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Boyd, Neva Leona

in: People

Neva Leona Boyd  (1876-1963) – Social Group Worker, Professor of Sociology and Proponent of the Modern Play Movement

Introduction: Neva Leona Boyd was born in Sanborn, Iowa on February 25, 1876 and she moved to Chicago after high school. Boyd enrolled in the Chicago Kindergarten Institute and then taught kindergarten in Buffalo, New York, before returning in 1908 to attend the University of Chicago. The Chicago park commission hired Boyd as a social worker, specifically to organize social clubs, direct dramatics, supervise social dances and play activities. In 1909, she founded the Chicago School for Playground Workers. From 1914 to 1920, the school operated as the Recreation Department of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. The school taught a one-year educational program in group games, gymnastics, dancing, dramatic arts, play theory, and social problems. Most of the classes were taught at Hull-House and Jane Addams served on the Board of Directors.

When the School of Civics and Philanthropy was incorporated into the University of Chicago, Neva Boyd’s Recreation Department became the Independent Recreation Training School of Chicago (popularly known as the Hull-House School.) In 1927, Boyd accepted Northwestern University’s invitation to move The Chicago Training School for Playground Workers from Hull House to its own Department of Sociology. Boyd was on the faculty of Northwestern University as a sociologist from 1927 to 1941. Upon her retirement, Boyd worked with the Illinois Department of Public Welfare designing recreational programs for the mentally ill.

Neva Leona Boyd, a Biographical Sketch
By W. Paul Simon

Neva Leona Boyd
Neva Leona Boyd
Photo: Chicago Tribune

Note: W. Paul Simon was a Professor of Social Work at the Jane Addams School of Social Work from 1947 to his retirement in 1974. Simon served as Assistant Director of the school from 1957-1969 and was known as the “father of social group work” in Chicago. Simon was an active member in the American Association of Social Group Workers (AASWG), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) as well as in the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). From 1945 through 1971 he presented many workshops and wrote many articles on group work in various settings.

The professional life of Neva Leona Boyd covered a span of more than six decades. The growth of social work as a profession paralleled her own intellectual development. At the time of her birth in Sanborn, Iowa, on February 25, 1876, the earliest formal social services were only beginning to appear, and their theoretical bases were yet to be explicated. Both here and abroad there were stirrings that were later to be known as the settlement movement. In London, Toynbee Hall, the first settlement, had just been founded and was to be visited shortly by Jane Addams, a visit that lead to the establishment of Hull House in 1889. Neva Boyd was closely connected with the work of the social settlements here and abroad for most of her professional life – as a staff worker, volunteer resident, and supervisor of the work of her students. She resided at Gads Hill Center in Chicago from 1914 to 1947 and at Hull House from 1947 to 1960.

Neva Boyd was one of the small group of nineteenth century women who devoted their careers to the social ills of the times and the development of a systematic discipline of formal education. At the turn of the century organized schools of social work were only beginning to appear. The playground and recreation movement had begun, together with the opening of a few settlements, and the establishment of some youth programs and social service agencies. Staff services were rendered largely through volunteers who had no special training, and the few paid employees were not graduates of standardized training programs. As the need for training became recognized, many agencies conducted their own seminars and in-service training courses, some of which subsequently were combined to form the nucleus of the earliest schools of social work philanthropy. In this scene Neva Boyd began as a practitioner in work with children and groups of young people, and almost immediately she saw the necessity for some form of training procedure.

In her early kindergarten and playground work she saw evidence that her untrained associates encountered numerous difficulties that could be traced to lack of educational preparation. Miss Boyd had specialized in early childhood education and had applied this to her work largely through play and related activities. Convinced of the necessity of formal training for such important work she organized and established her own school, hoping to raise the standards of playground workers to those she had seen and developed during her early association with the settlement movement. She thus contributed to the development of formal education for those interested in working with groups – a movement that many years later led to the inclusion of group as a mode of social work practice.

Although her own formal education had been interrupted, she found her greatest talent to lie in the training of others. Prior to her first organized educational program in 1911 she conducted informal courses through which she became aware not only of the need for training but, more importantly, for the revision of the philosophy of play and games. The scarcity of published material led her to begin the systematic collection of games, folk dances, and other activities, which she first published in 1914.

Through her courses she first raised objections to the use of play and games solely for purposes of exercise, or physical development, or mere diversion. Her belief, counter to the thinking of the day, was that these ends were insufficient since all such activities provided fuller opportunities for social education.

As the eldest daughter in a family of six children, whose Scotch-Irish father had emigrated to this country in 1853, she experienced the gratifications and limitations of small-town life. Although her family was of comfortable means, she knew the demands for hard work and the need for social occasions to offset isolation and loneliness. Her father, Richard M. Boyd, enlisted in the Army of the Republic at seventeen, and served until he was wounded and discharged in 1864. Two years later he married Eliza Swecker and set up a homestead, successfully enduring the hazards of crop failures and low farm prices even though he had no prior farming experience. The family’s independence and pioneering spirit influenced both Neva and her older brother Melville who prospected in the Alaskan gold rush.

The absence of organized social activities in her high school led her to dedicate herself to demonstrating the values she felt to be inherent in social group activities through the medium of group socialization. Following her high school graduation she entered the Chicago Kindergarten Institute, which offered training for work with young adults and children. It was here that she became acquainted with Hull House, where she further developed her thesis that the social education of the young could not be left to chance, a principle inherent in her theories of play and leadership.

Although the development of the play movement had already begun, as seen in the works of Groos and Hall and in the translations of Froebel, Neva Boyd was among the first to emphasize the important relationship between play and the social education of children.

Upon completion of her study at the Kindergarten Training Institute she took employment in Dallas and for several years was in charge of a large kindergarten attended mainly by children of the lower economic class. In 1904 she moved to Buffalo to become supervisor of the kindergarten program at the Welcome Hall Settlement. Her first teaching experience occurred during this time, when she taught several courses for staff workers in the Buffalo Kindergarten Association. Returning to Chicago in 1908 she enrolled in several courses at the University Of Chicago, meanwhile carrying volunteer duties in which she demonstrated her methods at various settlement houses. She found the settlement movement particularly hospitable in philosophy and program to her developing views.

At the time, public recreation programs in the main stressed formal sports, calisthenics, and competitive activity, which Neva Boyd found to be constricting and sterile. She believed that the essence of such activity should be social development rather than mere physical exercise. Consequently in her play programs she stressed the use of games and activities in which the leader and participants engaged both psychologically and physically, which resulted in improved social relationships. She believed such activities should be valued for their intrinsic good, not for external rewards. Applying this to her teaching, she noted: “…The greed for power, the hatred and dishonesty which have become associated with competitive games are not an inherent part of them but have found their why in them through a false sense of values. Prizes separate people, pit them against each other, discourage the less able and set the more able apart.”

Her work attracted the attention of the Chicago Women’s Club, which was active in promoting a number of civic activities, including playgrounds and parks. By 1909 the club persuaded the West Chicago Park Commissioners to employ Miss Boyd to direct informal social activities at West Park Number One, later know as Eckhart Park. She was officially titled “social worker” and her duties included organization of social clubs, direction of dramatics, supervision of social dances, and play activities quiet different from those usually directed by physical education teachers. The experiment was so successful that the commission voted to hire such a person for each playground and to adopt a policy of developing social work in the parks. The importance of special education in this field led Neva Boyd to establish her first organized training program, which marked the beginning of her career in professional education. As reported by Arthur J. Todd, later one of her colleagues at Northwestern:

“Her experience in this situation convinced Miss Boyd that workers must be professionally trained for this informal recreational leadership. Hence she set up a tentative curriculum and started out to get the opinion of the best workers in the field as to its probable value. All agreed that a school offering such a curriculum would be invaluable. Mari Huef Hofer, then an extension worker of Columbia University, became a joint director of what, when opened in 1911, was the first school (probably in the world, and certainly in the United States) offering training for the then popular public playground field. This school, the Chicago Training School for Playground Workers, continued under this joint directorship for a year and a half. It opened with twelve students of excellent quality and doubled its registrations for each of the following two years. In 1914 the school was closed and the ‘good will’ it had developed together with its director, Neva Boyd, were transferred to the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, where for the next six years it became the Department of Recreation.”

The Chicago Training School for Playground Workers was housed at the Abraham Lincoln Center, where Lloyd Jenkins Jones was the director. Courses offered included theory of play activities, with emphasis on physiological and psychological significance, folk arts and dances, drama, and games. The school was privately financed. Although there is no record of tuition fees, it is likely that they were sufficient to cover expense and it is also likely that space was contributed by the Center. Together with classroom courses each student was assigned to field work in a settlement house or playground. The unique characteristic of Neva Boyd’s teaching method that involved both class and teacher in practical demonstration was developed here and continued throughout her career.

Meanwhile social work education was moving toward formalization as the profession itself was gaining identity. By 1914 five schools of social work had been established in this country. Locally, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, organized by Graham Taylor of Chicago Commons, gave recognition to the importance of work with groups. Thus when the addition of such a program was considered, it was only logical to invite the pioneer of such training, Neva Boyd, to establish and direct the Recreation Department of the school. Students working in the casework field as well as those choosing group work enrolled in her courses. Field work, concurrent with classroom studies, was considered essential for all students. Jane Addams at Hull House and Graham Taylor at Chicago Commons were among the first to arrange for field work for students in their agencies. A special experimental program in the use of field work was established at Gads Hill Center under the direction of Ruth Austin, one of Miss Boyd’s associates. Other experimental programs in field work subsequently developed in a number of Chicago settlements and neighborhood centers.

The presence of various neighborhood ethnic groups gave direct opportunity to experience a broad range of cultures and their unique customs. Miss Boyd’s insistence on the cultural values of “authentic unadapted” folk literature, games, and dances gave impetus and validity not only to her teaching but also to the collecting and organizing of her first published materials. To further acquaint her students with folk art the teaching staff was augmented by people native to Denmark, Sweden, England, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and other countries who collaborated with Miss Boyd in translating the collection of folk games and dances.

The growing development of social work and the increasing numbers of schools of social work made it essential for these schools to become identified with universities. Early efforts to merge the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy with a university, were unsuccessful. In 1920, however, the school was incorporated into the University of Chicago as its School of Social Service Administration. The Recreation Department of the School of Civics and Philanthropy, which did not become associated with the University of Chicago, continued at Hull House as an independent organization, the Recreation Training School of Chicago. Although not affiliated with Hull House administratively, the school became known popularly as the “Hull House School.” Its advisory board included Jane Addams with Graham Taylor as its president.

Early social work philosophy stressed both work with groups and with individuals in direct service, together with a social reform emphasis. The former was based on the belief of the times that people were responsible for their own ills, which could be ameliorated through education and case-by-case treatment. However, with the developing social sciences, and in particular the stress upon the psychology of individual behavior, such work became directed more and more toward individualized services.

Although institutions that serve people in groups had existed for some years, the form of social work that emerged during the twenties was known as casework. Group work was not then identified with social work, although both Zilpha Smith and Mary Richmond, pioneers in the development and codification of casework, made reference to the importance of group experience and group methods. Neva Boyd’s training program had already been incorporated into the School of Civics and Philanthropy when Zilpha Smith said, “The kinds of social work which do not in the long run include both the family and the group method are few.”

Shortly after her monumental work, Social Diagnosis and Treatment, appeared, Mary Richmond said, “This brings me to the only point upon which I can attempt to dwell at all, to a tendency in modern casework which I seem to have noted, and noted with great pleasure. It is one which is full of promise, I believe, for the future of social treatment. I refer to the new tendency to view our clients from the angle of what might be termed small group psychology.”

Yet it was to be years before group work would become established in the curricula of schools of social work. Neva Boyd saw her own teaching as ten years ahead of the next to offer professional education of this specific nature. The identity of group work was a question that lasted into the thirties since its roots were partly in recreation as well as in education and social work. Ruth Middleman has traced this development with care and accuracy, concluding that, “The movement of group work from its early identification with the fields of education and recreation to its firm entrenchment within the profession of social work as carried with it profound changes in ideology, methodology, goals, priorities and emphases.” Middleman’s thesis, however, develops the deliberate and purposeful use of activities in work with groups. It was Neva Boyd who first and most appropriately applied this principle.

The utilization of games and play as media for producing change in the participants was always the central core of her philosophy. She developed the theory of groups and group experience as a means of growth and development. She stressed the development of individual potential through group life. First applied in settlement and playground work to social and recreational groups, these concepts were subsequently extended to include groups of other types, such as handicapped, (mentally challenged), and delinquent children and the mentally ill in hospitals and institutions.

At the Recreation Training School, opened at Hull House in October, 1920, as the successor to the Recreation Department of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, Neva Boyd was the director and organizing force. A curriculum, spanning one academic year, led to a certificate for those who satisfactorily completed the course requirements, including field work. At the beginning admission was open to those having the “equivalent of a good high school education.” Later, two years of college were required for those who wished to complete requirements in one year, while those with less than two years of college were required to attend two years in order to qualify for the certificate. However, many students had completed college work before entering. Originally tuition charges were $45 per quarter. The school was financed in part by tuition fees and in part by voluntary contributions from friends, supporters, and alumni. It was not infrequent for Miss Boyd to contribute honoraria from her own lectures to the costs of the school. Students in the school came from many states across the country as well as from abroad. Graduates took positions in a broad array of agencies, many serving as instructors in colleges and universities.

The curriculum was organized into five areas, including theoretical courses, technical classes, dramatic art, supervision and administration, and social treatment. Observation and field work were required of all students. Theoretical courses included child study, the theory and psychology of play, club organization and leadership, social and behavior problems, and administration. Technical classes covered group games, folk games and dances, gymnastics, dancing, and athletics. Courses in the dramatic arts included history, play production, acting and directing, pageantry, and such technical aspects as costuming, setting, lighting, and staging. Supervision and administration included organization and planning, policy making, budgeting, and public relations. Social treatment courses covered a wide range of preventive and remedial social efforts. Field work was arranged with reference to particular interests and needs of the student. Miss Boyd herself maintained supervision of field work. It is significant to note that she used the group method of supervision, with individual conferences arranged as necessary. This approach to student supervision has recently become popular in schools of social work.

Its bulletins describe the school as informal and cooperative, free from rigidity and routine, yet adhering to regularity and definiteness in class schedules and field work. Emphasis was on the individual student, and faculty members were freely accessible to the students as they sought help with their learning problems. The teaching method was characterized by the discussion and project method. Miss Boyd occasionally used the didactic approach but was more given to the use of dialogue, and her great popularity with her students stemmed in part from her ability to enter actively into practice and demonstrations. She used her class groups as models much in the same fashion as today’s sensitivity training groups are used. All class work was based on the group approach, with instructors stressing the creative nature of the group. Students and instructors participated actively in demonstration, utilizing the class as an experience in group life.

In addition to the regular faculty of the school many guest lecturers representing special interest areas were used. These included Jane Addams, Graham Taylor, Lea and Katherine Taylor, Jesse Binford, Joseph Moss, Harriet Vittum, Amelia Sears, and other outstanding authorities in their field.

