I recently read a book called Children at Play by Howard Chudacoff that was really eye-opening. It sort of spoke to something I think we all already know, but are afraid to admit. And, since I’m a former toy designer, goes against everything I did for three years of my life. Here is the write up from Amazon:
Throughout American history, argues Brown University historian Chudacoff (The Age of the Bachelor), parents have sought to control their children’s games and toys, but kids have been determined to set the terms of their play. In the colonial era, children typically played with improvised toys, and parents tried to prevent play from degenerating into idleness, insisting that games must serve God or family. In the 19th century, consumer culture intersected with a new conception of childhood as a distinct, adorable life stage to be cherished, while children increasingly played with toys that brought them into contact with the market. By the 20th century, adults, influenced in part by the new field of child psychology, focused on educational toys and directed kids off the streets and into playgrounds, where they could be carefully supervised. The tension between parental prerogatives and children’s autonomy manifests itself still, says Chudacoff: parents try to keep children indoors for fear of dangers lurking outside, but children take new kinds of risks playing in cyberspace. While a bit dry and broad, Chudacoff’s work gives historical depth to debates that continue to rage over what constitutes appropriate child’s play.
I had just finished this book before going on a trip to visit family. The family included a 11, 8, and 5 year old, so I sort of had a chance to actually see what Chudacoff was talking about. While the kids played with their toys like any “normal” child would, they seemed to be most interested in coming up with their own games or using their toys as they saw fit. It got me to thinking about what I was most interested in as a kid…searching through houses being built in my neighborhood, coming up with sports games with my brother, exploring the woods in Tennessee…these were the great memories of my childhood. And while I certainly enjoyed my toys and played with them, I always made up things to do with them as well. I was big into G.I. Joe, but I think my favorite part was taking the vehicles apart and then putting them back together. In this day and age where parents feel the need to buy everything for their chiild, this certainly gives me pause. And while I’m not that big into education books, I think this speaks volumes about some of the failings of our won education system in and out of the classroom.