2023 marks 100 years since the patent was approved for the very first jungle gym invented by Winnetkan, Sebastian Hinton.
Over the last century, the jungle gym’s popularity and reach are practically impossible to calculate. Nearly every child across the world has climbed on, crawled under, or fell off a jungle gym. The very first jungle gym’s journey, however, started right here in Winnetka.
The idea for the jungle gym emerged out of a dinner party in 1920 hosted by Winnetka School Board member Edward Yeomans at his home at 1240 Tower. Several influential educators, including Winnetka’s school superintendent Carleton Washburne and North Shore Country Day School’s headmaster Perry Dunlap Smith, attended the dinner, along with a local resident named Sebastian Hinton. That evening, Hinton found himself talking with Washburne, casually sharing his plans for a “climbing frame” he planned to build for his children.
Hinton told Washburne about his childhood in Japan, explaining that his father had built a three dimensional bamboo cube framework in their yard. His father, an accomplished mathematician and inventor of the first baseball pitching machine, believed his children would better comprehend geometry by moving in a real three-dimensional space. While his father called out Cartesian coordinates to direct his children where to climb, he and his siblings usually ended up climbing and playing on the structure for fun. With those fond memories in mind, Hinton told Washburne that he wanted to build a similar structure for his children to enjoy.
Washburne was captivated by the idea. A proponent of progressive education, he saw the jungle gym as an opportunity for children to push themselves physically and mentally at their own pace. At the end of the dinner, Washburne, Hinton, and fellow educator Smith moved their discussion to Hinton’s home, working until the wee hours of the morning to design a prototype based on Hinton’s vision.
With the initial design complete, they built a prototype and installed it North Shore Country Day School. While it was a huge success with children, it revealed several construction flaws. Washburne, Hinton, and Smith made some adjustments and installed the first permanent jungle gym at the Horace Mann School.
That same year, Hinton filed a patent application for the jungle gym and created Junglegym, Inc. Sadly, Hinton was hospitalized for depression shortly after and lost his hard-fought battle with mental illness in April 1923. Just five months later, his patent application was approved.
While Hinton’s story ended tragically, his legacy lived on and thrived with the increasing popularity of the jungle gym. The original structure faced its own challenge in 1940 when the Horace Mann School was demolished. Thankfully, the historical significance of the first jungle gym was recognized and it was moved to the newly built Crow Island School.
Records indicate that in 1941, Crow Island School ordered a second jungle gym, a smaller structure referred to as the “kindergarten jungle gym.” While some sources have maintained that the original jungle gym was preserved and donated to the Winnetka Historical Society, new information indicates that the 1941 “kindergarten jungle gym” is possibly the structure that was donated to the WHS in 2012. That structure remains part of WHS’s collections, and while it can no longer be used by the village’s children, it is on permanent display in the museum’s backyard at 411 Linden. ■