Children playing at the Washington Park playground (Hill District), c. 1907
At the turn of the last century, it wasn’t the aim of playgrounds to provide fun for children. Back then, playgrounds were part of a clear social and educational agenda. The Playground Movement and the American Settlement Movement (an important progressive reform initiative at the end of the 19th century) fought both for the improvement of the mental and physical health in lower-income classes and immigrants.
The Playground Association of America, founded in 1906, spread the idea of structured play in the American cities. As Boston reformer Joseph Lee declared in 1907, “organized recreation is one of the building blocks of the republic. Properly equipped and run by a good leader of ‘a high personal type’ the playground is ‘a school of all civic virtues.’” Streets were described as a “school of crime.” Playgrounds were therefore perceived as tools to civilize children. Other instruments included gymnasiums, educational storytelling, and free and fresh milk for schoolchildren. In the case of Pittsburgh, the city placed the management of its playgrounds in the hands of the Playground Association of America. The organization’s Third National Congress took place at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland in 1909.
In the 1930s, this approach with its emphasis on physical and moral education moved gradually into what would become the vision of creative playgrounds. Developed by Scandinavian urban planners and landscape designers (and then taken over by many others), the new concepts stressed the conviction that a child is not simply an incomplete adult, but an individual with creative potential.
Gabriela Burkhalter just moved from Basel to Pittsburgh, but still runs Architektur für Kinder (Architecture for Children), a homepage dedicated to the history of playgrounds.
Quotes from Linnea M. Anderson’s “‘The playground of today is the republic of tomorrow': Social reform and organized recreation in the USA, 1890-1930’s,” 2007, from The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education
Photos from the Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection