Who invented the ball pit?

It’s a childhood staple for millions around the world – and we might have a jar of onions to thank.

It’s a simple concept, but unusually delightful: the ball pit.

A ball pit is nothing but a big empty hole with a bunch of plastic spheres dumped inside. But there’s also something strange and special about it: the half-swimming, half-freefalling sensation of playing neck-deep in a pool-like space that your brain knows should be filled with water, but instead feels like the inside of a giant gumball machine.

For the better part of 50 years, the ball pit has been a mainstay of the childhood experience for millions of kids across the globe. But whether it’s at an amusement park, a fair or inside a McDonald’s, all of the world’s ball pits can be traced back to one man: its inventor, an English man named Eric McMillan.

McMillan rose from a rough upbringing of toil, labour and urban decay to become the world’s leading designer of children’s play centres. His vision blended colours, textiles and physical exercise, converging in spaces that formed millions of childhood memories.

But the ball pit has a particularly unique origin story of its own. McMillan and his team came up with the idea for the ball pit in San Diego more than 40 years ago, when inspiration struck after looking at a container of pickled onions in the kitchen. “There was a jar of onions, and we were sort of saying: ‘wow, how about if you could crawl through those? And then – ding – we decided we’d try it,” he says.

The first ball pit, filled with 40,000 balls, opened soon after their epiphany. “People just went crazy about it. Thank God for those onions.”

Ontario Place was a large amusement park in Canada, seen here in 1973 (Credit: Getty Images)

McMillan invented the ball pit, but not before rolling out various attractions at Ontario Place (Credit: Getty Images)


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