The swings have become a staple of childhood around the world. As adults, we remember fondly how fun it was to swing high and feel like we were flying. Now, as parents, we love that our children experience that same joy on playgrounds as we did.
But have you ever wondered how swings and playground equipment came to be what they are today?
It’s a fascinating history and evolution into the playground equipment we see today, and we have all the details. Understanding how and why playgrounds were invented and how they have changed will not only broaden your understanding but also deepen your appreciation.
Two Separate Inventions: Different Times, Different Places
Interestingly, swings and playgrounds were not invented together, nor were they invented by the same person. They have equal weight in our childhood memories and play a significant role in helping shape kids’ coordination and motor skills.
Let’s look at the two structures a little more closely.
The Invention of the Playground
While there were many hands in the pot connected with the invention of the playground, the most prominent figurehead who received that credit was Friedrich Froebel. He was a 19th-century German educator who lived from 1782 to 1852.
Besides being acknowledged as the inventor of the playground, Froebel is also given substantial credit for the basis of modern education. He believed that children were exceptional and possessed unique, individualized needs and established the ideas behind kindergarten.
Because of his viewpoints on children and their needs, he identified their need for a designated play area and a learning area. They were of equal value and needed to remain separate for the benefit of children.
The Invention of the Swing
The invention of the swing is attributed to two separate moments in history. The first swing popped up around 1400 B.C; the credit goes to the Minoan peoples. Through art and artifacts, historians have been able to find examples of art pieces that featured swings in their designs.
However, much like the invention of glasses, the swing can be traced to a number of ancient civilizations. Ancient Greek children were fond of playing on swing sets and see-saws — likely made from hemp and wood. Swings are featured prominently in Greek art, perhaps most famously in the work of Polygnotos, a Greek vase painter in Athens. One of his vases features the tragic mythological figure Phaedra on a swing.
In addition, pre-imperial China was no stranger to swingsets, and in 1784, the first Giant Swing was built in Bangkok, Thailand, for a Brahmin ceremony called Triyampawai. Over the ten-day-long festivities celebrating the new year, it was customary for Brahmins to swing from the upright in an attempt to grab a bag of coins.
The second invention of the swing took place around 1900 and was created by English engineer Charles Wicksteed. This version of the swing is the iteration that we see used today, though a wider variety of the traditional swing is available.
Timeline of Playgrounds
Even though we can pinpoint when playgrounds were invented, the ideas and types of these structures have come a long way since those first few models. While some elements may still be present in modern-day playgrounds, we can track equipment changes through a few evolutionary processes and events throughout history.
The earliest records of playgrounds are recorded around 1821 in Salem, Massachusetts. This structure at the Salem Latin School was influenced by the workings of Froebel but was modeled more closely after gymnastic equipment.
With the onset of the industrial revolution, the need for play spaces for children became more apparent, and the playground became more structured around fun.
The term “model playground” was introduced with the creation of Hull House, a playground designed by Jane Addams. With this, Addams also helped found the Playground Association of America (PAA). The PAA helped establish rules and regulations due to the subpar conditions that many city-dwelling children were subject to during the Industrial Revolution.
This evolution, as inspired by the PAA, featured the addition of obstacles that provided opportunities to develop physical strength. Features included rope swings, traditional swings, and slides. According to the PAA, these play structures were crucial relief areas for what city life offered kids.
This took place just before Charles Wicksteed created the first modern designs that inspired much of what we still see today. The Wicksteed Park in the U.K. was one of the first instances of swings and slides being combined for one playground set.
Great Depression Playgrounds
With the combined effects of The Great Depression and WWII, the progress of playground equipment halted. Due to rationing and construction materials diverted to the war efforts, children played on recycled equipment instead of newer, safer, and properly designed playgrounds.
In response to this, children created the first iterations of themed structures and playhouses for their games. These designs were rudimentary and nothing like what we see today, but they created what they could out of what little they had available.
Between 1950 and 1970, playground designs became more imaginative and creative. Instead of the standard checklists of items to include, playgrounds began to explore new features and more creative ways to engage children in play.
These new ideas included mazes, rocking swings, and others. The progress, however, came with its setbacks as many of these initial designs created serious safety hazards.
As a response to the issues that were being seen, as well as the momentum in playground popularity, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission created the first playground safety handbook.
Big companies began to create standards for playgrounds and designs took on a traditional baseline for the creation and added safety features.
By the 1990s, safety standards were set, and the basis for playground equipment was getting redundant. It was at this point that large companies, in an attempt to create more competition as well as drive sales to their products, created more inventive playgrounds.
The need just for a standard play space wasn’t as dire, and schools and public areas provided kids with the play time and areas they required. As such, the need shifted to more accessibility and inclusion.
New-Age Playground Equipment
Playgrounds have come a long way since the days of inception. Our children are at a real advantage that even our generation didn’t see when we were young.
