When did play change?

For children, play is easy. You can do it anytime, anywhere, with anyone, and it’s fun. For adults, play is hard. They want to know if it’s safe for their kids, if it’s educational, if it promotes motor coordination, if it’s environmentally friendly, if it will look good on a preschool application.

The tension between how children spend their free time and how adults want them to spend it runs through Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book, “Children at Play: An American History” (New York University Press), like a yellow line smack down the middle of a highway.

“Kids should have their own world, and parents are nuisances,” said Mr. Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University.

His critique is increasingly echoed today by parents, educators and children’s advocates who warn that organized activities, overscheduling and excessive amounts of homework are crowding out free time and constricting children’s imaginations and social skills.

According to Chudacoff, Play changed in the 1950's when Mattel's decision to advertise toys to children on national television 52 weeks a year so revolutionized the industry that it is not an exaggeration to divide the history of the American toy business into two eras, before and after television.”

It divides the history of play, too, Mr. Chudacoff said, because while commercial toys have almost completely colonized children’s free time, for most of history, play primarily meant roaming around the countryside or improvising with objects found or made at home.

Mr. Chudacoff led the way to a small, old-fashioned Providence toy store, Creatoyvity, which carries hardly any toys licensed from television and movies. Mr. Chudacoff looked over the figures of knights and kings, gorillas, giraffes, cows, monkeys, rhinos, chickens and dinosaurs, as well as the beads, blocks, paint, glitter, trucks, cranes, tractors and wooden toys imported from Germany.

“It’s a toy store rather than an entertainment center,” Mr. Chudacoff said, explaining that with so much commercial licensing, toys have become more of an offshoot of the television and film industries than elements of play. Today's video games put more of a straitjacket on imagination, he complains.

When parents think that they’re helping kids with play when they direct activities, “It’s not really play, because play is something that’s self-determined.”

NY TIMES Article