The Recreation Training School was in a sense the culmination of Neva Boyd’s efforts to formalize an education approach to what she considered the central discovery of her own work. Yet after seven years it became necessary to close the school. Various factors entered into the decision, but perhaps the most important was the invitation to Miss Boyd to continue to offer courses at Northwestern University. Financial considerations also contributed to the move, for the school had incurred deficits in the last several years of its existence. However, there was also a continuing growth in the number of schools of social work affiliated with universities, and no doubt problems of credit and accreditation and the institutionalized aspect of higher education were beginning to be felt. Thus the growing prestige of the school seemed to make feasible as well as point to incorporation into a major university.

In a letter to her friends and former students Miss Boyd said in April, 1927:

“…Plans are well under way whereby the Northwestern University will take into its Sociology Department of which Professor Arthur J. Todd is head, our courses in recreation. Plans now indicate that what we have built up over the long period of years will not be lost since Prof. Todd is sensitive to real values and is earnestly trying to preserve what we have proved. Perhaps it will not be amiss to say that in the early stages of negotiations Mr. Byron was our ‘friend at court.’ (Editor’s note: William F. Byron, Instructor in Sociology at Northwestern and former assistant head resident at Hull House was a regular member of the teaching staff of the Recreation Training School.)

“Just what courses will be offered has not yet been completely settled though it is probable there will be a one year graduate and probably a four year course….I am sure you all feel as I do, that we shall miss the freedom and informality we enjoyed at Hull House as we gathered round the table in the cooking room or dusted the floor in the gym with our clean middies but let us dry out tears with the comforting picture of a monthly check we haven’t had to scramble to provide, with the fact that the whole office routine is fading out of my program and that there is no summer term for me….I hope you all realize that my latch string will still respond to your gentle pull for always and always, Neva L. Boyd.”

The program developed as she hoped it would, and she taught her courses in play theory, leadership, group organization, and other subjects until her retirement. The years at Northwestern brought fruition to her lifetime hopes and the reiteration of her views and convictions. Her program was established in a formal academic setting, at which she may have chafed under various restrictions and regulations, yet she realized the importance of the university imprimatur for her students. Although she continued to find little time for writing, she did present a number of papers that have been duplicated and several that were published. She continued to stress her views about social group work and freely differed with others in the field. She found relatively little support for her views in the literature of the day, particularly that on psychology and psychoanalysis, but she was little troubled by this, holding that her own views had been proven in practice.

As a person she made no distinction between her vocation and avocation. Her work was her life and she enjoyed it most when she was in contact with her students.

She believed in the discipline of work and the striving for perfection in herself and in her students. They regarded her as a dynamic teacher whose method of presentation was dramatic and who expressed her ideas in pithy ways. Perceptive and tireless, she was respected and revered by her students and her associates. Her delightful sense of humor was reflected in the easy sharing of her own experiences with her students, throughout which she always retained her dignity and her sense of social distance.

Miss Boyd believed in goodness and that the love of goodness must be cultivated. “Social living,” she said, “cannot be maintained on the basis of destructive ideologies – domination, hate, prejudice, greed and dishonesty. A society cannot hold together without a good way of life for all….Virtues are dynamic products and cannot be taken over fully developed without being continuously developed.” She considered work to be a mark of civilization, believing that work should be enjoyed and working conditions should be favorable to enjoyment. She held that life was always in the making but existence was another matter. She once wrote, “I can’t see how anybody owes anybody else anything – education, security, jobs. We must work out together ways of getting things we all need.”

During the years at Northwestern, group work slowly became recognized as an integral part of social work, and it was gradually separated from its earlier ties to recreation, adult education, and progressive education. Twenty-five years after she first began teaching methods of working with groups the National Conference of Social Work created a section on social group work with Neva Boyd a member of the committee. In 1935 she presented a paper at the national forum that marked the beginning of this section; the following year saw the formation of the American Association for the Study of Group Work.

