Archive for April, 2011

A Look Back at the Play Movement and its Significance in America

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

A Look Back at the Play Movement and its Significance in America
By Kenneth S. Kutska, CPRP, CPSI
Executive Director, International Playground Safety Institute, LLC
October 23, 2008

I would like for us all to climb into a time travel machine for just a few minutes to examine the past, current, and future Value of Play in America. What place (did, does, or will) the concepts of PLAY have in American Culture? What does the word PLAY mean to the American Public? Is play just another four letter word?

I am afraid the old saying, “Idle hands do the devil’s work” still rings true to many. Why is this? What can be done or should be done to change the attitudes of parents, caregivers, education and recreation administrators, local public policy makers, regulators, and state and federal legislators? It is time to look back at the impact of PLAY on human development, evaluate where PLAY is in relationship to other society issues of the day, and determine where PLAY should be as a cornerstone of child development and building healthy communities. I suggest we once again re-evaluate the integral value of play to human development and well-being throughout ones’ life. To do this we need to look at the physical, cognitive, and the spiritual benefits of PLAY.

First let me state, the value of PLAY I am speaking of, is FREE PLAY. It is spontaneous and without structure. Yes, there is some supervision to guide and protect participants in a more passive sense, but let us not confuse PLAY with that of organized play in the many youth and adult sports organizations or the many other organized youth groups such as the boy and girl scouts. These organized PLAY related groups provide a valuable service to our youth but let’s face it, they are very structured with rules established by the policy making boards. They have paid staff supervisors even though they rely heavily on volunteers. They are very important to our traditional American culture but this is not what I am talking about. What ever happened to the pick up game on the playground? What is happening on the playground environment that encourages or discourages free play, physical development, social interaction, learning from observing our peers, understanding consequences for one’s own actions, or building one’s self esteem?

Many have and continue to study these issues but most of the PLAY benefits identified here are for the most part intangible or difficult to measure. Some of this research is beginning to become more and more valuable as society begins to address the many health and social related issues facing our youth and young adults. However, it does not and should not stop by focusing only on the cognitive, physical and spiritual benefits to our youth. The aging of America has brought to light a whole other side of the VALUE OF PLAY discussion. People are living longer lives creating similar, yet new, concerns with regards to the social, economic, and political benefits and barriers of PLAY for our adult and aging population. It is time to look at the value of PLAY in its entirety. A group of us are working with Clemson University to conduct a Summit on the Value of PLAY on campus June 14 – 16, 2009 from the premise PLAY stands for the concept of Participatory Living Across the Years. The concept of this summit is to invite experts from various disciplines engaged in this broad concept of the Value of Play. Interested parties should contact Clemson University Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management for information on how to submit your name and organization for consideration to be an active participant in this very important dialogue or to submit a poster for possible inclusion into the summit proceedings. It is the purpose of this summit, and of those attending, to formulate a Call for Action to promote the value of play. Participants will be asked to work in small groups to identify the benefits and barriers to play and propose strategies and action items that will promote these measurable benefits (Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual) and mitigate those identified barriers (Social, Economic, Political) to attaining our mission. There will be more to come on this exciting project in the near future.

In 1917, Curtis Henry, PhD, former Secretary of the Playground Association of America and Supervisor of the playgrounds of the District of Columbia wrote in the preface of his book, The Play Movement and Its Significance; “ The word ‘play’ has been used in its broadest sense, as the effort has been to give a general picture of those movements which mean a better utilization of leisure time and an increase in the joy of life. Its main emphasis has been upon the play of children, but it deals also to a less degree with recreation for adults. It aims to show the place of school playgrounds, of municipal playground, the park, and various commercial forms of recreation in a general scheme for a city.

The contention is that with the proper development of play and social guidance in connection with various institutions, especially for children, these need not be dreary prisons, suppressing all the joy in life and slaying the future by their routine, but that organized play can do more to correct the evils of institutional life than any other single agency. The facts brought forward seem to demonstrate that the providing of adequate facilities for the play of children and the recreation of adults does not necessarily make the city more expensive as a place of residence, but may often have the opposite effect, and may also be the chief cause of the growth of the city.”

Such profound words could be written today but they were in fact written almost one hundred years later. I found this book inspiring and yet at the same time troubling. The same discussions and debate on the value of play are once again coming to the forefront of public dialogue. Why are there schools with no playgrounds or recess? Why do some cities remove playgrounds for lack of funding or the threat of liability? Why are our public places for free play in such disrepair? Why is there no money for maintenance and repair of these facilities? What can be done to train and educate those responsible for child development, supervision, and those who develop, maintain, inspect and repair these areas? Many of the same issues that existed in the early 1900’s still exist today. When it comes to establishing the priorities for resources of each institution attempting to address their most pressing human development needs and issues of the day, PLAY does not have the priority it deserves in the board room discussions. As I read various chapters of this book I could visualize many of the stories as if they were happening today.

If we analyze Mr. Curtis’s comments on the “sources of the play movement” it is like looking at ourselves in the mirror. Mr. Curtis spoke of the “New Need” he was discussing the impact on our country’s youth development through play because of the loss of child time to play as education went from four or five months a year to none or ten months and from the three-R’s to a program of fifteen or twenty subjects. Mr. Curtis claimed that school took most of the time with which the children of the past have played. Mr. Curtis reflects on the impact of the institution of schools on play stating the following;

“The school has taken the time during which the children of all previous ages have played, and in our cities we have built up the vacant places until there has been little room for play. Play has probably reached the lowest ebb during the last half century that it has ever reached during the history of the world.”

