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A beloved piece of playground equipment — the jungle gym — turns 100 years old

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A beloved piece of playground equipment turns 100 years old this week. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Matt Ozug has our story.

MATT OZUG, BYLINE: When I read that the patent for the jungle gym was turning 100, I thought, simple story. Call an expert...

MARY TRIESCHMANN: Hi, this is Mary.

OZUG: ...Find some old tape of kids playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you are like most kids, your very favorite time of day...

OZUG: Case closed, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Is recess.

OZUG: Wrong. So wrong. It turns out that the history of the jungle gym and its sibling, the monkey bars, is full of weird and delightful twists, taking us from Japan to suburban Chicago, from theoretical math to primatology. Our journey starts with a Ph.D. candidate named Luke Fannin.

LUKE FANNIN: Just for a little bit of context, I'm a primatologist. I'm actually in Indonesia right now. So I'm on the island of Borneo. So I'm, like, fresh off of following apes through the forest. I'm chock full of orangutan videos of them swinging and...

(SOUNDBITE OF TREE BRANCHES CRACKING)

FANNIN: ...Wow. They do all these crazy splits, and they're actually very fantastic.

OZUG: A few years ago, Fannin, who spends a lot of time watching animals swing from trees, started wondering...

FANNIN: You know, why are they called the monkey bars? And I was like, where did the name come from? And so I dug in, and I found the original patent.

OZUG: He found the patent for the granddaddy of the monkey bars - the jungle gym, filed by someone named Sebastian Hinton.

FANNIN: His nickname was Ted, but Sebastian Hinton, who - the inventor of the monkey bars. Ted was a patent attorney in Winnetka, Ill.

OZUG: So Fannin goes to Winnetka, where...

TRIESCHMANN: I'm going to do a rhythm on it for you, using a piece of wood. Ready?

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD TAPPING)

OZUG: That's Mary Trieschmann on percussion. She's also...

TRIESCHMANN: I'm the executive director at the Winnetka Historical Society. I'm looking at the 100-year-old jungle gym.

OZUG: It's preserved in the backyard of an old Victorian home that serves as the Winnetka Historical Society.

TRIESCHMANN: So it's a little bit of a hidden treasure.

OZUG: It looks just like a classic jungle gym - stacked cubes of slightly rusty pipes.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD BANGING)

FANNIN: I mean, it's very simple, but very aesthetically pleasing. I think modern-day playground equipment - it's very busy. But, like, this thing - just the simplicity of it is beautiful.

TRIESCHMANN: We have had a number of neighborhood kids with their nannies discover this.

OZUG: Who have to be told, politely, no climbing.

TRIESCHMANN: We aren't like the cranky neighbors who's like, get out of our yard. We come out and kindly explain that it's not safe to climb on.

OZUG: The story of how Sebastian Hinton of Winnetka, Ill., came to invent the jungle gym goes back to his childhood and his father, Charles.

TRIESCHMANN: Sebastian's dad, Charles...

FANNIN: Charles Howard Hinton was...

TRIESCHMANN: ...Was a mathematician.

FANNIN: ...The mathematician.

OZUG: Like, a famous, famous mathematician, right?

FANNIN: Yes. Huge into trying to uncover the fourth dimension before even Einstein had started to think about the fourth dimension as time. You know, he was trying to do it in Euclidean space and geometry.

OZUG: Charles, the dad, also wrote sci-fi before there were sci-fi - he called them scientific romances - and invented a baseball pitching machine powered by gunpowder. But, yes, for the purposes of this story, a theorist of the fourth dimension.

TRIESCHMANN: And he wrote an article called "What Is The Fourth Dimension?"

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) "The Fourth Dimension" by Charles Howard Hinton. I have endeavored to present the subject of the higher dimensionality of space...

OZUG: Anyway, Charles Hinton had moved the family to Japan, where he was a frustrated math teacher.

