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Do not be forever meddling, interfering, asking questions, showing them a better way. Give the constructive power of your children scope and elbow room – the temple that it builds is invisible to any eyes but theirs. If you blur and jostle their vision, it is lost.”
—Joseph Lee, social activist, philanthropist, president of the Playground Association of America

Borrowed from his 1915 book Play in Education, the words of Joseph Lee, known as the “Father of the Modern Playground,” have only become more relevant since the time of its publication. In an era in which the portrait of the hovering parent and hyper-directed child has become so conspicuous as to become fodder for parody, Lee’s belief in the importance of children’s autonomy in directing their own play has reemerged as a cornerstone of the modern playground movement.

Nathan Barthold, the assistant commissioner for recreation at the New York City Parks Department, captures the tenor of this thinking well, in a wonderful 2010 New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead, where he is quoted as saying, “It’s the whole concept of facilitating play versus directing play. If you had blocks, directed play would be saying, ‘Why don’t you come and build a submarine?’ and facilitated play would be putting the blocks out, sitting back on the bench, seeing what the kids do with the blocks, and, if two kids get in a fight, very consciously and quietly trying to get them to work it out among themselves rather than shouting, ‘No, stop that.’”

Lee would likely agree. Nevertheless, the Harvard-educated lawyer, philanthropist, and social reformer was well aware of the need for adult supervision at children’s playgrounds. In a survey of play spaces in congested neighborhoods for the Family Welfare Society of Boston, Lee and his colleagues found that if children were left to their own devices they often ended up in a tussle, not playing nicely. (This tendency may be why European adventure playgrounds, though trusting children with a high degree of personal freedom, and modeled, in some ways, after bombed-out, post-World War II landscapes, were originally designed to be staffed by adults.)

Lee’s understanding of children’s play deepened through his involvement in the playground movement in America. The movement was a coordinated response to the rise of poverty and the abundance of crowded tenements during the late nineteenth century, when industrialization brought an influx of immigrants to work in factories in New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other northern cities. As noted by Julia Bachrach in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, those in the movement believed “supervised play could improve the mental, moral, and physical well-being of children.” It was as much a moral agenda aimed at giving poor children access to fresh air and safe places as a political one intended to strengthen the republic by bringing immigrants into the fold, so to speak.

In 1898, Lee assisted in the development of the Columbus Avenue Playground in Boston. The model site included a boy’s play area, garden spaces, a sports field and indoor facilities for basketball and bowling. Based on his observations of the playground and his expansive knowledge of playgrounds, baths, skating rinks, athletic centers across the country, he wrote his first book, Constructive and Preventive Philanthropy, which can be read in full here, thanks to Google and the Harvard University Library.

What is striking about the book, apart from its detailed examination of urban playground conditions, is the extreme seriousness with which Lee approaches the role of playgrounds to society. The chapter “Playgrounds for Small Children” opens with a manifesto crafted with the rhetorical urgency of a presidential address. “Play is the intensest part of the life of a child, and it is therefore in his play hours that his most abiding lessons are learned, that his most central and determining growth takes place…The boy without a playground is father to the man without a job; and the boy with a bad playground is apt to be a father to a man with a job that had better have been left undone.” The omission of girls from the account is telling of the shortcomings of the era, which saw playgrounds as a training ground for male strength and valor, largely to the exclusion of women.

If we can forgive Lee for perpetuating gender and class biases typical of his age, we can thank him for leaving behind a tremendous literature on playgrounds and child development. His 1908 booklet Play and Playgrounds, released the same year he was named the chairman of the Playground Association of America’s Committee on State Laws, covered his philosophy of play, types of play for various ages, the importance of variety in play, and the character values that come from play. Later, he wrote How to Start a Playground in 1910, Play as an Antidote to Civilization in 1911, and Play for Home in 1912, not to mention a slew of articles and letters to the editor; all told, a colossal body of work.

But writing was just one aspect of Lee’s devotion to play. He was also actively involved in playground legislation as president of the Massachusetts Civic League, a position he held for forty years. The Civic League’s work included sponsorship of a Massachusetts law requiring cities of 10,000 people or more to establish playgrounds, if citizens so voted. The law set a precedent that led to similar measures in other states and, eventually, the proliferation of playgrounds throughout America.

Perhaps the most notable period of Lee’s career was during his involvement with the Playground Association of America, founded in 1906. Elected as a vice president along with Jane Addams (President Theodore Roosevelt was an honorary President) Lee’s role grew over the years as the organization worked to assist cities in customizing play and recreation plans, and develop municipal leadership. He became president in 1910, and guided the organization’s evolution to the National Recreation Association in 1930. The PAA’s curriculum, A Normal Course in Play, set the standard for playground planning and management used in universities across America, and became the basis for the National Recreation School, a one-year course to train college graduates to be administrators for municipal recreation departments.

Much of the design features and recreation activities we find in playgrounds today, particularly in underprivileged neighborhoods, trace their roots to Lee. But his most enduring legacy may be the faith he placed in children, who were not always regarded as intelligent human beings capable of calm, self-directed play. “If you will watch a child playing, I think the first thing you will be struck by will be his seriousness. Whether he is making a mud pie, building with his blocks, playing ship or horse or steam engine, or marching as a soldier to defend his country, you will see, if you watch his face, that he is giving his whole mind to the matter in hand,” he writes in Book 1 of Play in Education.

I see the imprint of his work, interestingly enough, while watching Mr. Rogers on PBS. In listening to the soft-spoken children’s programming personality speak slowly and soberly to his implied audience as he builds a garage with toy blocks, feeds his fish, makes a sandwich, or visits a friendly neighbor, you can hear the echo of Lee. There is a respect each gives to children, an empathy and level of seriousness that recognizes children’s dignity as human beings. And it is this rare acknowledgment we would be wise to heed more closely when we try to meddle in a dispute over a shovel at the sandbox.