Haywood Farms: Jungle Gym Fever

Jungle gym

Last August on our trip to Nashville, we stopped for me to photograph part of the Haywood Farms Project.  As a child growing up in the 1950s, I spent plenty of time on “monkey bars.”  I was fascinated that the equipment was like tiny little rooms in a tall house, limited only my imagination.

through the bars

While for many reasons, mostly those of safety, monkey bars (also called jungle gyms and climbing frames) have largely disappeared from the playgrounds of the nation.  This pair of climbing frames stand side by side on the playground of the former school for Haywood Farms, a rural Resettlement Administration community from the New Deal Administration.

The first commercial “junglegym” was patented by Sebastian Hinton in 1920.  The term “monkey bars” appears in the 1927 in New York in reference to a girl scout activity, and in 1929 in reference to a playground near the South Ferry L station.  The earliest news item I located was March 11, 1921 when the New Castle News, Pennsylvania reported from London about “jungle exercises” with the goal of “a nation of straight-backed, supple-limbed boys and girls” and the introduction of correctly performed “jungle-gymnastics.”  The Evening News of Pennsylvania reported August 30, 1921 about the “Junglegym”–something new in playground paraphernalia” as recommended for installation in the Chicago park system.  (Hinton was from Chicago.)

The Brooklyn Times Union followed up in 1922:

Junglegym To Satisfy Boys’ Monkey Instincts.  

The junglegym, which is being introduced in Manhattan playgrounds in order to satisfy the “monkey instinct” in children, will probably be installed in the Flatbush playgrounds at Rogers avenue and Robinson street and at Newkirk avenue and East Thirty-second street.

The first to be installed in New York is now in operation at the Tompkins Square Playgrounds at Tenth street and Avenue A.  Since its completion four days ago it has been the centre [sic] of interest of the children if the neighborhood and at least a thousand, ranging from two to three years up to the park limit of sixteen years, make use of it every day.

The junglegym is a maze of iron bars, built in two-foot squares.  It is ten feet six inches high and covers an area of sixteen by eight.  It is said to be the most compact of all systems of athletic exercise.  No less than seventy boys and girls have been seen on the new Thompson Square junglegym at the same time.

Looks kind of dangerous,” said Jack Kalmbach, who directs the playground in the afternoon.  “That’s why it’s so popular.  Look out there now.  It’s fairly alive with kids and they are having the time of their lives.  But if they only knew it, it is very safe, the safest way of climbing I know.  WE haven’t had an accident yet, and don’t expect any.  You see there is a bar every two feet.  If a boy falls he can’t help but get hold of one of the bars.  In all there are 278 climbing bars.  One is always near to help the top-heavy climber.  Looks like a lot of little monkeys, climbing all over the place, don’t they?”


Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Jan. 30, 1923, p. 10.


The Vancouver Sun, Dec. 16, 1923, p. 39

The junglegym was also installed at the Ontario School for the Blind for “healthful exercise.”

While Sebastian Hinton is credited with inventing and patenting the device, the first model was actually constructed by Hinton’s father, Charles Howard Hinton, a mathematician.  Charles constructed the model from bamboo when Sebastian was a child, with the proposal to help children understand 3-dimensional space.  He invented a game where the bars were defined as axes x, y, and z, and numbered.  He called out the number and axis (e.g., y5) and the children raced to be the first to grasp the correct bar.

Vibrant gym

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7 Responses to Haywood Farms: Jungle Gym Fever

  1. Sheryl says:

    Similarly to you, I enjoyed jungle gyms when I was a child – though I seldom played on the one in the playground at my elementary school since girls were required to wear dresses to school back then. 🙂


    • Suzassippi says:

      I do not really recall being required to wear a dress, though I also do not really recall wearing pants, though we did get to wear shorts in the warm months so it stands to reason we could wear pants. I am pretty sure I would have turned flips on those bars, skirts, petticoats, and all. We were not allowed to wear pants in high school except on certain “approved” days, and when I first got to college, only pants on Saturday. Weird, huh?


  2. Beth says:

    Very interesting post, I never thought about these beloved playground features. I loved the monkey bars, but being un-coordinated I wasn’t very good at swinging or even climbing on them.. My mother thought it ridiculous to wear shorts under my dresses, another limitation. Yes, I had to wear dresses everywhere I lived, even in Alaska. It was a major battle in high school to be allowed to wear “matching pant suits”.


    • Suzassippi says:

      Ah, yes, the beloved matching pant suits. It kind of makes you wonder why “the answer” to guys trying to look up our skirts was to ban patent leather shoes on girls. Yep, rolling my eyes here. LOL


  3. janebye says:

    Really interesting! And OMG, the comments bring back memories of high school in Abilene, where I moved in 10th grade after NJ where we didn’t have a dress code any more. Imagine my surprise when I had to wear dresses or skirts and they had to be measured “x” number of inches from the knee so as not to be too short (and tempt the boys, I suppose). We petitioned to wear pants or jeans and finally my senior year, we were given the option to wear pantsuits. As if any self respecting hippie girl owned a pantsuit. LOL I believe my parents did buy me one or two and I wore them begrudgingly.


    • Suzassippi says:

      Had to laugh at this–your high school years in Abilene would have coincided with my college years in Abilene, so I can definitely relate.


      • janebye says:

        I remember working at Pizza Inn on Hwy 80 when I was in high school and we had a few ACU girls working with us. I was amazed they could not wear jeans or shorts on campus and had an earlier curfew than I did. 🙂


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