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Recreation Movement in the United States

The Beginning of the Recreation Movement in the United States


Playground and Recreation Association of America, January 1925

Dr. Marie Zakrzewska
Dr. Marie Zakrzewska
Photo: Public Domain

The first playground in the United States to offer recreational opportunity coupled with leadership was in 1885 when a large sandpile was placed in the yards of the Children’s Mission on Parmenter Street in Boston through the efforts of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association.  Here an average of fifteen connected with the chapel came three days a week though July and August to dig in the sand, sing songs and do their drills under the guidance of the matron provided.  This experiment, commonly cited as the beginning of the recreation movement in America, was the direct result of a visit by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska to Berlin where she had observed the children’s sand gardens and had later described them to the members of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association.  It was due also to a desire on the part of its instigators to better social conditions.  By 1889, 21 playgrounds of this type had been developed in Boston.

Development of Physical Education in Germany

Formal gymnastics and games had been in use for some time in Europe, due to the influence of such men as Guts Muth (1759-1839) and Jahn (1778-1852) founder of the Turner Societies, and Spiess early as 1842. These physical education programs included some apparatus and game work but the theoretical emphasis was primarily on the physical side—the greatest aim being to make the men fit for military service.

Contribution of England to the Play Movement

Perhaps the earliest traceable influence on the recreation movement featuring informal play came from England.  Games and outdoor activities of many types and sources had found a race of eager participants in this sport-loving people.  Anglo-Saxons from earliest times have played for the sake of play itself.  The early American colonists coming to this new land did not leave their games behind but continued to enjoy them on the old town commons of America in the early seventeenth century.  Outdoor athletics, with a view to the development of character, were a part of the life of the English public schools and universities prior to 1840.  Foreign observers of the athletic life of the schools and universities in England could not help but be influenced by them and observance of them was largely responsible for the beginning of the playground movements in Germany, Sweden and Denmark.

Beginning of the Playground Movement in Germany

The Germans were the first to organize a movement for the promotion of play.  The first German playground was opened in 1874 and in October 1882 due largely to the efforts of Deputy Von Schenckendorff, a playground order was issued “relating to the provision of playgrounds for the promotion of gymnastics in the open air and to stimulate participation in games.”  A Central Committee for the Promotion of Games was organized in 1891.  In 1894 a national congress in the interest of the games was held in Berlin.

Beginning of Physical Education in the United States

Due to the efforts of the German refugees, America became acquainted with the Jahn idea of gymnastics early in the 19th century.  Around 1830, due largely to the efforts of Beck, Follen and Lieber—three Germans—school , college and public outdoor gymnasia were started in the United States.  The Round Hill School gymnasium at Northampton under Beck, the college gymnasium at Harvard under Follen, and an open-air gymnasium in Washington Gardens, Boston, under Follen and later under Lieber were direct results of the work of these men.  Other colleges followed Harvard in establishing gymnasia. However in America the military emphasis on the value of gymnastics was absent, the athletic leaders were not patriotic heroes as in Germany, and as soon as these three Germans ceased to lead the gymnasia failed, the people losing interest.  In 1848, due to a later German immigration, the Cincinnati Turngemeinde—the oldest German-American gymnastic society in the country was organized and the movement grew so rapidly that in 1850 a National Turnerbund was organized.  Some of these societies are still in existence.

Although the recreation movement as we know it today was not a direct result of these foreign attempts, all had an influence upon the recreational thought and education of the time and a very marked effect on the development of physical education in the United States.

Revival of Athletic Interest in Colleges

A revival of interest in athletics in the college came about around 1860 and rowing, college baseball, football and track and field athletics came strongly to the fore.

Early Development of Playground Movement in America

A social awakening to the value of child life—a general realization of the problems confronting it and a desire to find a satisfactory solution to those problems  spread over America around 1885—the year when the sand garden experiment was introduced in Boston.  Child labor, immigration, the increase in factories, bad housing and the growth of commercial recreation were all factors to the seriousness of the problem.  Adequate places for wholesome recreation seemed to offer a solution.  An Anti-Slums Campaign led mainly by Jacob Riis took place in New York at about this time and the subject was discussed.  Members of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association were called upon by a number of other cities to tell of their experiment. The Earl of Meath, who had established some playgrounds in England visited the United States in 1888 and contributed articles on playgrounds to a number of magazines.

In Philadelphia in 1893 two summer playgrounds were started by philanthropic people.  In 1895 the city councils opened available school yards and appropriated $1000 toward their maintenance. This amount was soon increased to $3000.  Sand gardens were started in Providence by the Children’s Kindergarten Association in 1894.  Other cities followed rapidly.

In 1898 the New York School Committee took over the vacation schools of the Association for improving the Condition of the Poor, establishing twenty school playgrounds.  In 1899 Brooklyn and Baltimore started playgrounds.  Cleveland, Minneapolis and Denver had sand gardens in 1898.  The first recreation pier in New York was opened in 1897. Philadelphia opened a play pier in 1898.

Joseph Lee’s Columbus Avenue Playground, opened in 1900, marked an important development in the organization of playgrounds in Boston.  The first public outdoor gymnasia to be established with supervision for older youth was the Charlesbank gymnasia in Boston, opened to men in 1889 and a separate section to women and children in 1891.

The first model playground in the country outside of the sand garden type was the playground started in 1894 in connection with Hull House in Chicago.  In 1897 the Associated Charities started a summer playground.  In 1899 and 1900 school yard playgrounds were carried on eight weeks by the women’s clubs, the city council appropriating $1000 toward their expense.  In 1903 Chicago opened the South Side Park Playgrounds and in two years had taxed itself $10,000,000 for park playground support—an unheard of amount at the time and called by Theodore Roosevelt “the most notable civic achievement of any American city”.

In Washington Park, Chicago, a part of the park area had been set aside for play as early as 1876.  Other cities followed Chicago in this matter.  These large park spaces however, were difficult to reach and being without supervision, they served only as a place for different games for a small number of men and boys.

In 1903 Luther H. Gulick organized the New York Public Schools Athletic League with the idea of extending athletics to all school boys and college students instead of those alone who were particularly fitted or interested.

Organization of the Playground Association of America

No definite concerted action was taken for the guidance and help of this great wave of interest in recreation until April 1906 when a group of people from all parts of the country interested in play of children met for five days in the city of Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the Public Playgrounds Committee of the Associated Charities of that city with a view to the formation of a national organization to advance the interest of playgrounds throughout the United States.  They were received by President Roosevelt who encouraged their mission and during these five days they organized the Playground Association of America (in May, 1911 changed to the playground and Recreation Association of America) and proceeded to draw up and tentatively adopt a constitution.  Among this group were Dr. Luther E. Gulick, Dr, Henry S. Curtis, Dr. Seth T. Stewart, Dr. Myron T. Scudder, Miss Sadie American, Miss Marie Ruef Hofer, Miss Amalie Hofer, Miss Beulan Kennard and Mrs. Samuel Ammon.  The aim of this organization was to assist in the establishment of adequate playground systems for cities and towns and also to assist in the development of public sentiment along these lines.  With the formation of this organization a definite plan of propaganda was inaugurated.  The following were elected officers of the organization: Theodore Roosevelt, Honorary President; Jacob Riis, Honorary Vice-President; Dr. Luther H. Gulick, President; Henry B.F. MacFarland, First Vice-president; Jane Addams, Second Vice-President; Joseph Lee, Third Vice-President; John B. Sleman Jr., Treasurer; Dr. Henry S. Curtis, Secretary and Assistant Treasurer.

In 1907 the Playground, a monthly magazine published by this organization and devoted exclusively to play interests was established.

Later Development of the recreation Movement

At the close of the first year’s efforts on the part of the Association, there were 189 regular members of the Association and the receipts had been $2,164.50.  At the close of the 18th year of the Association there were upwards of 15,000 members and the receipts were around $307,000.

During the six years from 1900 to 1906 when the Playground and Recreation Association was organized, 26 cities had established playgrounds—and average of 4 cities a year.  In the four years following the founding of the association, 83 cities having community recreation leadership had reached 680 in 1923.

