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Playground Association of America: Early Days

Playground Association of America

Ed. NoteOver the years, reflecting the organization’s changing mission, the Playground Association of America  changed its name to the Playground and Recreation Association of America (1911-1930) and the National Recreation Association (1930-1965).  On August 14, 1965, the National Recreation and Parks Association was created when five organizations merged to form a single entity. The five merging organizations were all involved in the support of park and recreation service providers in the public sector and included the National Recreation Association (NRA), American Institute of Park Executives (AIPE), American Recreation Society (ARS) the National Conference on State Parks (NCSP), and the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (an affiliate of AIPE).


On April 12, 1906 the first organization meeting of the Playground Association of America was held in the Y.  M.  C.  A. at Washington, D  C.  Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick of New York City was elected President of the organization, Dr. Henry S. Curtis was elected Secretary and Seth T. Stewart, Chairman of the Executive Committee.

Some time prior to the Chicago Play Congress held in June, 1907, President Roosevelt had agreed to serve as Honorary President and Jacob Riis had agreed to serve as Honorary Vice-President.  The fact that Jacob Riis and President  Roosevelt were willing to lend their influence, helped greatly throughout the country.

One of the organization meetings on April 12, 1906 was held at the White House.  President Roosevelt spoke on play leadership urging that there be no undue limitation of the freedom of children.  Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick also spoke at this meeting.

Wallace Hatch who served as “acting secretary” of the first meeting reports that:  “The conference divided itself nearly equally on the question: ‘Shall there be organized a National Playground Association’.  The favorable vote (with a majority I believe of about five) has been justified so completely and so frequently that it seems impossible so many of our recreation leaders of that day could have doubted for a minute the wisdom of establishing this new organization,  limited in it’s activity to the single subject of ‘Recreation’.”

The following principles were approved and announced in behalf of the new association:-

That inasmuch as play under proper conditions is essential to the health and the physical, social and moral well being of the child, playgrounds
are a necessity for all children as much as schools.

The playground system shall represent a plan which will provide a playground within a reasonable walking distance of every child.  In order to secure this result it is necessary that this system shall be definitely planned to meet the needs of each section of the city.

That while there is no inherent relation between spaces and children and the exact amount of space required cannot be determined, — we affirm that the play space for each child should not be less than 30 square feet for each child in the school.

Be It Resolved:   That as playgrounds are a necessity to the well being of children, that they should be constructed on land owned by the city and operated at the expense of the same.- the facts lead us to believe that no play system can be a model one unless provided with a play building.

That the athletic field is essential to the well being of the older boys  and young men and forms the strongest rival of the saloon and other evil influences of the community.

The following individuals were present at the organization meeting held on  April 12, 1906:

Sadie American, Mrs. Samuel Ammon, William H. Baldwin, Henry S. Curtis, Mary E. McDowell, Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, Wallace Hatch, Archibald Hill, Amalie Hofer, Marie Ruef Hofer, Beulah Kennard, Dr. George M. Kober,Commissioner H. S.  MacFarland,  Mrs. Ellen Spencer Wussey, Myron T.  Scudder, Seth T. Stewart, Dr. Rebecca Stoneroad, and Charles F. Weller.

Other  individuals  active in the work of the Association during the first year according to the minutes were:

Mrs. Tunis Bergen, Howard Bradstreet, William Hamlin Childs, George W. Ehler, Joseph Lee, Mrs. Mary Simkhovitch, James G. Phelps Stokes, and Felix Warburg..

Jacob Riis was very proud that his name was on the letterheads of the  Association, side by side with the name of his intimate personal friend, President Theodore Roosevelt.   Jacob Riis was always ready to do anything in his power to help the new organization.   His bubbling enthusiasm and his deep and abiding faith in what play could do for his adopted country was an inspiration for all who  came in contact with him.

Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick took up his position as President of the Association with enthusiasm displaying great energy and resourcefulness.  Dr. Gulick’s personal qualities were such, his ability as a speaker, his vividness of description at private interviews, his unfailing enthusiasm, all were such that the new movement made a very great appeal to the country.  Dr. Gulick himself  in public addresses carried the gospel of play to a great many audiences. The Association owes much to the charm and personality, the solid faithful work,  the energy,  and enthusiasm of Lee F. Hanmer, who served as the first field  secretary.   Mr. Hanmer traveled many thousands of miles over the country meeting with local groups and helping them with working out local problems.

Fifteen years after the early trips of Mr. Hanmer, many communities were still showing the influence of the early contact with him.

Dr.  Seth Thayer Stewart as a volunteer gave most generously of his time and his  ability as editor of The Playground for three years.  He also served as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Association.  Dr. Stewart had great faith in the future of the national movement and was ever ready to help.

Among the thinkers  of the early days in addition to Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick and Dr. Henry S. Curtis and Joseph Leo and Jane Addams, there stand out Clark W. Hetherington and George E. Johnson, both of whom have thought clearly and deeply and shared in considerable measure in shaping the philosophy of the national recreation movement.

On the early records of the Association there are a number of references to Felix M. Warburg as chairman of the finance committee, as member of a committee on play in institutions, as the most generous individual contributor to the Association.

The Playground Association of America owed much to the sympathetic and understanding cooperation of the leaders of the Russell Sage Foundation.  At the time  of the Chicago Play Congress,  Robert W. DeForest of the Russell Sage Foundation sent Lawrence Veiller to report on the possibilities of the new movement.   Mr. Veiller was particularly impressed with Dr. Gulick’s leadership and in his report to Mr. DeForest urged strongly that financial aid be given to the new movement.  As a result of Mr. Veiller’s report and the favorable  consideration given to it by the Russell Sage Foundation, Dr. Gulick was employed by the Foundation on full time and authorized to use part of his time to serve as President of the Playground Association of America.

Foundation loaders felt that the Association should develop its own members  and contributors  and its own financial support.   The Russell Sage Foundation agreed to underwrite the cost of a brief financial campaign to secure support for the Association.   Mr. John M. Glenn, Director of the Foundation, has  stated that this  is  one of the best investments which the Foundation ever
made.  At the same time the Foundation contributed all of the time of Lee F. Hanmer from November 1907 until June 1909  and much of the time of Luther Halsey Gulick from November 1907   until June 1910.   The records of the Association show that on November  15,   1907  Lee F. Hanmer was elected field secretary of the Association.

The first annual Congress of the Association was held in Chicago, June 20-22, 1907.   This meeting had a most unusual quality of vitality, freshness and enthusiasm.   Though the number of delegates attending was small, the spirit was such that a very unusual interest was given to the  meeting.

It is  clear that the time was ripe for the new movement; that the country is greatly indebted to the individuals who had an active part in shaping the policies of this new Association and giving power to them.

One cannot read the early history without feeling that a very large number of individuals  throughout the country were waiting and eager to respond to the leadership provided and that after all, the Association has never been the work of one or two or three individuals, but has been the expression of something deep in the nature of America herself; that the early leaders helped to give conscious expression to a movement for which many had been longing.

Source: National Recreation Association Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:


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