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fall 2003 | The Culture Issue


The Culture of Play: In Search of Utopia through the American Playground

Allison Butler


A Need for Controlled Play

Today, playgrounds are commonly associated with free play and the adventures of children. However, the concept of the playground originated under very different auspices. The idea of organized play, as an effort to control free play, emerged in the late nineteenth century when systematic movements attempted to structure and formalize play and play spaces. At the turn of the twentieth century, these efforts were intimately connected to larger social and political fears of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. Organized play manipulated the free play and individuality associated with children, and it was intended to override the cultural traditions of immigrants and the working classes to prepare them for full assimilation into twentieth-century American democratic norms.

Social institutions commonly grouped immigrants, the working classes, and children together as a single entity that needed rescuing. Furthermore, immigrants and the working classes were symbolically understood as children whose “behavior needed to be reshaped and controlled.”1 Thus, social reformers frowned on immigrant traditions, and they encouraged moral and behavioral reform through social activities. Viewing play as a social activity that could be controlled, reformers wanted to organize play inside the controlled environment of the playground. Visions of curbing delinquency and immorality while promoting Americanization largely fueled the playground movement, and because of its focus on and interest in children, the playground movement appeared altruistic, easily garnering public support.

The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw increased interest in play and the rapid production of playgrounds: play became a factor in gymnasium classes, the first play movement was formulated, and organizations focused specifically on play were created.2 The first official playground appeared in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1872. Cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and New York soon developed similar playgrounds.3 Laws were passed to encourage expenditure on parks and playgrounds. The belief was that playgrounds should be built on school grounds so they could be used during and beyond the school year. School funds paid for these playgrounds, establishing early and intimate connections between the playground and the school community.4 This connection fused education and community through play, attempting to further separate play from frivolity.

To increase control, reformers decided that play needed to be taught. They believed that some children did not know how to play.5 These children were primarily city kids whose environments negatively affected them. The evidence of their inability to play seemed obvious: When taken to the country “for a treat,” these children “can only wander aimlessly about the field.” Such children should be taught “how to play” because even though “the games of the pavement are better than no games at all . . . games of the greater and nobler kind must be taught.”6 Thus, the geographic, financial, and pedagogical connections to schools only further solidified the newly formal and controlled aspects of play.

The number of playgrounds increased rapidly in the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century. Before 1905, Boston and New York led the way for the country’s growth.7 Between 1896 and 1898, several outdoor playgrounds cropped up throughout New York City, some with apparatus and playing fields, some as part of larger benevolent children’s organizations.8 In 1898, the New York City school board prepared and adopted a comprehensive plan for an extensive series of playgrounds. As a result, 24 playgrounds were opened during July and August of that year. Throughout 1898, a conference of 153 directors met to discuss how to formalize play under three points: character building, the coordination of physical powers, and the development of physique.9 Before 1900, playgrounds could be found in only 11 American cities. By 1910, cities with populations over 2,500 maintained 180 playgrounds; by 1920, that number increased to 428; and by 1930, they numbered 695.10

Playgrounds were planned primarily for their geographic and aesthetic appropriateness. The ideal playground provided “a playground for girls and women, separated and screened from public view by shrubbery; an athletic field for boys and men; and an outdoor swimming pool for all to use.”11 Playground planner Arthur Leland wrote that the playground “should be built with a view to future enlargement, upon a block which has vacant land opposite or adjacent…. The entire playground must be enclosed by a high iron post of wire fence [whose] ugly lines can be hidden by training vines upon it.”12 The shrubbery and vines, while aesthetically pleasing, clearly defined the boundary between what was and what was not the playground. This boundary emphasized a clear distinction between disorganized, unruly street activities and well-controlled, sanctioned spaces.

