Play is something that is fairly recent innovation — as for most of humanity’s existence, children have simply been young adults, expected to work as soon as possible.

Childhood as a distinct phase of life didn’t really exist until the late Georgian era, and finally embedded with the rise of education in the Victorian times, when children would be required to be excused from work, for a few hours at least.

So the study of childhood is a social one, of Victorian middle-class children being expected to play in controlled spaces for educational purposes, and only much later is the nature of play as an educational benefit in its own merit understood. From early educational books – teaching girls the correct things a future wife is expected to be able to do, to wooden blocks and modern toys.

What’s more interesting though is how play is improvised, away from commercially supplied toys.

Many a long winded article has been written about the joys of playing in WW2 bomb sites and the streets of their local area. It’s certainly true that plenty of children had more freedom to play ad-hock then, but was that a more safety-relaxed society, or a society that simply didn’t have the money to buy toys?

A fascinating map puts some of this into context – event though public travel has become easier, the roaming range of children has shrunk dramatically over the decades – from many miles to mere metres.

As a teenager, walking to school and rambling around a bit on the way home, the alley at the end of a road was a secret place, that depression in the fields a massive geological marvel, the side streets leading off to strange dead ends — all wonders to be explored.

Today I’d probably catch a bus, surrounded by school friends – less lonely but also less exciting in some regards.

A lot of the modern approach is down to a fear of the unknown rather than a delight in it – especially strangers. Every corner hides a stranger seeking to whisk away children, and while it happens, the public perception of abuse is markedly out of touch with reality.

It rarely happens outside, but sadly, mostly in the home.

Many families had a “strange uncle you don’t leave with the kids”, and all children were taught not to take sweets from strangers. The threat is no different today than it was in the past – but the concerns a far greater.

And the question that needs to be asked is whether understandable, if unfounded concerns are depriving children of a childhood. The exhibition ends with the toy that is often blamed for encouraging kids to stay indoors – the computer game. Not Lego, which is undeniably an indoor toy, but the computer game.

It’s a curiosity that playing with physical toys in the home is seen as the ideal to aim for, but playing with digital toys is a time-wasting threat to health. On the one hand kids glued to screens is said to be bad, but if those same kids are outside playing, they’re either a nuisance to residents or in danger of being abducted.

Seems that the modern child simply can’t win.

The exhibition, Play Well, is at the Wellcome Collection until 8th March. Entry is free.


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  1. JP says:

    From the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to the humble peanut, dangers preventing parents allowing their precious progeny blissfully ignorant innocent lives have always been around, be they real or imaginary, since time immemorial. Just ask the nearest granny.
    For some reason, perhaps the ubiquity of news, risks are perceived to have increased to the wrapping your child in cotton wool level. Quite apart from the benefit playing gives from independence to curiosity, being so risk-averse is surely short-termist.
    Juvenile animals play fight and roam freely despite nature and man traps out to get them and so learn life lessons. A child reading about risks is always less effective and memorable and doesn’t exercise them or tire the little darlings out either.

  2. sarah says:

    thank you for telling the story of playtime. it is very intresting

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