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Feature Article - January 2006

Play to Live, Live to Play

Playground development, from design to construction and beyond

By Kyle Ryan


One of the first playgrounds in the United States, if not the first, appeared in the early 1890s in a Boston housing project. Well, "playground" might be too generous a description for a sand pile, but considering kids often had worked grueling hours in factories during the Industrial Revolution years before, that sand pile was a revelation. The idea came from Germany, and it caught the eye of Joseph Lee, a wealthy lawyer who eventually became the father of the American playground movement.

Lee, who died in 1937, believed that play could benefit children's development, from their sense of right and wrong to their education.

"Play for adults is recreation, the renewal of life," he said. "For children it is growth, the gaining of life."

His words are remarkably prescient considering he was inspired by something as low-tech as a pile of sand. But 100 years later, Lee's philosophy embodies the modern approach to playground design.

Take, for example, swinging, which is just a notch above the sand pile in terms of high-tech child-development activities. Yet research by

the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), a nonprofit trade association, suggests swinging has surprising health benefits. The leg motion works the muscles in the leg and abdominal areas, and it has a huge effect on perceptual and vestibular development—inner-ear functions related to balance and movement through space. Then there's the social interaction that comes with swinging.

Although the ideas behind Lee's words still guide playground design in the new millennium, playground applications obviously have changed drastically. Sure, certain elements of play—swinging, climbing—remain timeless, but technological developments have enhanced playgrounds over the past 15 years, much less the past 100. Along with that growth has come a much greater awareness of safety and accessibility that complicate a seemingly simple activity like play. But living in the information age means it's never been easier to address everything from design to construction to maintenance of playgrounds.