Girls' gym lesson in the school yard 1913. TAHTO Center for Finnish Sports Culture.

From push-up racks to problem solving: a hundred years of playground history

Playgrounds are an integral part of childhood and our society today. In this blog post, Teemu Vuorenpää, Specialist working at TAHTO, Center for Finnish Sports Culture, will explore how playgrounds have changed over the past hundred years. He will look back at the early days when push-up racks were the only play equipment available and how playgrounds have evolved to include problem-solving activities and modern play structures. Join us on this journey through time, learning about the history of playgrounds and what makes them special!

Published: 9 January 2023, edited: 30 May 2023

The benefits of play: Understanding the link between play and exercise in the early 20th century

The blog is part of the cooperation between Lappset and the Sports and Exercise Cultural Center TAHTO.

The connection between play and exercise was understood already in the early decades of the 20th century when play and games were considered to provide incentives for children to start exercising. Especially Finnish gymnastics teacher Anni Collan deemed this important and sought information about it all the way from the USA in 1914. Collan became familiar with playground activities in, among other places, Philadelphia, where the Playground Association of Philadelphia operated. It organized various recreation and play activities for children and young people with the aim of getting them to stay on the right path and learn self-control and teamwork skills. Playground activity had plenty of advocates in the United States, and for some, the teaching of physical culture was even more important than academic teaching.

Philadelphia was not the only city where playground operations got popular – there were several Playground Committees that organized activities all over the United States. In addition to playgrounds, the operations included recreation centers, private playgrounds, and spas. Outdoor playgrounds included sandboxes and swings for small children, but parents were offered more equipment to encourage gymnastics: for boys, lifting and leaning bars, swing rings and rope ladders, and for girls, carousels, swing rings, and horizontal ladders.

Photo: Girls' gym lesson in the schoolyard 1913. TAHTO Center for Finnish Sports Culture.

Photo: Girls' gym lesson in the schoolyard 1913. TAHTO Center for Finnish Sports Culture.

Refining learnings from the United States

Collan's learnings about the United States were refined in the Jyväskylä seminary teachers' union, where the need for children's exercise- and play areas was on the agenda in January 1915. The seminary teachers' union's protocol highlighted the need to renew the training school yards so they could be equipped with test equipment. Girls' and boys' schools would obviously get their own separate equipment and – as in America – play and exercise were also considered in the plans. Jump ropes, inclined climbing frames, jumping boards, basketball racks, push-up bars, and a sled hill were planned for the girls' training school, and pole carousels, jumping boards, push-up bars, pole vaulting stands, a selection of axes for throwing, a 5 kg shot and a sled hill were planned for the boys' training school.

Playgrounds were not limited to seminary training schools. In the 1920s they were planned in cities such as Helsinki and Turku. As a rule, play areas were planned for schoolyards and in connection with already existing sports fields. That way, they could also be used by sports clubs, making it easier to get grants for their construction. With such an arrangement, the boundary between play and exercise would also shrink.

How playgrounds gained a foothold in Finland

Playgrounds began to gain a foothold and became common fixtures in the largest Finnish cities in the 1920s and -30s, but still with rather modest settings. Playground development accelerated its pace after the wars because of the baby boomers. Their children needed safe places to play when apartment blocks began to take over the residential areas. In Helsinki, the first playground committee was appointed in 1950 and the playgrounds were municipalized in 1951.

Lappset has been promoting the idea of combining play and exercise since the 1970s. At that time, the idea of separating different age groups into their own areas prevailed in town planning and construction – resulting in playgrounds that were separated from exercise areas. Lappset, however, saw things differently. Instead of separating the areas, they had to be united, bringing different generations together. Zoning and good planning were key here. When play and exercise grounds were built in the right places and in the most suitable space, play and exercise came together naturally. And what could be better than an area where the kids could play while the grandparents kept fit while watching over them?

Children on a playground. Pietinen Aarne Oy, Helsinki City Museum.

Children on a playground. Pietinen Aarne Oy, Helsinki City Museum.

Lappset's interactive ball wall Sutu can be tested at TAHTO Center for Finnish Sports Culture.

Reasserting the connection between play, exercise and academic development: A century of innovation

Anni Collan thought more than a hundred years ago that play and exercise help with academic development. Playgrounds and exercise areas were brought to schools so that teaching could be moved from the classrooms to the yard. This same idea was also refined by Lappset at the turn of the 2000s in the SmartUS project, where mathematical problems were solved by touching poles – starting naturally from schoolyards.

In the 21st century, Lappset has connected technology more and more strongly to play and exercise equipment, being able to motivate children and adults even better into the world of play and exercise. The equipment challenges their user's problem-solving ability, accuracy, or sense of rhythm. The idea that other skills needed in life can also be learned through exercise existed already over a century ago, and Lappset still offers tools for that.

Teemu Vuorenpää, Specialist at TAHTO
Author Profile

Teemu Vuorenpää

Teemu Vuorenpää is a specialist with experience in the fields of archiving, digital projects, and writing. He has a degree from the University of Eastern Finland and is currently employed as an expert at TAHTO Center for Finnish Sports Culture, which offers unique experiences and viewpoints on sports and physical culture.


  • Anni Collan files: Notes from her study trip to USA, 1914; Jyväskylä Seminary Faculty minutes 22.1.1915; Playground proposition to Raunistula 22.3.1920.
  • Risto Ikäheimo interview 14.10.2021
  • Hannu Ylinenpää interview 1.10.2021

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