Henry S Curtis

Henry S. Curtis

Dr. Henry S. Curtis was a public supporter of play and the playground movement through his research, writings, leadership, playground planning, and teaching. He felt that, “Play is our education in the spirit of joyousness, but it has much to do, not merely with the joyousness of childhood, but with the joyousness and optimism of all after life (adulthood).”1

Dr. Curtis was born in 1870 in Olivet, a college town in central Michigan. His first degree was from Olivet College, after which he graduated from Yale, and then studied under the psychologist G. Stanley Hall at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.2 He earned his doctorate degree in child psychology from Clark University in 1898 and began his professional career as the Director of Child Study in the New York City schools.

Four years later, in 1902, Dr. Curtis was again furthering his education by studying recreational administration in Germany and England. Overseas he found the focus to be “individualistic and militaristic,” something he found objectionable. These experiences led Dr. Curtis to value team games and sports, believing they were more “democratic” in nature,3 which in turn influenced the American playground movement towards organized recreation.

During this time, Dr. Curtis was Director of the Playgrounds of New York City's schools and was working with Dr. Luther Gulick, who was the Director of Physical Education. They, and others interested in playgrounds and physical education, began discussing the formation of a course that would train playground workers. This initial idea was eventually dropped in favor of organizing a national playground association.4

Drs. Curtis and Gulick wrote to Joseph Lee, a prominent play author and reformer, to elicit his support and offered him the role of president of the proposed organization. He declined, believing that enough play organizations were already formed and suggested that they form a Playground Committee within the American Civic Association. At that time Lee was the Vice-President of the American Civic Association's Department of Public Recreation.

The plans for a national playground association moved forward without Lee's initial help, and on April 12, 1906, the Playground Association of America (PAA) was formed in Washington, D.C. Dr. Curtis was instrumental in gathering the founding delegates and finalizing the organizational plans and meeting. The delegates elected President Theodore Roosevelt as honorary President and Jacob Riis, a well-known journalist and reformer, to be honorary Vice-President. Dr. Gulick was elected to be President, Joseph Lee and Jane Addams (both absent) were elected to be Vice-Presidents, and Dr. Curtis became the Secretary and Treasurer.5 Lee quickly became an active leader in the PAA.

Earlier that year in February, Dr. Curtis had become the supervisor of the playgrounds in Washington, D.C. One of the first activities of the PAA was to formulate a playground system for Washington, D.C. in which they outlined plans for neighborhood and school playgrounds, recreation centers, and parade grounds or athletic fields.6 Dr. Curtis also did a recreation survey of the city and a study of playground sites. With these plans and surveys, Congress approved $75,000 for the playground system, and Washington, D.C. became an example of city-wide planning of recreation areas.

The following year in 1907, Dr. Curtis organized a playground exhibit for the Jamestown Exposition in Virginia. The exhibit, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, demonstrated a playground and how a play program with active leadership would work.7 Both of these concepts were groundbreaking in the American culture of the time.

As secretary and treasurer, Dr. Curtis served on six different Playground Association of America committees, including the committee producing The Normal Course in Play. He was instrumental in procuring funding and regularly wrote articles for PAA's journal, Playground Magazine. As a writer and play researcher, Dr. Curtis' annual reports for the PAA were complete with comments on trends within the playground movement and analyses of national play developments as well as his recommendations on policies and procedures.

One trend that Dr. Curtis believed in was the importance of the “play spirit” and how the Playground Association of America should promote play opportunities and not just playgrounds. He said, “Children are going to continue to spend more hours of play in the streets than they do on the playground.”8 For this reason he felt the PAA should focus not only on playgrounds but also such places as vacant lots, door-yards, interior of blocks, and roofs of tenements. He also felt that the superintendent of playgrounds should be on equal status with the superintendent of schools, both in influence and salary.

However, due to differences with Dr. Gulick on policy, Dr. Curtis resigned as secretary and treasurer in 1909 only to be elected as Second Vice-President, and thus he continued to be influential in the PAA. For example, in 1911, to reflect a broader focus than just playgrounds, he suggested their name be changed to the Playground and Recreation Association of America and his suggestion was initiated.9

Dr. Curtis wrote many articles on play and recreation for both scholarly journals and popular magazines. He also published five books: Play and Recreation in the Open Country, Education Through Play, The Practical Conduct of Play, Recreation for Teachers (1918), and The Play Movement and Its Significance.

In 1909, Dr. Curtis taught a course in play at Harvard's summer school, and over the next decade he also taught courses at the University of Colorado, Columbia, and Cornell. In 1915-1916, he was on the Extension Department staff of the University of California. In his retirement he often lectured and consulted on recreation topics.

As a recreation planner, Dr. Curtis wrote the pamphlet The Reorganized School Playground, which the U.S. Office of Education published in 1913. This guide gave suggestions on the size of play spaces for schools, the placement of the school buildings and play yards, and further details, such as lighting, fencing, surfacing, landscaping, and play equipment for the school playground.

Later, in the 1920s, he wrote another pamphlet for the Missouri Department of Education, The School Grounds and Their Equipment, which was widely used both in and out of the state. At that time he was working as the state Director of Health and Physical Education in the Missouri Department of Education and was able to implement an effective school play program that affected 200,000-300,000 students daily.

In the 1930s during the Depression, he suggested that counties utilize the Civilian Conservation Corps program to develop marginal lands for recreation. He also envisioned trails and woodlots as outdoor spaces for hiking, camping, picnicking, and the study of nature. For an increasingly mobile public, he suggested that places of scenic, historical, and educational interest be listed in directories for their convenience.

Along these same lines, Dr. Curtis began promoting the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan District, a park system encompassing the valleys of the Huron and Clinton Rivers. He was the executive secretary for the Huron-Clinton Parkway Committee in 1937 and assisted in the logistics of acquiring and connecting parks and parkways to form a regional park.10 He also contributed to this cause through his speeches and writings.

As he himself was aging, Dr. Curtis turned his attention to the needs of older adults for recreation. He advocated for facilities that could include a section specifically for older adults. Taking a multi-generational approach to playgrounds, he also suggested that older adults could be more fully utilized as playground leaders for children as well as maintaining the playgrounds. At the age of 84, Dr. Curtis died on January 8, 1954.

  • 1. Curtis, Henry S. “The Playground.” Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. 1907. p. 285.
  • 2. Butler, George D. Pioneers In Public Recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company, 1965. p. 27.
  • 3. Frost, Joe L. A History of Children's Play and Play Environments. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010. p. 103.
  • 4. Op.cit., Butler. pp. 27-28.
  • 5. Op.cit., Frost. p. 104.
  • 6. Op.cit. Butler. pp. 30-31.
  • 7. Op.cit., Butler, p. 28.
  • 8. Op.cit., Butler. p. 29.
  • 9. Op.cit., Butler. p. 29.
  • 10. Op.cit., Butler. p. 36.