FANNIN: And he's lamenting to his family. He's going, you know, the reason these students, they can't grasp the fourth dimension is because they were never exposed to the third dimension as children.

TRIESCHMANN: He really wanted to help children understand three dimensions better, and so he designed this 3D structure out of bamboo.

FANNIN: He goes, I'm going to try and teach my kids about three dimensions by building this bamboo grid in my backyard that's three-dimensional and has all these individual boxes...

OZUG: So a bamboo jungle gym.

FANNIN: ...Where the junctions would be, he would put X, Y, Z coordinates. And when the kids were hanging out with dad, he would say, all right, kids, go to coordinate X2, Y4, Z3 - go.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

FANNIN: And all the kids would race each other towards the correct coordinate.

OZUG: If that does not sound like a fun game to you, you are not alone.

TRIESCHMANN: They'd just climb around. And he'd be like, no, that's not right. You're not at X2 (laughter). They'd be like, what? We're king of the mountain. We're king of the castle.

OZUG: And so years later, around 1920, Ted Hinton, Charles' son, is now a patent lawyer in Illinois when he remembers how much fun he had climbing on the bamboo.

FANNIN: And he goes, that's what I remember. I don't remember anything about the math, but I remember that was so fun.

OZUG: So fun, he had plans to build one for his own kids. And he begins recounting all of this at a dinner party with a bunch of local educators, including...

FANNIN: The superintendent of the Winnetka City Schools, Carleton Washburne. I'm imagining his eyes widening.

OZUG: Widening because the Winnetka schools were a hotbed for something called whole child education.

FANNIN: You teach them how to be humans. You teach them how to be healthy. He was like, we need to build this in the schools.

OZUG: I'm just imagining, like, if he's having this dinner party almost anywhere else in the world, the jungle gym doesn't get built, right?

FANNIN: At least - it only stays in Hinton's backyard. It never becomes sort of the cultural mainstay that is now ubiquitous on most playgrounds.

OZUG: There's something else about the design of the jungle gym that may explain why it has endured for so long.

ELLEN SANDSETER: When I think of jungle gym, I think of challenging play. They can swing in heights.

OZUG: This is Ellen Sandseter.

SANDSETER: And I'm a professor at the Department of Physical Education and Health at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim in Norway.

OZUG: She looks at how kids use play structures and actually seek out a certain degree of risk.

SANDSETER: I would think of monkey bars, where you can hang upside down, jump from high places, a lot of challenging play and also risky play.

OZUG: And that, she says, is a good thing.

SANDSETER: Yeah. That's good for children.

OZUG: She says risky play helps kids' physical development - think motor skills - and their mental health.

SANDSETER: It builds courage, self-confidence. And also, we've seen that it also reduces anxiety.

OZUG: And unlike a lot of newer equipment that tells kids how it's supposed to be used, she says the beauty of the jungle gym is in its simplicity.

SANDSETER: A monkey bar could be used in many different ways. And it, therefore, also affords creativity among children.

OZUG: This all may help explain why the jungle gym has endured a hundred years. But what about Luke Fannin's original question, how the monkey bars got their name? Well, listen to how Hinton described his invention in the original 1923 patent. He calls it a kind of forest top through which a troupe of children may play like a troupe of monkeys.

FANNIN: There's an illustration of it in the last patent he had approved. It basically is a jungle gym, and then adhered next to it is the accessory monkey runway.

OZUG: Aka, the monkey bars. But it's worth remembering, the inventor was a patent lawyer, not a primatologist.

FANNIN: That behavior - that swinging your arms - is very much an ape behavior. So even though they're monkey bars, it's really an ape-like behavior.

OZUG: So technically, ape bars?

FANNIN: If you want to be pedantic about it. But I love the term monkey bars.

OZUG: Me too. And the term jungle gym - that rings true whether we're talking monkeys, apes or the kids that still swing on it. Happy 100th birthday, jungle gym.

Matt Ozug, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG, "KIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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