Many playground reformers believed that playgrounds should be built in the worst neighborhoods to have the greatest impact. The playground was intended to attract children away from the streets and contribute to their citizenship development. Early steps toward behavioral change included restricting unstructured play, especially street games. Organizations on the Lower East Side of New York passed laws prohibiting childhood activities such as street play and kite flying.13 These street laws made such games illegal but did not deter behavior, thus resulting in the appearance of “thousands of boys and girls before the children’s courts.”14

Playgrounds offered the opportunity to expose children, immigrants, and working classes to American ideals and to foster these ideals in them. Reformers hoped that the patriotic songs, games, and dances taught at the playgrounds would bring immigrant working-class children closer to, and make them more aware of, the American mainstream.15 Awareness, they believed, would foster change and political assimilation, and getting children off the street would reduce the number of street accidents.16 Leland suggested that the effective radius of a small playground should be about ten blocks so “organized games will increase the effectiveness of the playground… in each direction.”17 Although little empirical evidence existed to show that the playground produced such an effect, the reformers maintained their positions and argued within this construct for the development of more playgrounds.

The Playground Movement: Progressive Reform, Progressive Reformers

The success of the playground movement can be attributed to the efforts of a group of educators, scholars, and politicians who saw the playground as a tool for social change. Progressive reformers such as Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, Lillian Weld, William James, G. Stanley Hall, Charles Eliot, Edward L. Thorndike, William Kirkpatrick, and John Dewey believed that play was essential to the lives and development of children.18 From this belief sprung the Playground Association of America, founded in 1906 by Luther Gulick and Henry Curtis, who felt that play contributed to the moral construction of youth.19 Gulick and Curtis “shared the conviction that a national movement to promote American forms of play was necessary” to ensure that the problems of the Lower East Side did not “engulf the nation.”20

The constitution of the Playground Association of America stated that the organization’s purpose was to “further the establishment of playgrounds and athletic fields in all communities and direct play in connection with the school.”21 The association collected members from the wealthy and philanthropic classes throughout the country to promote and publicize its vision of play. The reformers gained major political support, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who served as their honorary president. The language and mission of the association mirrored earlier turn-of-the-century movements in their desire to synthesize and promote democratic ideology in all citizens.

To support its movement, the association published The Playground, a monthly journal that documented the organization’s activities and successes. The Playground was essentially propaganda, listing association achievements, growing organizational support, and publishing membership lists. It featured pictures of children playing in organized spaces, advertisements for various equipment companies, original articles about playgrounds, and reprints of articles from other sources that shared the association’s success. The movement attempted to create an ideology of scientific, homogenized play, and The Playground disseminated information deemed valuable and instrumental to the play movement, presenting it to readers through the work of playground experts.22

Like the larger family or geographic community, the playground was seen as a neighborhood of children and adults acting in harmony and perpetuating a political ideal. Children were believed to behave better when they were clean than when they were filthy, and positive behavior was reinforced, while negative behavior was reprimanded.23 The child who fit the model was encouraged to stay, as a contributing member of the neighborhood; but the child who did not fit was asked to leave and, thereby, made invisible and acknowledged as deviant. Clean, well-managed playgrounds were thought to increase politeness in children, and politeness could be learned from the organized playground.24 One of the benefits of the playground movement was that it cultivated “a sense of justice” in children, teaching them to respect others.25 These effects were ultimately intended to create a well-trained, appropriately behaved body politic.

Reformers saw the playground as the antidote to juvenile delinquency, street play, and truancy and as a way to improve work habits and rapidly assimilate immigrants.26 Playgrounds were thought to produce long-term benefits, such as socializing children for their adult roles and increasing business opportunities and civic growth.27 The playground movement “was not so much a reform undertaken on the child’s behalf… but a medium created to reconstruct and control his moral values.”28 Children and immigrants were to be molded and prepared for full citizenship.

However, the structure of the playground dictated what the child could do. Playgrounds limited the creativity associated with play because children were forced to make decisions with structured equipment.29 Children could do little with the equipment but play with it according to its designated purpose.30 However, children resisted formal play and subverted the expectations of the reformers. Several children complained about the requirements and control of play. They “expressed disdain for the adult effort to teach them how to play, and many said that they either no longer paid attention to leaders or had stopped attending the playgrounds altogether.”31 They simply wanted to play and have fun, to do what came naturally, and not to be taught anything. The children could and did play on the streets, in a playground, and at school, among other spaces. The formal playground simply offered them another place to go.

Ultimately, the playground may not have made the difference that the reformers claimed it did. In some cities, juvenile crime and arrests did not decrease, and delinquent behavior was not altered.32 What mattered was the perception that the playground provided a well-structured instrument of behavioral change. Urbanization, immigration, and working-class revolt could be largely contained—or so the reformers believe—through formalizing and organizing leisure spaces. The fear was that if the playground failed, it did not signify that play did not work, but that democracy did not work—and this was unacceptable.


Play was seen as a physical activity that trained the body and the mind. In a country overwhelmed by industrialization and rapid urbanization, controlling play promised to control the people. Real and symbolic minors were taught the rules of democratic society. To romanticize play by effectively denying the mid-nineteenth century fear of it, an article in The Playground declared that “Play is as old as the human race, but the playground is distinctively a modern and recent development.”33 By organizing and promoting play, the Progressive Reformers and their followers revealed more about themselves than about the children and society they were trying to save. The history of the playground reflects the history of urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and a collective fear of the unknown that results from monumental shifts in the established structure. But in trying to secure a homogenized, well-controlled future, the Progressive Reformers stumbled over the child.



1 R. Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 144.
2 American Playgrounds, ed. Everett. B. Mero, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: McGrath Publishing and National Recreation and Park Association, 1908), 243.
3 Paula D. Welch, History of American Physical Education and Sport, 2nd ed. (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1996), 72.
4 American Playgrounds, 247.
5 Organised Play at Home and Abroad: Physical Recreation for Elementary Children out of School Hours, ed. Reginald E. Roper (London: National League for Physical Education and Improvement, 1911).
6 Ibid., 6.
7 American Playgrounds, 240-241.
8 See American Playgrounds, 246, for further detail.
9 American Playgrounds, 247.
10 Jesse F. Steiner, Americans at Play: Recent Trends in Recreation and Leisure Time Activities (New York: McGraw Hill, 1933), 14-16.
11 W.L. Coop, “A Recreation Center for a Town,” American Playgrounds, ed. Everett B. Mero, 2nd ed., (Washington, D.C.: McGrath Publishing and the National Recreation and Park Association, 1980), 71.
12 A. Leland, “Details of Playground Organization, Construction and Equipment,” American Playgrounds, 80.
13 C. Goodman, Choosing Sides: Playground and Street Life on the Lower East Side (New York: Schocken Books), 1979.
14 Ibid., 15.
15 Rosenzweig, 150.
16 Playgrounds: Their Administration and Function, ed. G.D. Butler (New York: A. S. Barnes and the National Recreation Association, 1936), 1.
17 Leland, 81.
18 See Rosenzweig and Welch.
19 See Welch and Goodman.
20 Goodman, 62.
21 “Constitution of the Playground Association of America (1907),” The Playground 3 (1928): 13.
22 See Goodman and Roper.
23 Henry S. Curtis, “Social Conditions in the Playground,” American Playgrounds, 253.
24 Ibid., 254.
25 Ibid.
26 Rosenzweig, 147.
27 See Rosenzweig.
28 D. Cavallo, Muscles and Morals: Organized Playgrounds and Urban Reform, 1880-1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 17.
29 See J.L. Frost and B. L. Klein, Children’s Play and Playgrounds (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1979).
30 See Frost and Rosenzweig.
31 Worcester Sunday Telegram (4 August 1912) quoted in Rosenzweig, 151.
32 See Rosenzweig.
33 “New York Playgrounds,” The Playground 17 (1908), 1.



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