Playground Association of America

Playground Association of America

The Playground Association of America was formed to support and expand the playground movement. In America this movement began in Boston, Massachusetts as a solution to problems stemming from increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. As the cities became crowded due to the Industrial Revolution and the waves of immigration, reform leaders saw playgrounds as a means to train healthy, responsible American citizens and provide relief for the children of the inner city.

The child-saving movement of the 1800s helped advance the play and playground movements searching for better community opportunities for healthy play and recreation for children. What began in1821 with an outdoor gymnasium was expanded upon much later in 1887 with the sand gardens of Boston.1 Another Boston gymnasium, the Charlesbank Gymnasium, opened in 1889 as a free, public, equipped outdoor playground. In the 1890s, the settlement movement furthered the playground movement due to many of the settlement houses, such as the Hull House established in Chicago in 1889, having attached playgrounds. Settlement houses were houses reformers established in inner city neighborhoods so the volunteers who lived there could experience the needs of the people as they served the area. At the turn of the century city governments were also starting to provide playgrounds for children.

In 1905, Henry S. Curtis, the director of the Washington, D.C. playground system, and Luther H. Gulick, the director of physical education in the New York City school system, joined together to form a national playground association. The official formation of the Playground Association of America (PAA) occurred on April 12, 1906 at the YMCA in Washington, D.C.

On that day, eighteen men and women representing playground associations, schools, cities, colleges, kindergartens, and charity organizations elected President Theodore Roosevelt as honorary President and Jacob Riis, a journalist and reformer, as honorary Vice-President.2 On a more functional level, Dr. Gulick was elected as President and Dr. Curtis became the association's Secretary and Treasurer. The next day President Roosevelt showed his support when he received them at the White House.3

Previously, Dr. Gulick had worked with the YMCA, had assisted James Naismith in refining the new game of basketball, had been a founding member of the American School Hygiene Association, and had helped develop the Public School Athletic League. He was a well known author concerning play and brought important publicity to the playground movement and the PAA. Dr. Curtis had a doctorate in child psychology and had studied recreational administration in Germany and England. From his experiences abroad he became convinced that “democratic team games” should be the direction of the play movement in America.4

One of Playground Association of America's basic beliefs was, “that inasmuch as play under proper conditions is essential to the health and the physical, social, and moral wellbeing of the child, playgrounds are a necessity for all children as much as schools.”5 PAA's guiding principles were to assist cities in customizing a play and recreation plan for their local needs, develop the local leadership for sustained improvements, and to first improve existing playgrounds before establishing new play spaces. They were first concerned with quality programs and leadership more than with widespread quantity of playgrounds.6 On their founding day, their first order of business was to generate a play program for Washington, D.C. using these principles. The number of municipalities with playgrounds in America grew from 90 in 1907 to 531 in 1910, due in large part to PAA's support and assistance.7

Within that first year, they also established the association's journal, the Playground Magazine.8 Led by Seth T. Stewart, the Chairman of the Executive Committee, the journal significantly furthered the playground movement through practical advice, programming ideas, and playground theory articles.

The first annual conference of the PAA, the Play Congress, was held in Chicago, Illinois in 1907.9 Besides the speeches concerning how play supports morality and citizenship, the congress also featured an extensive “play festival.” Attended by 4,000 spectators, the festival ran all day beginning in the morning with 300 kindergarten children playing games, marching, and singing. In the afternoon the youth were featured with gymnastic games, volleyball matches, and relay races. The evening brought a display of Italians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, and many other nationalities dancing their national dances in colorful costumes.10

The PAA was funded in the beginning by the newly formed Russell Sage Foundation. In 1907, Dr. Gulick accepted a position with the Foundation to create their recreation program and to chair their Playground Extension Committee. Partly to facilitate his responsibilities for both organizations, the PAA office was moved to New York in November of 1907. As secretary Dr. Curtis was funded part time as he led and supervised several committees, surveyed playground sites in Washington, D.C., and wrote a history of the play movement. One of the committees he led was the Equipment Committee, which met such opposition from machine companies that it could not convene.11

The second annual conference was held for five days at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in September 1908. In the main hall was an exhibit of playground equipment, miniature playground models, detailed drawings of playground designs, maps of city playground planning, and photographs of the New York Parks Department playground system. At this time manufacturers were noting the playground movement and starting to supply the movement with playground equipment. Five such manufacturers exhibited their products at the conference: Arthur Leland of Templeton, Mississippi, Fred Medart of St. Louis, Missouri, Narragansett Machine Co. of Providence, Rhode Island, A. G. Spalding & Bros of New York, and W. H. Toothill of Chicago, Illinois.12 Interest was spreading; twenty one cities were represented at this conference.

