Joe L. Frost, the renowned scholar and educator who advocated for the importance of free outdoor play, playgrounds, and recess, died on February 17, 2020. Frost was a charter member of the editorial advisory board of the American Journal of Play. In his more than 50 years of research, including writing 20 books and multitudes of articles and reports, teaching, consulting, and service, he became one of play’s greatest champions.
Born in Parks, Arkansas, on March 25, 1933, Frost grew up on a small farm where he played in the woods, fields, and streams as well as in the nearby schoolyard, streets, vacant lots, and junkyards. He graduated from Arkansas Polytechnic University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1960 and began teaching third graders. Soon after, he and his family moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he taught elementary school at the University Laboratory School while taking graduate courses. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas in 1965 and taught for two years in the department of child development at Iowa State University. At ISU he also trained new Head Start teachers tasked with supporting President Lyndon Johnson’s early education program to aid low-income children. Frost also coauthored with Glenn Hawkes the 1966 study of the education and development of low-income students, The Disadvantaged Child. Later that year, Frost joined the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas in Austin, where he taught for 34 years before retiring as Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus in 2000.
While at the University of Texas, Frost helped build the early childhood education program and began to focus his research on play and play environments. In 1973, he led the launch of the University of Texas Play and Play Environments Research Project, which started with building playgrounds and conducting research studies at Redeemer Lutheran School in Austin. Decades of research at this and other sites demonstrated the necessity of children’s free, spontaneous, and natural play in physically challenging spaces. This research fed several of his scholarly books, including Children’s Play and Playgrounds (coauthored with Barry Klein, 1979), Play and Playscapes (1992), The Developmental Benefits of Play (coauthored with Pei-San Brown, John A. Sutterby, and Candra D. Thornton, 2004), and A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement (2010), which explored the history, design, and developmental benefits of children’s playgrounds.
In addition to his research, Frost’s expertise and advocacy led him to serve as president of the Association for Childhood Education International and the International Play Association USA. He also acted as a consultant to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as an expert witness at trials for children who had been injured or died from the result of playground accidents. In 2001, he published Children and Injuries, an edited collection that marshalled specialists from law, medicine, child development, physical education, and other fields to provide judges and trial lawyers with a comprehensive overview of childhood injuries. For his lifetime of work and service the International Play Association USA gave him their Doctor of Play Award in 2004 and the Association of Children’s Museums honored him with its Great Friend to Kids Award in 2008.
Throughout his career, Frost pressed for educators, politicians, policymakers, and adults in general to take children’s play seriously. Lamenting what was wrong with America’s playgrounds in a 2008 American Journal of Play interview, he explained, “We can’t go home again to the time when virtually every child worked and played in the natural playgrounds of creeks and hills, mudholes, junkyards, overgrown lots, and fields and barnyards, but we can show the world how to bring little pieces of such rich, nurturing places to our schoolyards, neighborhoods, and cities.”