On November 10, The Strong announced that the swing had been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, along with Fisher-Price Little People figures and the game Dungeons & Dragons. Though the play figures and the role-playing game surely fit the hall’s criteria for iconic toys, the swing seems so suited to hall of fame status that its 2016 induction falls into the “it’s high time” category.
Ancient historians neglected to record when the first swing was made. Maybe the first one was fashioned from plant fiber common to tropical forests—though if you believe Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies, jungle dwellers used these woody vines not for recreation but for traveling around the neighborhood. In less forested lands, someone, somewhere, attached a rope or two to an overhead tree branch, set a wooden plank at the other end, hopped on the seat, and began swaying to and fro. Where and when the first swing maker plied his or her craft is a mystery indeed, but the idea caught on.
In the 18th century, the artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted a royal French lady on a swing as a metaphor for frivolity and reckless abandon. By the 19th century, hardware stores stocked mass-produced ropes and metal chains that were easily assembled into swings for the shaded backyards of America’s growing cities and towns. The playground movement of the early 1900s put swing sets into the public spaces dedicated to children playing together and gave kids from crowded city streets healthy places to grow physically, socially, and culturally. Many mid-20th-century Americans placed freestanding, family-sized swing sets on sunny suburban lots. In the 1970s, public concern for children’s safety urged parents to forsake the tubular metal sets for smaller swings of woods and resins suited to children of different ages and stages of development. Though the apparatus has changed over time, the pleasure of swinging is as old and traditional as a summer breeze.
The swing works best outdoors in the open, in fresh air, and in good weather. Using a swing requires physical exertion, muscle coordination, and, at first at least, some risk taking. Kids quickly learn that they gain the highest heights on a swing by working their limbs and torso in unison: legs extended forward and torso laid back on the forward arc, torso vertical and legs tucked beneath the seat on the back arc. When swingers work their body parts harmoniously, the rhythm of the back and forth combines a hypnotic lull with the excitement of reaching so high into the sky.
Kids surely appreciate the swing, and adults, who fondly remember their childhoods, do too. Grown-ups, though, express their appreciation in different ways. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson was moved to wax positively poetic about the swing in his 1885 Child’s Garden of Verse: “How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue?” Three academics from Cornell University, on the other hand, were so moved by their experiences with the swing, they calculated the math and physics of it all. They compared pumping a swing while standing on the seat to pumping a swing in a seated position and determined under which conditions the one is more efficient than the other. Their work—complete with detailed diagrams and complicated equations—appeared in a 1998 issue of The College Mathematics Journal.
But most of us don’t need the full scientific explanation of how a swing works to enjoy the highs and lows of swinging on a swing. We just know it’s great fun.
For more on toys, games, and all sorts of other stuff for play—past and present—from Patricia and her museum colleagues, visit The Strong's Play Stuff Blog