During the summer of 1909 more changes occurred in the Playground Association of America. Joseph Lee, an early promoter of the Boston playgrounds, author on playgrounds, and play philosopher, was elected to be First Vice President. He was widely considered to be the father of the American playground movement. Lee was joined by Dr. Curtis, who became the Second Vice President while Howard S. Braucher became Secretary.13

That same year the PAA developed a curriculum for training recreation and playground directors. A Normal Course in Play set the standard for courses used in teachers colleges and universities across America. Some of the topics covered were play theory, the playground movement in Europe and America, child development, psychology, playground planning and management, games and activities, nature study, hygiene, landscaping, record keeping, and fund raising.14 This course continued to evolve and was published in 1925 by the Association. By that time they considered play to be what “we do when we are free to do what we will.” Further, “play” was what children did, “relaxation” was what adults did, and “recreation” referred to activities for both children and adults.15

The fourth annual conference brought the retirement of Dr. Gulick and the election of Joseph Lee to be President. The PAA's main focus continued to involve making recreation surveys, campaigning for playgrounds, and guiding cities in establishing recreation programs and leadership. Dr. Gulick had previously characterized playgrounds as “our great ethical laboratory” and Lee Hanmer amplified this in 1910 when he declared, “The playground of today is the republic of tomorrow. If you want twenty years hence a nation of strong, efficient men and women, a nation in which there shall be justice and square dealing, work it out today with the boys and girls on the playground.”16

In the mid-1910s, the PAA broadened their scope and became the Playground and Recreation Association of America (PRAA), and their journal was renamed Recreation. What had originally been an emphasis on play and playgrounds became increasingly an emphasis on social work, civic affairs, and recreation.

During World War I, PRAA addressed the recreational needs of the new military bases and war industries being established. In 1917, working with the Council of National Defense, they assisted in forming the War Camp Community Service. They worked with the communities to organize “physical, social, aesthetic, constructive, and civic programs for all ages.” By the end of the war, this community service organization had spread the playground and recreational movement to over 600 communities, which now had recreational resources.17

By 1930, the scope of the PRAA had broadened yet again to include physical fitness, recreation, sports, performing arts, research, training institutes, personnel services, and site visits. “Playground,” considered too confining a term, was dropped and their new name became the National Recreation Association. Thus, after twenty four years, the national playground promoting association ended. The National Recreation Association merged with four other organization in 1963 to become the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).18

  • 1. Frost, Joe L. A History of Children's Play and Play Environments. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. p. 108.
  • 2. Anderson, Linnea M. (2006) “The playground of today is the republic of tomorrow”: Social reform and organized recreation in the USA, 1890-1930's' the encyclopaedia of informal education. < > 15 Feb. 2012.
  • 3. Curtis, Henry S. The Play Movement And Its Significance. New York City, N.Y.: The Macmillan Company, 1917. p. 15.
  • 4. Op.cit., Frost. p. 103.
  • 5. Op.cit., Anderson.
  • 6. Butler, George D. Pioneers in Public Recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company, 1965. p. 57.
  • 7. Winter, Thomas. “luther halsey gulick.” infed. < > 19 Jan. 2012.
  • 8. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 16. Note: The archives of the Playground Magazine are at the University of Minnesota, according to Op.cit., Frost. p. 90.
  • 9. Op.cit., Anderson.
  • 10. “Playground History.” Outdoor Fun Store Co. < > 15 Feb. 2012.
  • 11. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 16.
  • 12. Op.cit., Frost. p. 78.
  • 13. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 17.
  • 14. Op.cit., Anderson.
  • 15. Op.cit., Frost. p. 106.
  • 16. Op.cit., Anderson.
  • 17. Op.cit., Frost. p. 99.
  • 18. Hartsoe, Charles E. “The Birth of NRPA.” Parks & Recreation. < > 17 Feb. 2012.