“J” is for Jungle Gym

Article is an Excerpt from a University of Chicago Master’s Thesis by Sheila Duran
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1997

Hired in 1919, young Winnetka school superintendent, Carleton W. Washburne, blazed new trails in educating the “whole child,” considering not only young children’s intellectual development, but also their social, emotional, and physical development. To that end, the Winnetka schools shared a full-time physical education teacher, Henry “Powerhouse” Clarke, with the Community House. Physical education and other outdoor activities formed an integral part of the school curriculum.

Equipment suitable for playgrounds, however, remained uncommon in the early part of this century. A unique solution presented itself to Washburne in 1920, when school board member Edward Yeomans hosted a small dinner party at his home with Washburne, North Shore Country Day School Headmaster Perry Dunlap Smith, a Winnetka resident named Theodore Hinton, and their spouses as guests. That evening Hinton casually shared with Washburne his idea for a “climbing frame” he planned to build for his children.

During Hinton’s childhood in Japan, his mathematician father built a three-dimensional, multiple-cube bamboo framework in their backyard. His father theorized that people would never comprehend the fourth dimension while they led their lives in the second, always moving on flat planes. He believed that if people could become comfortable in a real three-dimensional space, the intellectual step to the fourth would be easier.

Mimicking a Cartesian-coordinate system in mathematics, Hinton’s father named one set of horizontal poles X1, X2, X3, etc. Those horizontal poles at right angles to the X poles were Y1, Y2, Y3, etc., and the vertical poles he identified Z1, Z2, Z3, and so on. Hinton’s father would call out coordinates, “X2, Y4, Z3, Go!”, and the children would scramble for that intersection. Hinton said they humored their father with these drills, but what they really enjoyed was simply climbing, hanging, chasing, and playing like monkeys. Now he wanted to build one for his own children.

The idea immediately captivated Washburne. “But that is an ideal piece of school playground equipment. It can take care of many children in a small area. It satisfies every child’s desire to climb. It exercises all the muscles.”(1)  Washburne invited fellow educator Smith into the discussion, and at the end of the evening they reconvened at Hinton’s home. They worked into the wee hours of the morning designing a prototype. They installed their first sample “jungle gym,” a rather “crude frame, made of iron pipes,” at North Shore Country Day School. A huge success with children, the prototype also revealed several construction flaws. They fabricated a sturdier, permanent frame and installed it at Horace Mann School (built in 1899 on the site of the current U. S. Post Office).

The solidly built jungle gym has enjoyed continued use since its first installation in the early 1920s. The enterprising Hinton, pleased with the triumph of the project, soon went into business manufacturing his jungle gym for schools throughout the country. After two decades of use, school administrators, faced in 1940 with the demolition of Horace Mann School, relocated this very successful apparatus to the new Crow Island School. The original jungle gym was located in the southeast corner of the large school playground. It was donated to the Winnetka Historical Museum by the Crow Island Foundation for preservation and display in 2010.  Today, the structure is permanently displayed in the backyard of the museum.

(1) Washburne, Carleton W. and Sidney P. Marland, Jr. Winnetka: The History and Significance of an Educational Experiment, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall, 1963, p. 137; and Chicago Tribune, 10 May, 1964.

NOTE: Research conducted in 2008 indicate that the patent for the jungle gym is held by Sebastian Hinton, not Theodore. Further research does indicate that Sebastian lived in Winnetka and was a patent attorney, lending credence to his collaboration with Smith and Washburne. Also, the last paragraph of the article has been updated to reflect the jungle gym’s new location at the Winnetka Historical Society Museum & Headquarters at 411 Linden St., Winnetka, IL.


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