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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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PLAYGROUND MOVEMENT. As an answer to crowded cities and long work days, the playground movement attempted to save children from unhealthy crowded neighborhoods. The movement began with "sand gardens" in Boston in 1885. The following year two more sand piles, known as sand gardens, were added to church yards. By 1887 there were ten sand gardens with matrons paid to supervise. Tools for digging and blocks for building were provided. Twelve years later in 1899, there were twenty-one sand gardens in Boston; twenty were located in school yards. (1)

By 1900 reformers realized that play and playgrounds had educational value. In the neighborhoods with a supervised playground, children appeared to be more attentive in classes, physical health increased, and truancy and bad behavior decreased. These positive results encouraged the involvement of schools in creating play spaces. (2)

Beginning in 1905, playgrounds included recreation for all ages. Social, aesthetic, and civic activities were added such as dances, musical programs, and dramatics. In 1906 the Playground Association of America was formed. This evolved into the Playground and Recreation Association of America by around 1915. (3)

The benefits of playgrounds were being advocated in Dubuque by 1910. The role of the play-leader drew considerable attention. Rather than determining what games were to be played, advocates explained this individual was important in organizing games and keeping several groups active at the same time. (4) In May, 1910 the announcement was made by the board of education that Dubuque would have a supervised playground prepared by the woman's hygienic committee during the summer at one of the school yards. In what may seem strange to twenty-first century Americans, advocates preached:

                The playground is the true home of democracy, there
                it is that brawn and brain properly mixed win the
                day. The owner of a stout heart and a strong body
                lords it over the owner of mere superficialties (sp)
                like good clothes, automobiles, bicycles and such. (5)

Officials of the Playground Association of America announced three plans of supporting and conducting playgrounds. Playgrounds could be maintained by voluntary contributions, boards of education, or directly by the city government. The choice in Dubuque was support through voluntary contributions. Dr. Mary KILLEEN served as treasurer of the hygienic committee and collected all monies. (6)

The Educational Division of the DUBUQUE WOMEN'S CLUB opened a public playground at PRESCOTT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL during the summer of 1911. Mothers of the city were urged to take advantage of the opportunity with supervision of the children by "trained specialists." (7)

In 1912 the playground at FRANKLIN SCHOOL ran daily from July 8 through August 31st. The morning session operated from 10:00 a.m. until noon and the afternoon session from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The total attendance over the 47 days was 441 with the highest day being 212. Children attending came from a wide area including Calendonia Place, West Seventh, West Third, Cleveland Avenue, Southern Avenue, Rush Street, and Jackson with the greatest number arriving from the immediate area of the school. Most of those attending came regularly with some never missing a day.

The playground equipment included a giant stride, athletic slide, horizontal bar, two teeters, and basketball equipment. In 1912 folk-dancing was introduced after HARGER AND BLISH loaned the program a record player. Books were distributed every Friday by the CARNEGIE-STOUT PUBLIC LIBRARY and a reading table was provided. A story hour was carried out with smaller children weaving mats, making chains, and creating posters. Older children could take sewing and embroidery classes. (8)

The playground movement was only one program to provide wholesome activity for children. Another popular action-oriented program for children in 1912 was PARK LIFE. In explaining its philosophy, B. J. HORCHEM explained,"Park Life involves the principles of the playground movement, Boy Scout movement, Garden movement, and other such plans." (9)

In 1924 an Honor Roll was used in the summer program for children aged 2 to 10. The plan encouraged the children to take part in all games of the playground including handwork and gave credit for being members of winning teams and for unusual work and negative marks for mistakes in conduct. Two top scores were announced from each playground--Franklin, Prescott, Peter Cooper, Lincoln, Audubon and Marshall. There was a baseball and a horseshoe league and all the children were invited to EAGLE POINT bathing beach by its manager for swimming events. Special events included "Demonstration Night" when parents could observe all the activities of the summer, a lantern parade for the girls, and a pet parade. Educational MOTION PICTURES were shown in the early evening at each playground. More than 200 boys and girls participated in the stilt parade which began at WASHINGTON PARK, proceeded north on Main, and ended at JACKSON PARK where races were held. (10)

The impact of the playground movement can be seen in the statistics: in 1909, 336 cities had 1,535 playgrounds; in 1948, 1,917 cities had 13,520 playgrounds – an increase of 880% in less than 40 years. Over the same time period, funding increased from $1,353,114 to $96,000,000 and paid play leaders grew from 3,756 to 48,548. (11)

In 1924 citing the popularity of playgrounds to the alternative of turning children loose for "idleness and street-play," the Dubuque supervisor of city playgrounds advocated a change in policy. Instead of running the program for six weeks, he supported the program be extended to eight weeks. (12)

The supervisor's recommendation was adopted in 1926 when the announcement was made that playgrounds would open on June 21st. Nine playgrounds were in operation: Irving, Lincoln, Franklin, Prescott, Fulton, Audubon, Marshall and in the vicinity of the Peter Cooper School from noon until 8:30 p.m. The exception was the Franklin school playground which ran from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. From then until 8:30 p.m. the area was open to adults. There were two playground supervisors-one for the girls and another for the boys. Activities planned included baseball, basketball, volleyball, horse shoe pitching, handicraft, track and field for the boys, folk dancing, story telling and dramatics for the girls. Inter-playground competition in competitive sports was scheduled to encourage loyalty to their own playground. (13)

