But in reality, these are relatively recent playtime activities for American kids — cultural innovations first borne out of the Industrial Revolution, which had caused a boom in urban populations and tenement conditions.
In the early 1900s, an actual playground movement was formed to counteract the effects of urbanization and poverty on the lives of children. Playground reformers advocated for public spaces where neighborhood children in densely populated urban communities could gather and play. (That’s where another article comes in: 47 dangerous old playgrounds that our great-grandparents somehow survived.)
By the middle of the century, the playground concept had fully caught on. Not only had it spread into the suburbs, but inspired Americans were installing their own mini-playgrounds.
Enter: the swing set. By mid century, the backyard swing set was ubiquitous.
If you were a suburban kid in the 1950s, 60s or 70s, you likely had a tubular metal swing set like one of those featured below. One or two swings, a slide and a glider or two was the basic version. It might have also had gymnastics equipment like rings or a trapeze or monkey bars — and maybe even a covered fort — if you were fancy!
These metal swing sets were relatively inexpensive, but they were prone to rusting — plus they were light and something of a tipping hazard. They needed to be well-anchored to the ground (remember how there was always at least one leg thumping on and off the ground the more aggressively you were swinging??).
By the end of the 90s, they were largely displaced in the market by safer, more stable and longer-lasting (usually wooden) structures.
If you were a child of the mid-century, we hope you enjoy this nostalgia trip back to the backyards of your childhood!
Holiday Gym old swing set from 1968
Two 10-foot top bars instead of one, add 48% greater top-bar strength… also give the six 8-foot legs widespread stance to support 45% more weight and stand far steadier than any similar-size 4-leg gym set. Plus…
No pushing needed on the 4-passenger glide swing and the double-saddle glide ride
Extra waiting room for a group of sliders in the tower slide with sun-shading roof
Metal swing set with overhead walkway and fabric-reinforced vinyl canopy, plus baby swing options
This Pony Ride Carousel Gym swing set had a pony swing!
A backyard carnival with lawn swing, 2 swings and a real pony ride that needs no pushing to “gallop”
The frolicsome fun and mirthful colors of an amusement park — right in your own backyard. Each ride dazzles with a different color… legs striped so gaily with bold bands of matching color.
Frisky pony ride swings back and forth with just the slightest pressure on footrests. Two skylarking swings sport air-cooled seats of steel-supported plastic… 870-lb tensile strength test chains. The lawn swing refreshes 2 tykes on steel-slat seats.
Tips for swing set shoppers
From The York Daily Record (York, PA) June 28, 1971
Summer can be a swinging time for children — especially if they have one of their own backyard swing sets.
A just-published  study by Consumer Reports magazine shows you can expect children to get almost daily use of swing sets in good weather and that they are most popular with 3- to 7-year-olds.
Most children playing on sets come to no harm, the magazine survey showed, although some may have suffered minor bumps, bangs or bruises.
However, one out of every 25 of the approximately 750 people questioned reported an injury requiring medical attention. About half the injuries involved a need for stitches.
The magazine’s report indicates any of the conventional sets could be tilted by a full load of children swinging vigorously in unison, and even if the set doesn’t topple, a support could leave the ground and come down cruelly on a foot or a hand.
Consumer Reports strongly recommends that assembled sets be anchored to the ground. One way would be to dig holes around the support legs and fill the holes with concrete.
Another technique involves using cans as molds for the concrete. After sinking the can into the ground, the concrete is poured and the legs are placed into the cans before the concrete hardens.
The consumer magazine says it has a clear preference for the large, six-leg sets with a retail price in the $55 to $75 range. They will probably be preferred by children, too, because the large sets offer more rides and more interesting rides than do small sets.
The big sets were also found to be sturdier, and they will enable children to have several playmates join the fun. Think about that last part, because the magazine says some of its questionnaire respondents complained that their sets were too popular with neighbors’ kids.
“We strongly urge,” says Consumer Reports to swingset shoppers “that you find a dealer who displays them set up.” This will help you know whether the Set will fit easily into your yard and enable you to check features that might not show up in illustrations and specification charts.
Consider the virtue of having a dealer deliver and set up the swing sets. The magazine’s experienced two-man crew took about three-and-a-half hours to assemble most of the large sets, and it says “unless you’re particularly adept, you could probably count on twice the time.”
Sears Gym Sets swing sets from the 1970s
JCPenney swing set from the 70s: Least expensive 6-leg gym set
Classic metal swing sets from 1977
Big Slider Gym with enamel finish. Has 3 activities including 9 1/2-ft. long slide.
Galvanized steel 6-leg Gym includes 7-ft. long slide and 4-rider lawn swing
Various 80s-era swing sets from the JCPenney catalog
Note the transition to non-metal swing set structures has begun in this decade…
Deluxe Sesame Street Gym with Cookie Monster Glider
Gym Dandy Sesame Street swing set from 1980
Gym-dandy puts Sesame Street in your backyard.
When Sesame Street by Gym-Dandy comes to your house, don’t be surprised if the whole neighborhood shows up to play.
Fancy swing set with tent fort from 1985
Hedstrom swing set from 1992
What to look for when you buy a swing set.
First look for durability. A swing set has to stand up to years of bad weather. Hedstrom Galvalume swing sets are coated inside and out with a strong rust resistant aluminum zinc alloy. Hedstrom backs them with a lifetime warranty against rust.
Next look for all the small details that make a swing set safe for kids. Like no sharp or protruding edges or exposed bolts on rides and top bars. Unique Hedstrom Hideaway Hardware eliminates them.
Look for a safe distance between all moving rides. Hedstrom has Safe-T Ride Spacing.
Watch out for moving parts that can catch little fingers. Hedstrom Glide Guard hides them.
Look for sturdy American constructions and a wide stance that can stand up to years of exuberant play. Or simply look for the name that has been America’s first choice for generations of kids. Hedstrom.