help diminish negative environmental impacts, which is important for public spaces and communities.

Nature-inspired playgrounds can offer more opportunities for physical interaction with the environment. Children can climb rocks and play with sand and water. Integrating other elements of nature in a playground, such as bridges, ropes, trees, logs, animals and plants, can inspire imagination and creativity during play. Nature design can be implemented gradually to help kids learn about their environment and its natural resources while having fun at the same time.

Outdoor exploration and stimulation are important for all children, so incorporating these features can create a connection to nature and discovery. Playing in natural, outdoor settings has many proven benefits, especially for significant physical and cognitive development in young children. A playground that embraces nature may also help improve attention spans in children as they learn different skills, socialize and appreciate their environment.

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Multigenerational Playgrounds

Outdoor play and physical activity provide many benefits for all ages, including physical health and happiness. Creating a playground that everyone can enjoy is a great way to encourage groups and families to spend time outside. Research shows that many children and families don’t spend enough time outdoors together. This playground trend can help attract more community families. A multigenerational playground incorporates structures, amenities, sculptures and activities that kids and adults of all abilities can enjoy with ease.

children on multigenerational playground

When every generation is able to gather and play together, children learn to value outdoor play and find it more exciting. Adults can get involved in playtime, inspiring community connections that help reduce loneliness while increasing physical activity for older adults. Improving coordination, strength and range of motion is a mutual advantage for anyone that engages in outdoor play.

Multigenerational playgrounds enable the socialization of several age groups and increase feelings of support and other mental health benefits. Playgrounds can be designed to allow adults, especially those with mobility devices, to easily navigate and follow their young family members around comfortably. Some examples of multigenerational elements include walking trails, obstacle courses, swings and benches or tables that are next to play structures rather than in a separate area.

A multigenerational playground can also include a section with outdoor fitness equipment for adults to enjoy. These are just a few ways that playgrounds can reunite the generations and inspire a love of playing outdoors in everyone.

Themed Playgrounds

Themed playgrounds increase children's attention spans by engaging them in an exciting setting.

Themed playgrounds continue to be a popular trend for kids of all abilities. They increase children’s attention spans by engaging them in an exciting setting like a pirate ship or outer space. Some themed playgrounds, such as Walker Homesite Park and the pirate ship-themed playground at the Lollipop School, take a holistic approach by encouraging socialization and motor skill development through physical activity.

Walker Homesite Park added a farm-themed playground that encourages pretend play for children of all ability levels. Children can imagine that they’re riding on a tractor or helping their peers plant a field of crops.

Lollipop School in Park Ridge, NJ added a pirate-themed playground that encourages pretend play for children of all ability levels. Children imagine sailing on a pirate ship and digging for treasure in the first waterpark constructed for people of all abilities.

Equipment That Promotes Child Growth & Development

Well-planned playgrounds integrate equipment with spaces that offer developmental growth opportunities for children. Some playground opportunities for child growth and development include:

  • Swinging: Swinging increases a child’s body awareness and encourages motor development. Gripping the chain helps develop fine motor skills while pumping the legs fosters gross motor development. Swinging also helps children understand speed and direction while improving visual perception skills.
  • Climbing: Climbing increases the awareness of the position of one’s body parts and encourages problem-solving and predicting next steps. Understanding directions such as up, down, left and right nurtures flexible thinking, which can also help in the classroom.
  • Using Monkey Bars and Other Overhead Equipment: Gripping bars and swinging from one bar to the next helps develop fine and gross motor skills accordingly. The use of overhead equipment also promotes motor-planning skills, coordination and balance.
  • Engaging in Free Play: Free play fosters socialization and communication. Children learn new vocabulary, practice conversations and pick up on social cues.
  • Playing Ball Games: Ball games challenge children’s motor skills with throwing, catching and kicking actions. Children can also improve critical thinking skills by learning to strategize in game play.

Increased Safety

Playgrounds have made remarkable progress in terms of safety over the last century, from vacant lots with discarded materials to exciting modern playgrounds that are not only safe but accessible and inclusive. Old equipment that posed safety hazards for children has been replaced with safe equipment that promotes child development and growth.

A growing trend in playground safety is to prevent sun exposure with shaded structures. The shade keeps children cool, prevents UV radiation and preserves the playground equipment. Shade structures come in many colors and designs and can be free-standing or built into other pieces.

Playgrounds From Playworld

Since 1971, Playworld has offered high-quality, durable commercial playground equipment and exceptional service. We are committed to innovative playground design and safe play with durable equipment that you can enjoy for years to come.

Our commercial playground equipment is manufactured in our central Pennsylvania facility using premium materials and processes. All equipment and materials undergo comprehensive testing to meet or exceed safety standards.

Our playground designs offer creative play environments that are inclusive and focus on child development. We offer playgrounds for the early childhood years and school-age children, as well as fitness systems and electronic playground equipment.

At Playworld, our playgrounds spark the imaginations of children while providing opportunities for socialization and self-discovery in an unstructured environment. We maximize play value by considering child development, socialization, sensory experiences, inclusivity, innovation, safety and fun. We want to empower children, promote health, build confidence and strengthen communities.

Contact Playworld

Whether you have some basic ideas or lots of details on what you’re looking for in a new playground, our experts work with you to make your playground vision a reality for your community. We can also help you with your budget and fundraising strategiesContact us today to get some customized ideas to make the playground dreams of your community come true.

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