Two additional playgrounds sites were opened in 1927--Bryant and Jackson. (14) In 1928 for the first time in Dubuque, the Athletic Badge test of the Children's Bureau of the United States Department of the Interior was included. During the summer, 98 girls and 75 boys passed and achieved to badge. To involve children in a variety of activities, a system of achievement awards was established by national playground leaders in four classes: a) exhibitions, shows and programs; b) races and tournaments, and c) sportsmanship. Blue red and white emblems were awarded on a graduated point basis. No emblem was awarded to anyone who had not received a certificate for sportsmanship in addition to the certificate given for points won for participating in the event. In 1929, 422 emblems were awarded compared to 220 in 1928. (15)

In 1930 each playground had a "youthful" reporter to describe for readers of the newspaper the playground activities. Reports mentioned booster parades of participants at Franklin, Bryant, Central, and Fulton-Comiskey around their neighborhoods; formation of a hiking club at Jackson, and a swimming class at Washington-Irving. (16) The total participation in 1930 at playgrounds for all ages was 208,098 with 47,383 spectators. (17)

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
Frequent reports from each playground were published in the Telegraph-Herald during WORLD WAR II. The biggest news came after the war in 1950 with the announcement that plans were to be drawn for a building at the ALLISON-HENDERSON PARK playground. (18)

The annual eight weeks of summer playground programming was carried out at thirteen playgrounds and two tot lots in 1952. The latter for children through seven years of age were held at Central and Irving schools. Supervisors were required to attend a three day institute on playground supervision taught by James NORA, program director and Miss Betsy Braig, playground supervisor. Neighborhood parades through the area were scheduled for each playground. (19)

The summer program in 1962 ran daily from 9:00 a.m to noon and 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. That was the year that an "exceptional tot lot" was scheduled for handicapped children at GRANDVIEW PARK. Options for the children included synchronized swimming swimming lessons, archery, dog training, badminton, and the 13th annual "Fish Rodeo" to be held on August 18th at RAFFERTY SLOUGH. In addition the recreation department offered a boys' baseball program and league softball which cost $24. (20)

Themes were used to coordinate summer activities. During the last week of the 1969 session, children reexamined each of the seven worlds they discovered in the City Recreation Department playground program. On the eighth week, they explored the "West" for the first time with a "Cowboy Day" with a western trading post and a "feed" on each playground. The "Indian Day" activities involved constructing a totem pole and tepees and then participating in seven physical events. The day finished with a war dance and marshmallow roast. (21)

Time schedules continued to change over the years. In 1978 some sites operated from 9:00 a.m. until noon, 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. There was no fee for any of these programs. (22)

The City of Dubuque's Leisure Service and Americorps formed a partnership in 2005 to provide educational activities all summer. The summer programs ranged from six-hour day camps to weekly activities at libraries, pools, and parks. The Carnegie-Stout Public Library and Comiskey Park offered "Paws, Claws, Scales and Tales Summer Reading Program." The "I Want to Perform" theater program and Boatshop were offered at the NATIONAL MISSISSIPPI RIVER MUSEUM AND AQUARIUM. Day camps included "Fizz, Bubble, Goo" and "Sawdust Engineers" involved science projects. Daily activities included supervised playground activities at AUDUBON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. (23)

In 2018 the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Land and Water Conservation Fund awarded the City of Dubuque $508,000 to expand and upgrade COMISKEY PARK. This grant was in addition to an estimated $700,000 in local funds. Among the possible amenities was an all-inclusive playground and a "safe village" play area with small buildings, paved streets, sidewalks and railroad crossing. Playground equipment would cost an estimated $200,000. The area served by the playground/park had a population density of 8,180.8 people per square mile and no other green spaces within a half-mile. (24)

The Dubuque County Board of Supervisors approved $80,000 to build a natural playground at SWISS VALLEY NATURE PRESERVE. Such a park differed from traditional parks by using natural items including sticks, water and rocks in place of plastic-and-metal equipment. (25)



1. Play and Playground Encyclopedia. Online: https://www.pgpedia.com/p/playground-movement

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. "Playground Move Popular," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, June 19, 1910, p. 7

5. "Public Playground for the Children," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 24, 1910, p. 12

6. "Playground Move..."

7. "Mothers Urged to Send Children," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, July 11, 1911, p. 6

8. "Miss Lucas Gives Report of Work," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, September 13, 1912, p. 6

9. "Tells Educators of Park Life Plan," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, June 16, 1912, p. 15

10. "Thousands Enjoy Playground Facilities," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, August 24, 1924, p. 17

11. Ibid.

12. "Playground Move..."

13. "Thousands Enjoy Playground Facilities," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, August 24, 1924

14. "Activities on Local Playgrounds in 1929 Show Big Increase," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, October 27, 1929, p. 13

15. "Greatest Year for Playgrounds," Telegraph-Herald, August 14, 1927, p. 8

16. "News of the Playground," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, July 6, 1930, p. 37

17. "255,481 Attended at Playgrounds," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, October 26, 1930, p. 3

18. "Plans to Be Drawn for Building at Allison-Henderson Playground," Telegraph-Herald, June 2 1950, p. 5

19. "Playground Program Set," Telegraph-Herald, June 22, 1952, p. 17

20. "Summer Recreation Program Lined Up for Dubuque," Telegraph-Herald, April 29, 1962, p. 35

21. "Last Week of Playgrounds: 'Those Were the Days,'" Telegraph-Herald, August 3, 1969, p. 3

22. "City Playground Fun Planned," Telegraph-Herald, June 20, 1978, p. 5

23. Ralph, Betsy, "AmeriCorps Supports Summer Fun," Telegraph Herald, July 24, 2006, p. 5

24. Jacobson, Ben, "City Council to Vote on Park Project," Telegraph Herald, April 16, 2018, p. 3

25. Yager, Alicia, "Conservation Projects Gain Supervisors' OK," Telegraph Herald, January 31, 2019, p. 3