Jacob Riis: The Patron Saint of Playgrounds

The educational value of play in early childhood development has been controversial since at least the late 19th century, when Jacob Riis — journalist, photographer, social reformer, and playground advocate — petitioned New York City’s Board of Education to allow children to access playgrounds during vacations from school.

He was rebuffed.

The reason?

The city government doubted “such things” as play could be educational.

But not everyone agreed. In 1897, Riis was selected by the mayor to serve as secretary of the Advisory Committee on Small Parks. He reported that, at the time, there existed “not a single municipal playground and not yet a school playground worthy of the name.” The following year, however, it was clear the committee was doing its job; the city boasted 20 new playgrounds that children could access year round, and by 1909 the number had almost quintupled.

As evidenced by the nearly 1,000 playgrounds that now occupy the five boroughs, Riis and the committee were ultimately successful in persuading the city that play is crucial to children’s development. The committee viewed recreation as having a “healthful influence upon morals and conduct … for the physical energies of youth, which, if not directed to good ends, will surely manifest themselves in evil tendencies.” Dedicated space for children to play, then, was considered a critical component of kids’ moral education.

By the time he was dubbed the “Patron Saint of Playgrounds” and “one of the great men whom the 19th century gave the 20th” in a 1909 editorial in Boston University’s Journal of Education, Riis was already well known for his groundbreaking exposé on living conditions in tenements, How the Other Half Lives (1890).

The importance of playgrounds, to his mind, was not distinct from the abysmal and unsanitary tenements in which half of New York City’s population lived. In the book’s sequel, The Battle With the Slum (1902), Riis argued in sensational prose that public spaces — including playgrounds — could serve as an antidote to poverty:

Every park, every playground, every bath-house, is a nail in the coffin of the slum, and every big, beautiful schoolhouse, built for the people’s use, not merely to lock children up in during certain hours for which the teachers collect pay, is a pole rammed right through the heart of it so that even its ghost shall never walk again.

In honor of his work to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers through the creation of parks and playgrounds, Riis has two such areas named after him: Jacob Riis Triangle, in Richmond Hill, Queens, where he lived, and Jacob Riis Park, which is located in the Rockaways and known as "The People's Beach."

Do the the schools you’re considering for your child value play? Check out their Noodle profiles, and ask a question to find out about the role of play in their curricula.