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Chicago playgrounds—a history

1893Hull House opens Chicago’s first public playground (along with a bathhouse and gymnasium) on Polk Street in response to children busying...

Marshall F. Bynum Adventure Playgorund in Washington Park spread over six acres and had an outer space theme.

1893
Hull House opens Chicago’s first public playground (along with a bathhouse and gymnasium) on Polk Street in response to children busying themselves by fishing for rats through gaps in the sidewalk. Hull House founder Jane Addams goes on to create the National Playground Association and becomes an advocate for playgrounds nationwide.

1899
Mayor Carter Henry Harrison Jr. creates the Special Park Commission to build municipal playgrounds in the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods.

1900
The Special Park Commission works with the Chicago Board of Education to create the city’s first schoolyard playgrounds.

1902
McKinley Park opens on the city’s Southwest Side with ball fields, a swimming lake and an open-air gymnasium.

1905
Ten small public parks open containing running tracks, wading pools, playground structures, sand courts and field houses on the city’s South Side. Designed by the Olmsted Brothers and D.H. Burnham & Co., they draw 5 million visitors in the first year. President Theodore Roosevelt later calls these parks “the most important civic achievement in any American city.”

Circa 1908
Three small parks open on the city’s West Side. Landscape architect Jens Jensen designs them with an emphasis on connecting children with nature. In addition to playground equipment, he incorporates community gardens where children get plots of land to grow vegetables and flowers.

1910s–1920s
Pageants organized by neighborhood playgrounds are an important part of community social activities. They are organized around almost every holiday and involve elaborate costumes.

1934
The city creates the Chicago Park District, consolidating 22 individual parks commissions. A separate City of Chicago Parks Department operates concurrently until 1959, when the city transfers about 200 small parks and playgrounds to CPD jurisdiction.

1970
Six-acre Marshall F. Bynum Adventure Playground is built in Washington Park, containing such novel features as play rockets and a simulated moon surface for climbing, and a model boat pond. It costs $750,000 (compared to less than $10,000 for most other new playgrounds at the time) and is designed to accommodate 3,000 children with more than 20 full-time staff. It remains fully operational for just ten years, likely because of the expense involved to keep it running.

Late 1980s/early 1990s
Citizen activism becomes a common part of the playground planning and construction process, with communities increasing their playground renovation budgets with independent fund-raising.

2006
The first fully accessible “Boundless Playground” opens in Columbus Park.

2012
The Chicago Park District unveils final plans for North Grant Park from landscape designer Michael Van Valkenburgh. The space, which replaces Daley Bicentennial Plaza, will include a skate park, scooter plaza, climbing wall, children’s play garden and surrounding ice-skating “ribbon” when it opens in 2015.

Information provided by Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach.

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