Playgrounds: Organized Play

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"President Roosevelt on Playgrounds," 1907. Courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

Reformers at the turn of the century had a growing concern for the welfare of urban children, and researchers turned their attention to the effects of slums on children. New York City’s Tenement House Commission issued a report in 1900 that confirmed that tenements offered no space for play. The children agreed, as they typically played in city streets. But it was felt that city streets were unsuitable for children—they were hazardous to their physical as well as moral well-being. What was needed, reformers agreed, was a designated recreation space for children: one that provided access to the fresh air not found in poorly-ventilated apartments. Playgrounds were the answer.

Boston constructed the first playground in the United States in 1886.Twenty years later, advocates formed the Playground Association of America. At first, reformers believed that children needed supervision and instruction for play, as well as the structures and space. Organized playground games, they thought, would introduce some constraint needed in play activities. City children, however, were not attracted to these supervised, controlled spaces. Preferring the adventure of their natural urban environment, many early playgrounds went unused.