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

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.

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3 Responses to “A Look Back at the Play Movement and its Significance in America”

  1. Thanks for posting this and, indeed for starting this blog. I think it could end up being a terrific resource because there is currently very little in the way of online discussion in the play equipment industry that isn’t just geared towards products marketing.

  2. admin says:

    You make some good comments but I see some I cannot agree with. I hear a lot about competition and win or lose philosophy in play. While I agree that at an early age play should be all about the game not winning or losing. Once we get into our middle school and teens competition is natural and I think important. Not everyone can win the game. Not everyone can be the boss or own the company. If we grow up thinking we are entitled to win each and every time we are setting them up for a life of frustration and possibly a very unhappy life. We learn about ourselves and others when we play at a young age. Some people are nicer than others and I want to be around them. Some are even bullies and soon they will be left alone and by themselves if they do not adjust and grow up. Coaches, teachers and parents can help with these lessons. We need to learn that we cannot always win. Someone will but if we work hard and get better we too can win. If we cannot win that game then we need to find one that we can excel at and move on. I see too many young adults who never failed before and now are struggling in college or at their first job. Not all bosses are good or fair but that is life. There is good and bad out there and we are teaching a society that thinks they are entitled to win and be rewarded for showing up. That is not fair or right. Life is not fair to all and never has been and to think it will be only sets up more people for failure and unhappiness. Self esteem is important but one needs to find it any way they can as they grow up and go on through life. Failure and accepting something less than you wish for is part of social and psychological development we all go through. Some of us are better at adapting then others but being told you deserve something when you have not earned it does nobody any good. I learned a lot from people I did not get along with and from less than stellar supervisors. I keep hearing about the lack of parks and facilities in lower income neighborhoods. I agree this seems to be what happens as one neighborhood begins to lose property value as it ages and decays. Many time this is caused when companies close and move away from the inner city. Costs to keep up with government regulation make it difficult to keep their doors open and if people are not buying their product or service they lay people off and eventually close their doors. As property values drop people begin to flee the area in search of a job or better quality of life. Most often these areas were built up when there were not any standards for parks and other necessary recreation facilities. Everything that was buildable was built on and even over-built on. No thought was given to parks and playgrounds in the early 1900s. These are the neighborhoods were disparity in facilities and services still exists. As property values went down and properties were up for sale the people who moved into these areas were the people who could only afford to move into these urban centers. While they may not have the benefits and facilities of the suburbs they had a transportation infrastructure and jobs. These jobs were not the high paying middle management positions found out in the suburbs as corporate America began to move out of the cities, but more industrial in nature. These jobs were not high paying either. Those who moved into these changing neighborhoods did so because that was what they could afford and the only way to get more schools, parks and facilities was to tear down bricks and mortar closed facilities and pay the environmental costs necessary to reclaim these Brown Zones for something other than what it was almost 100 years ago. This all takes time and money. When I was a boy I did not have a park close by. I made my fun and played with kids in the neighborhood. We played around the house and even in the side streets of the area. We did not have all the things kids no days have which is as much a negative influence and as positive one. I graduated high school and went to college with very little help from my family because they did not have much to give. I made it and got a job. During my schooling I played competitive sports with good and bad coaches. I adjusted as I had to. I did not always make the team or first string but I stuck it out got better and eventually made some of the teams, even as a starter. I got a job and did it as best I could. I worked my way up the ladder. I changed jobs when I thought I needed to get away from a bad situation I could not change. I think I have experienced success in my chosen profession. It only matters what I and my family think. I am good with that. Why is it some people think they are entitled to something they did not earn or work hard at in order to get more of whatever it is they desire? We need to start to look inward at ourselves and our families to understand why we are, as we are, as a country. The family values are disappearing as we keep asking the government to be our mommy and daddy. It is neither. We need to support the family unit and the support structure it represents. I am what I am because of my family tree. My grandparents supported my mother and father and their brothers and sisters helped as well. We all helped one another over the years. We learned life’s lessons from one another and they were not always good lessons. We have to stop blaming others for our problems and start to take personal responsibility for our problems, failures, successes, and why we do not have all the things we think we are entitled to. Sorry for the rant but I liked many of your comments but no all. You have raised some good questions and think people like you have the answers inside. We can only look to ourselves for the answer and if we chose to try and help others we can do so with our own time and resources. We cannot keep blaming others and taking others resources for what we think is right. If it were that easy everyone would already be giving of themselves to do so. Some do and some do not and that is how the world is today.

  3. admin says:

    Interesting comment. I believe children deserve the right to play on their own without their helicopter parents. Children need to learn failure and rejection at their own level from and with their peers. Everyone cannot be a winner at everything they try. Play and learning from experience is just that. Learning about one’s self. What they can or cannot do. They have control over their own destiny. Without the experience of rejection or failure in a reasonably safe environment they cannot grow. A child must fall before they can learn to run and learn the consequences of their own actions. The idea that everyone must be protected from failure is the reason so many of or youth cannot cope with any form of failure in school, sport or on the job. This causes a lot of the social problems or the current nanny state we seem to have become.

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