The next major reason for the play movement was the disappearance of child work that put the kids out on the street in newly industrialized cities. It was a time when children where no longer helping mom around the home or dad on the farm as many families moved to the city. Boys did not learn about the mechanics of farm implements and other life skills from their fathers. Young girls were not learning traditional household management skills from their mothers. Children could not find any meaningful work due to child labor laws and union requirements of the time restricting most jobs to children at least 14 to 16 years of age. With the move from the country and away from the family farm to the city came increased congestion and loss of open space and those valuable natural areas many experienced as a youth. Most of the children eight to nine years of age of this time had much to do about the home, the shop, or the farm. Curtis remarked of the young men hanging out on street corners where the temptations of unacceptable social behaviors would be practiced such as; smoking, drinking and gambling amongst other things.

On the other hand Curtis says, “Responsible citizens often say they do not believe in play and that the child ought to work, but these people fail to realize, apparently, that work of children has disappeared, and the choice was not between work or play, but between play and idleness. The process of learning any form of work is nearly as interesting to the child as play. But after the activity has been learned and some skill acquired, it ceases to be either educative or interesting; and the great difficulty with the jobs that are open to children is that they consist for the most part in monotonous repetition of the same process, in which full skill is acquired in a short time. The adult may continue such work and find a sort of pleasure in it, because he realizes how his other wants are to be satisfied from the financial returns of his labor”

Today child’s play is defined as their work. They continue to repeat a process until the necessary skill is learned and once this skill becomes too repetitious and monotonous they tend to move on to something else of interest.

Curtis goes on to say the child who is normally supported at home, does not have this motive. He states, “Work in general can never be as educative as play for children, but the greatest misfortune with the disappearance of children’s duties is that nothing has come to take their place, and the child has consequently had much time on his hands for which he had no legitimate use.”

Mr. Curtis goes on to discuss the amounts of physical exercise demanded by most jobs of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Then machines took over everything and the workplace became noisy, with poor air quality, and performing repetitive tasks at breakneck speed imposing undue stain upon the worker’s nervous system, while the muscles are little exercised. There was no systematic effort made to counteract the effect of these conditions and the physiques of the boys were not as good as the physique of their fathers. Factory workers of this time were not able to pass simple fitness requirements for our armed forces. This same condition existed in England where only about three percent of the men of manufacturing districts were able to pass the lowest test for admission to the English Army. This scenario caused an urgency to provide more physical activity for our youth to counteract these trends or it was speculated that an entire race could be eliminated as health conditions began going backwards. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to our current state of affairs? It is exactly the same types of conditions that exist today that move most people involved in health, wellness, child development and the promotion of a more active adult and senior citizen population that are promoting the play movement once again. While these conditions have highlighted the need then and now for a necessary system of play and physical training for children and adults, it was not these reasons that resonated with most promoters of the play movement. It was the lack of meaningful things for children of that time to do in cities and the fear that this idle time would lead to anti-social behavior. It was the belief that children were an annoyance to their parents and the neighborhood and that they would acquire many vicious habits during this unused time. Back during Mr. Henry Curtis’s time it seemed that time around the home was disappearing and crime was on the rise everywhere in spite of increased funding for a more effective police and probation system. It was the consensus of the time that if they were to stem the tide of these social issues they must surround the children with a different environment.

Mr. Curtis talks about the “New Psychology” of his time that rose from the many sources of the modern play movement of his time – early 1900’s. Mr. Curtis states, “As soon as the attention was turned from the course of study to the child, it was discovered that play was the form of education which nature had devised during the long period of biological evolution, and that the child deprived of play was cut off from those stimuli to which his mind most readily reacted. The new psychology has made the child the center of educational effort and has come to realize that no study can be educative that does not stimulate his mind and arouse it to action.”

The new social spirit of the day was a result of the conditions previously described which demanded the best effort of public-spirited citizens everywhere. Today’s conditions call for similar action of public-spirited citizens who care about the meaningful active lifestyles for all people from cradle to grave. If Mr. Curtis referred to the first three decades of the play movement (1900-1930) as the Renaissance of Play , what should we call the last three quarters of a century and what will our legacy for play be in the future?

From where I sit things have not changed so drastically. The needs for play opportunities for children have never been greater. There are still many social, economic, and political barriers to moving the play agenda forward. However today the mission has somewhat changed and the efforts need to be broadened. The need for more playful environments designed for people of all ages is becoming more important if we are to improve the quality of life for most Americans and provide vibrant healthy communities where we all desire to live and work. Participatory Living Across the Years for ALL, a concept coined by some colleagues of mine, should become the call for action for public-spirited citizens everywhere who have some role in the research, implementation, education, promotion, installation, maintenance, repair, regulation, and funding of advancing and promoting the VALUE OF PLAY MOVEMENT IN AMERICA. It is time to come together and work as one to identify and address the most pressing issues yet to be determined in the most logical order for the greatest impact.