The Y.M.C.A, the Y.W.C.A, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Campfire Girls, the Woodcraft League, the Boys Clubs and many other groups are doing a large part toward providing adequate recreation for special groups all over the country.

Recreation Congresses

The First Play Congress was held in Chicago in 1907.  Other Congresses have been held as follows:

New York City 1908

Pittsburgh, Pa. 1909

Rochester, N. Y. 1910

Washington, D. C. 1911

Cleveland, Ohio  1912

Richmond, Va.   1913

Grand Rapids, Mich.  1916

Atlantic City, N.J.  1922

Springfield, Ill.    1923

Atlantic City, N.J.  1924

A conference on Outdoor Recreation called by President Coolidge in May 1924, bringing people from all parts of the country together to discuss recreation problems was a significant step in the development of recreation in America.

Changes in Recreation Ideas

Since the organization of the Playground and Recreation Association of America, a number of changes in recreation thought have taken place. One of the most marked is the change from the idea of summer playgrounds under private support to that of year round recreation supported from municipal funds.

The idea of playgrounds for children alone has changed to the idea of providing indoor and outdoor centers where both old and young may have wholesome recreation.  The school center movement received its first real impetus in Rochester, N. Y., between 1907 and 1909, under the leadership of Edward J. Ward.  This movement rapidly spread.  Today 196 cities use their school buildings as evening recreation centers.  Three hundred and twenty-eight buildings have been built solely for recreation where many types of recreation activities are carried on under trained leadership.

The system of training boys and girls for picked teams has been replaced by mass and general participation. Special schools for training recreation leaders have come into existence and colleges and normal schools are increasingly offering courses in recreation leadership.  Community-wide recreation activities rather than playground work alone now receive emphasis.

With the advent of the World War, the attention of all recreation workers was turned to wholesome entertainment for the men in service.  Many activities were developed to a greater degree than ever before, among them dramatics and music.  Considerable attention has been focused on these activities in recent recreation programs. Volunteers presented themselves for service in war-time activities, who have continued their work since that time, making the idea of securing volunteers a prominent one in the recreation program.

Recreation Legislation

Recreation legislation has made great strides, some of the most important laws being outlined below.  In 1908 the famous Massachusetts Playground Law was passed, requiring every city of 10,000 accepting provisions of the act to maintain one playground and one additional for every 20,00 population.  Ohio passed a law the same year giving School Boards power to Establish and Maintain Summer or Vacation Schools, School Gardening and playgrounds.  In 1911, Minnesota passed a law authorizing cities having a playground of over 50,000 inhabitants to issue and sell bonds for children’s playgrounds.  Pennsylvania in that year passed two laws 1)To create Departments of Recreation in Cities of the First Class in the State of Pennsylvania, and 2)Providing for School Playgrounds and the Use of School buildings for Social, Recreation and Other Purposes.  Wisconsin in 1911 passed legislation authorizing a 2/10 mill tax for recreation purposes under school directors.

Due to the legislation program of the playground and recreation Association of America, sixteen states between 1914 and 1925 have passed the so-called Home Rule bill which gives cities power, without additional legislation, to place their recreation in the hands of the School Board, Park Board, or some existing municipal body or to create a recreation commission with power to expand the appropriation, employ workers and establish and maintain year-round recreation laws making physical education compulsory in the schools of the state.

Present Wealth of the Recreation Movement

During 1923, nearly $14,000,000 was expended for wholesome recreation by cities and towns in the United States.  The wealth of the movement, however, does not lie in the money expended but in the large number of trained workers, now numbering over 12,000, who with the help of their experience, can “carry on” for years to come, and in the believers in the recreation movement through whose work, time and money, social conditions have become bettered all over America.  Because of these the original purpose of the movement, continually broadening, is constantly being fulfilled.

Playground and Recreation

Association of America

315 Fourth Avenue

New York City

January 1925


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

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2013). Playground and Recreation Association of America. (1925). The beginning of the recreation movement in the United States. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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