Here’s a look into the features and options that are available for public and personal playground equipment today:
Expanding needs for large families and longer lifespans have led homes to be designed with grandparent suites or multi-generational homes. This idea and need have spilled into our playground equipment.
Swings are designed to be enjoyed by children, older siblings, babysitters, and parents. While play is still geared toward children, the play structures themselves can be enjoyed by all ages.
With the most recent generations, there has been a call to action to be as inclusive as possible in every aspect of daily life. For playground equipment, this means features that are accessible for kids in every stage of development and for those who need ADA accommodations.
Playgrounds With Sensory Qualities
In an added effort toward total inclusivity, many playgrounds have sensory features that can be included or added to benefit children who are neuro-divergent learners. While these features can be enjoyed by everyone, the addition ensures that no children are left out.
Playgrounds Inspired By Nature
The benefit of playgrounds designed with nature in mind means that children can grow up with a love of nature in a safe and regulated environment. They can get the feel of playing in nature without taking the risk of wandering through the woods.
Outdoors & Beyond Playgrounds
A lot of playground equipment now features options that help children improve physical strength, hand-eye coordination, and motor skills. They simulate the benefits of gym equipment for adults but in a child-friendly package.
Now more than ever, children are growing up in a tech-forward world. Many large companies are now designing playgrounds with blue-tooth capabilities. This will allow children to use a smartphone or other similar device to connect to interactive features that can only be activated using cyber technology. However, many believe these structures introduce screen time when it isn’t needed.
Why Are Playgrounds Important?
There are so many types of playground equipment available and so many times that playgrounds have been re-designed. You may know the history of playgrounds, but now we need to tell you why playgrounds are such an important feature of growing up.
Kids can gain a lot of physical strength through the use of a play structure. Children will add to their balancing abilities and gain muscle by climbing and crawling through different playground features.
This physical benefit will help keep kids healthy and improve their immune strength due to peer-to-peer exposure.
Playgrounds offer children a chance to gain social skills and progress through stages of play by interacting with other children on a playground. Children will learn patience through sharing, taking turns, waiting in lines, and learning to compromise and resolve conflicts.
Playgrounds with wheels and sensory boards can help kids fine-tune motor skills and hand-eye coordination. These features have the added bonus of allowing children to learn through hands-on experience and create their own processes and learn problem-solving and independence.
When conflicts and issues arise on the playground, children will need to learn how to communicate their thoughts and concerns, thus finding emotional growth by being a part of the group on the playground.
Playgrounds help kids interact and respond to one another on a level they understand, which helps them to work together and get along better and lower the risks of being a bully or being bullied.
Fun While Learning
What do all of these growth patterns and habits have in common? Children will develop, grow, and learn in a fun and interactive environment. Not only will the playground allow them a chance to learn, but they will do so in a way that’s enjoyable and will encourage a love of education.
Different Versions of the Playground
Playgrounds have evolved over the years and now come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. They each possess qualities that can be significant to development and growth and provide different opportunities for play.
These types of play structures are broad ideas that encompass many more specific options.
Themed playgrounds include pirate ships, tree houses, and obstacle courses. No matter the details, all activities or stations are centered around one specific theme. This can add to the play that kids create while enjoying the playground and help them gain more social construct.
Inclusive playgrounds are a great option for areas that are enjoyed by children from all walks of life. They will include ramps for children that can’t use stairs or sensory-sensitive colors and options so that kids with learning differences can also join in.
These typically include smaller options for play structures. Meaning that they are light and small enough that they are safe to be erected in backyards without heavy bolts and are secured to the ground.
Free-standing structures are best for home use, especially in backyards with very limited space.
Jungle gyms may be relatively synonymous with playgrounds or play structures, but jungle gyms generally have the added advantage of being physically strenuous. This is intentional and in no way harming children; it merely presents an opportunity for kids to blow through energy reserves and strengthen their developing muscles in a healthy and safe environment.
Playhouses are similar to playgrounds but only feature the house or hut piece of the playground puzzle. These smaller structures are perfect for children in the dramatic play stages of development, and will have a wonderful time with friends creating games centered around their play space.
Fun For All
No matter which option you choose for your family, playgrounds are an awesome addition to the backyard or home and benefit kids in a multitude of ways. You can be confident that choosing an outdoor play structure will keep your kids entertained for hours, and you will be happy watching them grow.
- Friedrich Froebel | Early Education
- About Jane Addams and Hull-House Settlement | Hull House Museum
- Public Playground Safety Handbook | CPSC
- The Global History of the Swing | MPIWG
- The Swinging Woman. Phaedra and Swing in Classical Greece | ResearchGate
- Giant Swing in Bangkok, Thailand | Encircle Photos
- Then & Now: A History of Salem's Playgrounds | Patch
- Revisiting the playground: Charles Wicksteed, play equipment and public spaces for children in early twentieth-century Britain | Cambridge Core