The Past Reinforces the Future of Play

By Finkelman, Lois G. | Parks & Recreation, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Past Reinforces the Future of Play


Finkelman, Lois G., Parks & Recreation


On a recent trip to NRPA headquarters in Ashburn, Va., I explored some of the wonderful resources in the Joseph Lee Memorial Library and Archives. I read about the Association's early history and was amazed to see how many of the issues we struggle with today were also critical a century ago. I learned about Joseph Lee, for whom the library is named, and why he was called the Father of the Playground Movement.

Born in 1862 to a prominent Boston family, Lee was educated as a lawyer. But his concern about the welfare of the nations urban children led him to choose a career dedicated to ensuring opportunities for play for such children, particularly those in underprivileged communities. He also helped develop innovative ways to play, identified new playground designs, and wrote a number of books on the critical role of play and recreation in the education of children. He was, indeed, a vocal supporter of play and one of our original citizen advocates and philanthropists.

Henry S. Curtis, Lee's colleague and fellow officer at the Playground Association of America- an early incarnation of one of the groups that merged to form NRPA in 1964 - shared his ideals. In his 1917 book, The Play Movement and its Significance, he made a number of observations that still ring true today.

Curtis defined play as "a better utilization of leisure time and an increase in the joy of life," with a focus on children but also applicable to adult recreation. Today, it's much the same. We talk about the value of play and recreation as an important part of an individual's or a community's quality of life.

He also expressed concern that the school year had expanded to as long as 10 months, reducing available time for children to play. Matters grew even worse as children in urban areas faced the loss of play spaces to development. …

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