Following her retirement from Northwestern in 1941 Miss Boyd continued in the field of education, serving as consultant to the activity therapy program of the Illinois Department of Welfare. She conducted numerous short courses and institutes and filled many consultation requests. At this time she began the preparation of the papers on play theory and leadership that appear for the first time in this volume. Her earliest writing included a compilation of games, folk dances, and other social activities collected in this country and abroad. In subsequent years she produced various papers on play and game theory, leadership, and group work that were developed from her various lectures and appearances at conferences and institutes across the country. She was not, however, a prolific writer and much of her material is found only in the notebooks of her students.

In form and structure group work began the movement toward social work during the early thirties. Miss Boyd’s monograph “Social Group Work: A Definition with a Methodological Note” coincided with a nationwide attempt by the American Association for the Study of Group Work to define the meaning of group work and to develop some common methodological principles. Readers today will find her monograph remarkably modern.

At that time the application of the group method was found mostly in such agencies as settlement houses, youth agencies, and community centers. It was identified largely by services to “normal” persons and was directed toward socialization goals. The use of group work in treatment and therapeutic institutions did not achieve widespread application until after World War II. However, Neva Boyd had begun experimental programs in the use of groups in specialized settings as early as 1917 at the Chicago State Hospital, treating the emotionally disturbed. Additional hospital applications followed in work with handicapped children at Children’s Memorial Hospital and with (mentally challenged) children at Lincoln State School near Lincoln, Illinois. Significant group experiments in the correctional field were tested at the State School for Girls at Geneva, Illinois. Application of the group method in the rural setting was introduced in a special series of institutes conducted by Miss Boyd in the Cooperative School for Group Organization and Recreation. This program continued from 1936 to 1951 and was sponsored by the Cooperative League of America and the Farm Bureau. The school met for two-week sessions each summer in various Midwest camps and conference centers. Students were free to select courses, attendance was not recorded, examinations were not held, and no outside assignments were given. Although no official credit was offered, the value of the school was demonstrated in the willingness of agencies to give workers time off with salaries and expense allowances to attend. In addition to students from rural settings, the school attracted others from welfare, business, and educational institutions.

Throughout her career Neva Boyd was in demand for her lectures on play and leadership. She lectured in many colleges and universities throughout the country. At the request of one of her students and of some of her sponsors, she joined a Chautauqua circuit in the early 1920’s, touring nearly 80 towns in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin on one-day stops.

Her courses were in great demand, and in 1921 she conducted a special program in Paris at the invitation of the International Federation of Settlements. Her sponsor, Ellen Coolidge, secretary of the Boston Social Union and representative of the National Federation of Settlements in France, observed, “Miss Boyd’s article on play has been spread all over France and is creating discussion, which is the reason for which it was written. The practical demonstration were the things Miss Boyd cared about and she gave a number of them. Her interpreter, Madame Fournali, is still looking up French folk dances, which seem never to have been collected, and has come in contact with the Beaux Arts in this connection.”

The following year the Boston Social Union invited Miss Boyd to conduct a six-week summer session in that city. Many honors were given to Neva Boyd, including the naming of a building for her at East Moline State Hospital in 1959. The same year she was elected a fellow of the American Sociological Society.

In 1960, with the imminent razing of the Hull House residence, she moved to an apartment on the near north side of Chicago, where she continued to work on her papers until her death on November 21, 1963. Her love for children and her direct contact with them still persisted. Shortly before her last illness she was troubled by the aimless destruction of plantings in a nearby school yard. One day she sat down on the school steps and began telling folk tales to the children. Their attention was rapt and as she concluded and prepared to leave one of them asked her, “Couldn’t we come to where you teach?”

Neva Boyd’s students are carrying on her work and her philosophy. Many are teaching in colleges and universities here and abroad, and many are employed in local, state, and national welfare agencies. While her work is not widely known, her concepts are valid and applicable in today’s practice of group work.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Simon, W.P. (2011). Neva Leona Boyd (1876-1963) – Social group worker, professor of sociology, and proponent of the modern play movement. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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