The history of modern swing sets - a natural progression that began at the turn of the 20th century

Greek vase painters are typically known for portraying the significant events of the period such as the Greek conquests of Troy. Yet some artists, as early as the 5th century B.C., are known to have captured life’s more playful moments, including women and children playing on a swing. And while such evidence suggests that swings are an ancient notion, the modern concept of playground equipment as we know it today began in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, amidst cultural and economic reform. Modern wooden swing sets are a result of more than a century of design and safety development.

In the late 1800s, when child labor laws successfully increased the minimum working age, newly idle children had no safe place to play in urban areas. Setting aside space and creating playground equipment, then, became the heart of a movement backed by women and educators in many private associations. The associations’ efforts caused local and state governments to focus on the issue as well. In 1898, the Outdoor Recreation League began providing slides and seesaws and assigning play supervisors to newly built playgrounds in New York. n 1906, the National Playground Association was established. By the 1920s, the National Recreation Association began publishing recommendations for school playground equipment.

In 1920, Theodore Hinton patented the “Jungle Gym,” which became the standard “climber.” The phrase “monkey bars” wasn’t coined until the 1960s. During the Great Depression, playgrounds grew rapidly in number and were funded by the Federal Government. A post-war boom in playground construction met the needs of baby boomers. Playgrounds were funded along with an influx of public school, housing and highway projects. In 1945, the first commercially available residential cedar swing set was developed by a New England company named ChildLife. Yet, in the early years of playground equipment, steel playgrounds ruled the day. In the 1960s, designers created unusual play structures based upon new ideas from child psychology, encouraging decision-making and social interaction. Individual units were sculpted together to create a landscape of play structures. The concept was dubbed “Adventure Playgrounds.”

In the 70s, however, playground injuries from steel playgrounds surged. In 1975, two young partners (and parents) who noticed this trend began Woodplay Playsets in Raleigh, North Carolina, as the original redwood playset company. In response to the growing number of injuries from the steel playsets, the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) published standards in the 1980s that would greatly influence swing set design for future generations. The new regulations included recommendations for removing hard equipment (metals bars) and substituting “soft” replacements such as wood and plastic. As a result, largely in residential backyards, wooden swing sets with playfully colored plastic components began to replace hard iron bars. Further guidelines by the CPSC in 1991 addressed the issue of installing safer, softer surfacing.

The change to wooden swing sets accelerated through the 1990s, and injuries from the playground equipment lessened. Revised CPSC guidelines would also address safety issues for smaller children and other design considerations. As a result, the 90s brought finely tuned sensitivity to safety issues in swing set design. At the start of the 21st century, installation of wooden playground equipment continued to accelerate.

In 2011, playground engineers continue working to reduce the risk of injury, in cooperation with the CPSC and organizations such as ASTM. The integration of the slide, climbers and swings into one unit that began in the 60s continues to this day. The highest quality swing sets are modular, and can be combined to create unique swing set combinations. The childhood obesity concern has given rise to an increased interest in outdoor play. Swing sets are, more and more, the choice of concerned parents. The driving factor behind swing set design today is to achieve a swing set which stimulates the imagination and increases physical activity. And today, the finest swing set manufacturers such as Woodplay Playsets work only with lumber mills which meet or exceed the standards of either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which plants five trees for every tree harvested.

Swings are an ancient concept, that’s an interesting notion that can’t be denied. But, neither can we deny the great strides that began at the turn of the 20th century, and that have lead us to the natural, safe wooden swing set designs of 2011.