Thursday, October 24, 2013

Some Playground History

“In recognition of the truth of Joseph Lee's declaration, ‘A boy without a playground is father to the man without a job’, the Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Association is making a valiant effort … to secure a trained playground worker for Honolulu.” (The Friend, April 1912)

Initially private groups, rather than public agencies, undertook efforts to build playgrounds in American cities. Some of the first privately operated playgrounds open to the public were established in Boston in the 1880s, but most cities witnessed a burst of private initiative in the following decade.

A major objective of private playground organizers was to convince city officials that public recreation ought to be a municipal responsibility.  As a result, by the opening decade of the twentieth century most large American cities had established playgrounds owned and operated by municipal governments.

Shifting from an initial desire to get children off the streets, the playground movement evolved in the first two decades of the twentieth century into a well-organized and articulate national crusade.

Its proponents saw the playground not only as a refuge from urban perils, but also as a place of social reform. They believed play had educational value, and emphasized that it should be organized and supervised by the director of the playground.

The social mission of playgrounds was emphasized in playground literature across the nation and in Honolulu. In Hawaiʻi, as elsewhere, the goal of playground activities not only included vigorous physical exercise and mental satisfaction, but also the ability to work as a team member and to develop ‘a disposition to strive for high ideals.’

It was felt that playgrounds developed such virtues as: health, physical efficiency, morality, initiative, self-confidence, imagination, obedience, a sense of justice, happiness and good citizenship. At the same time they discouraged such undesirable traits as: idleness, temptation, exclusiveness, social barriers, selfishness, gang spirit, rowdyism, unfairness and delinquency.

Established in 1895, the Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Association and one of Hawaiʻi's first eleemosynary organizations, offered the first teacher training program and free kindergarten to all of Hawaiʻi’s children.

The teacher training program was eventually moved to what became the University of Hawaiʻi, and the kindergartens were taken over by the Territorial Department of Education, allowing the organization to focus on serving younger children.

Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Association established the first public playground in the city in 1911, Beretania Playground, at the corner of Beretania and Smith streets in the heart of Chinatown.   It was intended for boys and girls under ten, and for older girls accompanying the very young, and the “play garden” was open seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm.

Initially, administration of municipal playgrounds was delegated to existing agencies such as park boards or school boards. However, many cities eventually established special playground commissions, which often led to jurisdictional problems.

Largely through the association's efforts, a Recreation Commission was established within the city government in 1922, following the recommendations of Henry Stoddard Curtis, a former secretary of the nationwide Playground Association and the author of Education Through Play, who lectured in Hawaiʻi in 1920.

Julie Judd Swanzy, the president of the Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Association, was named as the Commission's chair. The association turned its four playgrounds (Beretania, Kamāmalu, Atkinson and Aʻala) over to the city, and promptly opened five new municipal playgrounds: Kaimuki, Dole Park, Kalihi-Kai, Kauluwela and Kalihi-Waena.

By the 1930s and 1940s cities began to consolidate separate parks and playground agencies into a single “recreation” department.

The playground of the early twentieth century represented a significant departure from nineteenth century conceptions of a park.  Rather than a carefully laid out landscape, planned as the antithesis of the cityscape, the twentieth century playground was usually of modest size and was conceived as a utilitarian space, sometimes embellished with landscaping effects or architectural detail, but frequently not.

The playground was a setting for supervised play and not contact with nature. The idea of the playground was to provide usable play space close to home in the densely populated sections of the city, not a green oasis set apart from the city.

During the 1930s, the City and County of Honolulu created a memorable set of parks and playgrounds. It was at this time that the concept of organized play in Hawaiʻi found its most architecturally significant expression.

Charles Lester McCoy, who was chairman of the Honolulu Park Board from 1931 to 1941, is remembered today as the “virtual founder of Honolulu's modern park system.”  His personal commitment to parks, combined with his administrative ability to get things done despite the scant resources of the time, profoundly shaped the growth of the city park system at this time.

One of McCoy's most far-reaching decisions was to employ Harry Sims Bent as park architect in 1933. It is Bent's work that gives the 1930s parks their ‘art deco’ architectural distinctiveness.

Bent started to work for the Honolulu Park Board on the Ala Moana Park project in 1933. His work at Ala Moana included the canal bridge, entrance portals, sports pavilion, the banyan courtyard and lawn bowling green.

In the smaller parks Bent was often responsible for the overall layout as well as the structures, including walls, comfort stations and pergolas.

During the 1930s he designed the following parks for the City and County of Honolulu: Mother Waldron Playground, Kawananakoa Playground, Lanakila Park comfort station, Kalihi-Waena Playground, Haleiwa Beach Park structures, the Ala Wai Clubhouse and the Park Service Center by Kapiolani Park.   (Lots of information here from NPS and KCCA.)

The image shows children with “Breathing Space and Wholesome Play” (The Friend.)  In addition, I have added other related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.

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