We always remember ‘the good old days’ as being better than today. In reality, things haven’t changed as much as we think. It’s just that hindsight is 20-20, and the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence. (This might be a trick of the light, or a higher water bill. And they probably think your grass is greener than theirs.) In many indigenous communities, kids chased birds, helped in the fields, fetched water, gathered firewood, or helped with household tasks. Every community member had a role, and kids never felt overwhelmed. (Women were another matter.)
As these traditional societies urbanised, people moved from sun-led activities to factory timing, which relied on 9 to 5 schedules, night shifts, and weekends rather than seasons and weather patterns.In some places, kids were still part of the work-force, so they joined their parents on manufacturing assembly lines. They still do, in farming families and poorer communities. And yes, child labour plays a part in playset history, but we’ll get to that. Kids have always designed their play around items that were close to home. Everyone had dolls or ‘played house’. Kids also played with sticks, balls, and items that mimicked adult activities.
Swinging from a seat attached to rope is an almost instinctive form of play. The seat might be a wooden bar, an old bench, or – in more recent times – an old car Tyre. These types of playsets are impromptu, made from whatever kids can lay their hands on, and suspended from a sturdy branch. Building the swing is part of the game, because they have to find rope that’s long and strong enough, tie solid knots that won’t unravel, and climb trees to find the right branch, one that can support the weight of the both swing and the kids.
Oddly, these devices are sometimes as romantic symbols. Classic paintings depict pretty young ladies on swing seats, sometimes being attended by a gentleman caller. Nymphs and cupids are often portrayed on swings, surrounded wispy flowers. They were more a courtship tool than a child’s plaything. We have to remember though … at that time, the types of noblewomen displayed in paintings was quite young – barely in her teens really.And these tweens were considered ripe for marriage even though we now – rightly – consider them children. So maybe the swing set was a toy back them as well. We just didn’t see it that way.
And yet, historically speaking, we see signs of swing sets as early as Greece 1450BC. The paintings of the 1700s in Europe are full of swings. And we know pioneer children in the Americas set up swings whenever their caravans stopped for the night. Still, the first recorded case of modern-day swing sets appeared in Germany. They were seen less as a playground and more as a childhood training tool. These ‘first playsets’ were installed near schools. They were used to teach kids about taking turns, displaying social etiquette, playing nice, and sharing (play-space) with other kids. Playsets had other benefits – like positively expressing childhood energy – but the main function was to raise the proper German child.
As the idea spread, lots of schools around the world started installing playsets, and they grew beyond swing sets and into more complex iterations. At first, they were made from steel and heavy metal, but kids got hurt, so designers gradually shifted to metal, rubber, and plastic.Modular playsets for commercial playgrounds officially hit the UK in 1859, when the ‘first’ one was installed in Manchester. From then on, they spread into Commonwealth countries as the British Empire expanded. They were no longer restricted to schools.
Across the pond
In the US, 1887 saw one built at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. These modern swings were built in pairs, and instead of ad hoc positioning on a tree, they had their own swing stands. Playsets began to include monkey bars (monkey climbs / jungle gyms) that kids could scale and swing on, using their arms and legs as levers. From there, playsets stretched to include rope walls, see-saws, spring-based games and more.In the later 1800s hundreds, through the Great Depression, and into the war years, labour laws got kids out of factories and playsets were built to keep them occupied.
The WPA (Work Progress Association) hired parents en masse to build swing sets, partly to create employment. Fast-forward to 2016 where the world record for longest playset was set using 51 backyard swing sets, which were then donated to the 51 families that built them. It was an advertising coup, great corporate CSR, and a lovely gift for those kids. Today’s swing sets contain educational elements like colours and musical instruments, and they’re loved by parents, teachers, and kids around the world.