Winnetka, Community

A Time To Climb: Origins of jungle gym date back 100 years and to Winnetka

What do geometry, playtime and Winnetka have in common? They were all necessary components to the invention of the jungle gym.

The iconic playtime apparatus is celebrating 100 years of playtime this year, and you can still see the first official jungle gym in Winnetka.

The Record is publishing this story of how the jungle gym came to be, written and submitted by The Winnetka Historical Society.

Children on the original jungle gym in the 1950s at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka.

The jungle gym — invented by Winnetkan Sebastion Hinton — turns 100 this year

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 fallen off a jungle gym. The very first jungle gym’s journey, however, started in Winnetka and has remained here ever since. 

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 Road. 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 and 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, Hinton told Washburne that 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.

Sebastian Hinton’s patent filing for the jungle gym.

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 battled mental illness until his death 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. It remained at Crow Island until 2010 when it was donated to the Winnetka Historical Society by the Crow Island Foundation. 

The original jungle gym remains a part of Winnetka Historical Society’s collections today. 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. 

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This article was developed using publicly available information, such as press releases, municipal records and social media posts.

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