Swings have long been a part of human play. Ancient cave drawings in Europe, carved figures from Crete, and ceramic vases from Greece document instances of our ancestors on swings. Even before that, the very first swings may have been fashioned from plant fiber and woody vines of tropical jungles. Seafarers and hunters who learned to braid hemp into rope perhaps hung a length or two from an overhead tree branch, set a wooden plank at the other end, hopped on the seat, and began swaying to and fro in the breeze. Regardless of its origins, the idea caught on.
In the 1700s, artists of French nobility depicted swinging as an amusement of high-born adults. By the 19th century, industrial processes made ropes and metal chains cheaply and in abundance. Anyone with a tree could fashion a swing for children playing in the yards of America’s growing towns and cities. The playground movement of the early 1900s put swings in public spaces for children of nearby apartment buildings and tenements. The parks and playgrounds gave youngsters healthy places to grow and socialize in cities that were becoming increasingly hostile to play. In the mid-20th century, many Americans put freestanding, family-sized swing sets on their own sunny suburban lots. After the 1970s, public concern for children’s safety urged parents to replace the tubular metal sets for smaller swings of woods and resins suited to children of different ages and development. Though the equipment has evolved with the centuries, the pleasure children and adults find in swinging has hardly changed at all.
Swinging requires physical exertion, muscle coordination, and a rudimentary instinct for, if not understanding of, kinetic energy, inertia, and gravity. Kids quickly learn that they can keep the swing in motion by working their limbs and torso in unison: legs extended forward and torso laid back on the forward arc, torso vertical and legs tucked under the seat on the back arc. In no time, they appreciate the hypnotic rhythm of the back and forth motion. With a little more confidence, they decide to take a risk, pump a bit harder, and extend their legs out a little straighter to reach even further into the sky.
Robert Louis Stevenson waxed positively poetic about the swing in his 1885 Child’s Garden of Verse:
How do you like to up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do.