In the nine decades since Winnetka inventor Sebastian Hinton created what some say is the nation's first jungle gym, the humble climbing apparatus has survived everything from the Great Depression and the Cold War, to the Woodstock era and the digital age.
"I can still remember hanging upside down from the jungle gym at Crow Island School when I was growing up, and then years later, the time when one of my daughter's friend's fell off and broke her wrist," recalled Patti Van Cleave, the executive director of the Winnetka Historical Society, who holds fond memories of climbing one of Hinton's larger jungle gym's in the 1960s.
Indeed, when Hinton's earliest jungle gym was finally uprooted from the kindergarten playground at Crow Island in 2003, school district officials were reluctant to abandon the structure.
It was soon rescued by local historians, only to spend the next decade in a rather undignified pose – tipped on its side on a patio behind the historical museum at 411 Linden Street.
Now, thanks to an Eagle Scout project launched by 14-year-old Winnetka resident Mason McQuet, the jungle gym has been resurrected and is enjoying its new home in the backyard of the historical museum.
"The jungle gym needed a lot of restoration, so I sat down to talk to (Van Cleave) at the historical museum and then I asked my grandfather for help, because he's an architect," said McQuet, a freshman at New Trier High School, who was assisted in his efforts by fellow Boy Scouts in Winnetka-based Troop 20.
With the renovation project's costs estimated at $800, McQuet's first step was fundraising, which he said began with a car wash at his church that earned $500.
Additional donations from family members allowed him to purchase the necessary supplies, which included concrete to secure the jungle gym's four primary footings, as well as railroad ties and crushed bluestone to define a proper border and base.
While the structure remains in surprisingly good condition despite its rusted, iron patina, officials at the historical museum said in the interest of safety, its second life will be spent as a historical artifact, paying homage to its inventor, Hinton.
According to local historians, Sebastian Theodore Hinton, aka "Ted," was born in London in 1887 and moved to Chicago after graduating from George Washington Law School in 1913.
A patent attorney, Hinton was determined to build a replica of a bamboo climbing apparatus his mathematician father had built for his children to teach them the basic concepts of the Cartesian coordinate system.
"Then he would have us children race to get to a given intersection – he would say, 'X2, Y4, Z3, Go!'" Hinton was said to have recalled at a dinner party to his friend, Carleton Washburne, the superintendent of schools in Winnetka from 1919 to 1943, and a local pioneer in the progressive education movement espoused by theorist John Dewey.
What is said to have began as a simple sketch on a cocktail napkin led Hinton to erect an experimental model of the jungle gym forged from iron pipes in 1920 at North Shore Country Day School, where his friend Perry Dunlap Smith was headmaster.
According to local lore, Hinton then worked out the flaws in the structure's construction and a new, better-designed jungle gym – which was soon patented – was built at Horace Mann School.
Upon the school's closure in 1940, it was moved to the newly constructed Crow Island School, where it remained until arriving at the historical museum in 2003.
"When I was growing up, the old jungle gyms looked like big Tinker Toys made out of metal," said Jane Clark, dean of the School of Public Health and a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland.
Clark, who each semester assigns her college students to design a children's playground that uses specific motor skills, said the predecessor of Hinton's jungle gym likely was the stall bars used for exercise and strength training that were affixed to the walls of 19th century gymnasiums in Germany and Sweden.
"Today, there's so much emphasis on student test scores, that schools are ignoring the fact that sensory motor skills are linked to cognitive skills," Clark said. "Schools cutting back on the amount of time students spend doing physical activities is just crazy. They're losing sight of what Dewey taught us – that we need to educate the whole child."
To be sure, officials at both North Shore Country Day School and Winnetka School District 36 said students are still immersed in the progressive educational practices first espoused by theorists like Dewey and his local supporters, educators Washburne and Smith.
"We've always had a long-standing commitment to progressive, experiential learning and we're still looking for new ways to bring it to our students," said Chris Boyle, the academic dean and assistant head of school at North Shore Country Day.
"The progressive education movement's roots have remained here since the founding of our district," added Alison Hawley, director of curriculum and instruction for Winnetka School District 36.
"Kids learn best by doing, as we all do," Hawley said, adding that free play like climbing on a jungle gym remains an important part of the school day for younger children, in particular, given that today's youngsters have increasingly demanding schedules.
"These children have some pretty intense days, but they're still children, and they still need to get outside and play," Hawley said.