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Joseph Lee

1862 - 1937

Inducted October 1988

 "We do not cease playing because we are old; we grow old because we cease playing."
~Joseph Lee

Known as the “Father of the Playground Movement,” Joseph Lee is among the most recognized pioneers in the recreation movement. Growing up in Boston, MA, in the midnineteenth century he often fi lled evenings playing games such as Robbers and Policemen, Prisoner’s Base, and Hi-Spy with childhood friends know as the “Crowd.” Perhaps these activities contributed more than any to the development of Lee’s beliefs in the importance of play and recreation.

During the period of 1883 through 1887, Lee completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard and pursued a degree from Harvard Law School. In 1891 he was admitted to the bar. Lee soon became committed to a life of public service and never practiced law. He instead used his legal knowledge base in 1897 when he founded the Massachusetts Civic League in order to legislate laws that progressed community and social equality.

Major General Clarence R. Richards decorates Joseph Lee with the Distinguished Service Medal.
Recreation, December 1937

Lee’s first activity dealing with playgrounds was an 1882 survey conducted by the Family Welfare Society of Boston. He studied play opportunities in several congested neighborhoods and in the South End. When he witnessed boys arrested for playing in the streets he was shocked and commented, “It was as if the boys had been arrested for living.” In 1898, Lee helped create the first “model” playground. Located at Columbus Avenue in a desolate neighborhood, the severalacre playground included a corner for small children, a boys’ section, a field for sports, 260 individual gardens, and two old stables remodeled for indoor activities. The Columbus Avenue Playground was said to be the very first of the large playgrounds. Its success was widely acclaimed and led to a calling for a playground meeting in 1906 at Washington, D.C., by the Playground Association of America (PAA). It was said Lee changed the whole course of the play movement when he sent the PAA a check for $25,000 to support their plight.

PAA was dedicated to improving the human environment through park, recreation, and leisure opportunities. PAA was renamed the Playground and Recreation Association of America (PRAA) in 1911 and later became the National Recreation Association (NRA) in 1930. Joseph Lee was a major influence in these early predecessors of the National Park and Recreation Association. He served as vice-president and president of PRAA, and president of NRA.

Joseph Lee was instrumental in having the NRA establish the National Recreation School, which offered a one-year course for carefully selected college graduates. He served as president and a lecturer at the school, many of whose graduates won top executive positions in the recreation field. The first World War brought to the Association the tremendous task of forming and operating the War Camp Community Service (WCCS) to provide off-duty recreation opportunities for service personnel. Lee was named to the Commissions of Training Camp Activities of the War and Navy Departments, became president of WCCS, and worked tirelessly to further the war efforts.

Lee was also one of the recreation movement’s most prolific writers. A mere listing of the titles of some of his early publications illustrates their range and suggests their influence upon the movement; Play as the School of the Citizen, Why Have Playgrounds? Sunday Play, Play as an Antidote to Civilization, Play for Home, Playgrounds in the United States, Play as a Landscape, and Playground Education. Play in Education, Mr. Lee’s most ambitious and best-known work, appeared in 1915. Educators and recreation leaders immediately hailed the book as a masterpiece.

National Recreation and Park Association Archives

Adapted from: Hartsoe, C, Sanders, D & Bridges, M (eds) (2009), Profiles in Leadership: Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. National Recreation and Park Association and American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.

  • Butler, G.D. (1965). Pioneers in public recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company.
  • National Recreation Association (December, 1937). Special issue dedicated to Joseph Lee. Recreation. New York.

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