Volume 1, Number 1
Drawing on a range of sources in the history of play, this article discusses how play for all ages mirrors social change, especially but not exclusively in America. The article explores three broad themes from colonial times to the present: first, how play was shaped by changes in work and time at work; second, how play activities were transformed by emerging technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and by commercialization; and third and finally, how play and its meanings changed along with childhood and the family.
A preeminent play-theory scholar reviews a lifetime devoted to the study of play in a lively, even playful, recounting of his illustrious career and some of its autobiographical roots. The author covers the development of his three major theories of play—as a viability variable, as culturally relative play forms, and as a co-evolutionary multiplex of functions—and points to some new areas of inquiry on the topic.
Because of the role of play in the epigenetic construction of social brain functions, the young of all mammalian species need sufficient play. For the same reason, the nature of that play becomes an important social policy issue for early childhood development and education. Animal research on this topic indicates that play can facilitate the maturation of behavioral inhibition in growing animals, while psychostimulants reduce playfulness. Our failure to provide adequate opportunities for natural play in modern societies, the author argues, may have contributed to the steady growth in the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) in children, which in turn has increased prescriptions of highly effective attention-promoting psychostimulants whose developmental effects on growing brains remain unclear. The author concludes that the incidence of ADHD—and hence the need for psychostimulant medications for growing children—may diminish if we create play sanctuaries for preschool children, where they could play naturally with each other, and thereby facilitate frontal lobe maturation and the healthy development of pro-social minds. Physical play should be part of the daily social diet of all children throughout grade school.
Parents and child specialists are often concerned about the role imaginary companions play in children's lives. Recent research shows that the creation of an imaginary companion is a common and healthy type of pretend play. There are many different kinds of imaginary companions, including those based on various types of props as well those that are invisible. Although children describe many imaginary companions as kind and obedient, others they depict as disruptive and unruly. When children express strong emotion for imaginary companions or claim to have difficulty controlling the companion, they may appear confused about the boundary between fantasy and reality. However, the authors argue to the contrary: Most children are very clear in their understanding that their imaginary companions are pretend. Taylor and Mottweiler base their claim partly upon spontaneous statements of children they interviewed concerning the fantasy status of imaginary companions.
Although under attack from some goal-oriented politicians and parents and often considered superfluous by school administrators and teachers, free play remains vital to human health and creativity. Contrary to the notion that play should serve utilitarian ends or consist primarily of organized sports, the author makes a case for self-initiated physical play free of educational toys, computer games, and television, especially early in childhood but also throughout young life. Combining ideas from Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, the author views play as one of three necessary elements of a full life, the others being work and love.
Richly researched and gracefully written, Children at Play—the first full-length history of American children's play—could scarcely be more timely. There is widespread fear—evident in the popularity of such bestsellers as The Dangerous Book for Boys (2007) and The Daring Book for Girls (2007)—that imaginative, self-initiated play is disappearing from the lives of overscheduled and overprotected twenty-first-century kids. Many worry that violent, sexist video games are isolating and desensitizing children; that the Internet and new media are eroding childhood innocence at too early an age; that aggressive marketers are distorting children's body image and material aspirations; and that a heightened stress on early academic achievement and a test-driven school curriculum have taken the play out of childhood.
The tradition of making claims about threats to American children began in the late nineteenth century, when a groupof professional “child savers” emerged to campaign for policies and programs meant to protect children from the ravages of modern cities and of modern industrial capitalism. That tradition remained strong through the twentieth century, and as the culture wars heated up in the 1980s, many of the battles were fought over children. Worried adults came to see children as vulnerable prey, and Neil Postman’s provocative book, The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), condensed adults’ concerns by blaming the mass media and commodity capitalism for the loss of an innocent time of life. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many claims were made about threats to
children, from predatory marketing to children to sexual predators on the Internet.
The real power of David Elkind's new book The Power of Play lies in the fact that it takes us inside the mind of one of the greatest developmental thinkers of our time. A disciple of Jean Piaget, Elkind was a key figure in the resurgence of the Swiss psychologist's work in America in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, Elkind turned his explorations toward social critique, indicting our modern, fastpaced, technological society for pushing children out of childhood too quickly. The hurried-child syndrome is his legacy from that period. Now, in The Power of Play, Elkind brings these two facets of his work together—along with his experience as a Freudian-influenced clinician, a teacher, a father, and a grandfather—influenced clinician, a teacher, a father, and a grandfather—to give us a rich and varied perspective on the value of play for our postmodern era.
I must say that my first impression of the third edition of Play and Child Development was: They did it AGAIN! Frost, Wortham, and Reifel again impressed me with the depth and breadth of their understanding of play in this book with significant updates related to research and practice. As I finished each chapter, I was left with the same tranquil satisfaction as if I had eaten a fine full-course meal. This book can be used in any child development course, early childhood education introductory courses, or early childhood curriculum courses, in addition to courses focusing on play.
As the nineteenth century came to a close, a Midwestern farm boy ruminated about the assigned theme of "Life on the Farm." For child and adult, he wrote, "It is work from early morning till late at night, with a few minutes set apart for each meal" (p. 199). He must have been well aware of a dramatic shift sweeping across the nation's breadbasket. Whereas earlier generations had flocked to the West to stake their claim to land and to see harvests they could call their own, turn-of-the-century youth were leaving the farm for the possibility of better pay for less arduous work.
When you read this slender volume, the wonderful compendium of play-dense information contained between its covers erases the question posed by its title. The book makes a good case for the rewards of play and the necessity for its inclusion in our lives, with a major emphasis on children and the contributions of play to their learning and well-being. The data provided documents the urgency with which we need to reverse social trends that decrease access to the many benefits of play.
Gary Cross is Distinguished Professor of Modern History at Pennsylvania State University and author of numerous works on the history of toys and play. Among them are Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood and Playful Crowd: Pleasure Palaces in the Twentieth Century. He is also editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America.
David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, has written and lectured widely in the United States and abroad about the cognitive and social development of children and adolescents. His numerous books include The Hurried Child; All Grown Up and No Place to Go; and, most recently, The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children.
Jaak Panksepp has contributed more than 300 scientific articles in the fields of psychology and affective neuroscience. As Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Bowling Green State University and Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, he is author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions and editor of the Textbook of Biological Psychiatry.
Brian Sutton-Smith, a folklorist and educational psychologist, is among the world's foremost play theorists. His many books include A History of Children's Play: New Zealand 1840–1950; Toys and Culture, and The Ambiguity of Play. Formerly at Columbia University and now retired from the University of Pennsylvania, he is currently writing a volume on play and emotional survival.
Marjorie Taylor is professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. She is currently conducting a multicultural study of children's pretend play. Candice M. Mottweiler, a senior psychology major at the University of Oregon, is writing an honors thesis on narrative creativity in children with imaginary companions.