Children at Play: An American History

Review of Children at Play: An American History, by Howard Chudacoff (New York: New York University Press, 2007)

American children today live within a society that is at once protective and threatening. Even as the "built environment" has stolen space used traditionally by children for unstructured, unsupervised play, adults' efforts to provide protective spaces indoor (community centers, YMCA) and outdoor (playgrounds, sports leagues) for play have often been rejected by children or co-opted for use in unintended ways. The growth of consumer society and proliferation of mass media have offered children countless fantasy characters to stimulate their imagination, but have also exposed them to inappropriate mature themes; and now the internet offers children a virtually unlimited alternative play world, but exposes them to new dangers as well. How "childhood" in America arrived at this point and what that means for children aged six to eleven today are the focus of Howard Chudacoff's new book, Children at Play.

Chudacoff is one of America's most respected historians. He has served since 1970 as a professor of history on the faculty of Brown University, where his research has long centered on the history of the American family. Chudacoff writing has examined people at all stages of American life, including adolescents, bachelors, newlyweds, empty-nesters, retirees, and widows. Chudacoff is also well-known for his work as the co-author of A People and a Nation (now in its seventh edition) and The Evolution of American Urban Society (now in its sixth edition), both popular college texts.

With Children at Play, though,Howard Chudacoff creates something familiar, yet entirely different. Children at Play draws broadly from an expansive repository of research created by other historians, sociologists, and psychologists to portray the changes and continuities of American "childhood"--what America's youth played with and where, from colonial times to today. Into this synthesis Chudacoff inserts excerpts from the diaries of scores of children and reminisces of adults to illustrate not only how children played, but also what that meant to them. This recovery of the past play world of American children was probably Chudacoff's greatest challenge, but is this book's greatest achievement.

Chudacoff organizes Children at Play into fifty-year chapters to examine chronologically what Chudacoff calls the "contested realm of childhood." His study revolves around the struggle between children and parents (and adults in general) over the purpose of play, the intent of playthings, and the use of space for play. Although Children at Play begins in seventeenth-century colonial America, most of it is devoted to the years after 1800, when middle-class Americans gradually acknowledged that a distinct period of "childhood" existed that should be nurtured. To this end parents willingly sacrificed their children's productive time from the family economy to play—so long as the time spent in play was channeled into educational activities designed to develop responsible adults and citizens. Manufacturers and marketers supported parents' romanticized vision of childhood and supplied an array of toys designed to educate yet still enable imaginative play.

Through its chapters Chudacoff's book searches for change in how children have played, but ultimately concludes that children possess an innate predilection for play that is timeless. The heart of this book therefore explores how children's play responded through the twentieth century to the growth of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, consumerism, mass media, and the electronic age. Despite the efforts of parents and professionals to protect children from dangers created by modern society and technology, Chudacoff finds that children inevitably asserted autonomy within their play environment; they used toys for unintended purposes, and modified found objects and spaces to express their imagination and satisfy their impulse to engage in unsupervised, unstructured activity.

As with any ambitious work, Children at Play has limitations. Chudacoff assiduously considers gender, race, ethnicity, and class throughout his study of American childhood, but one aspect of this seems overly simplified. Chudacoff defines the creation of "childhood" at the turn of the nineteenth century as having been a middle-class ideal. Children from working class families could, when time and finances permitted, also participate. Chudacoff implies, however, that the children of the upper-class have always enjoyed a sheltered period of childhood development, with access to all that consumer culture could offer. Research published by Holly Brewer in By Birth or Consent (2005) has persuasively shown, though, how first-born children of elite families in early colonial America were expected by law to assume political and financial responsibilities (and privileges) far beyond the capability of their tender years.1

A less important but more pervasive irritant throughout Children at Play stems from the very nature of its evidence. Although the children's diaries, engravings, and photographs selected by Chudacoff add life to the narrative, many of them are so general that they could easily apply to other time periods. For example, the book includes an engraving that depicts seven youths in seventeenth-century Puritan New England falling through an ice-covered river during a game of football on the Sabbath. Chudacoff explains that this depicts "illicit, unauthorized play that defies the rules of adults that kids are careful to conceal." (17) This same illustration, however, could also illustrate Chudacoff's description of post-1950 play, where he finds that "With immature sensibilities, youngsters at times create amusements in which they unintentionally put themselves in jeopardy." (208) The problem is, as three of the many scholars Chudacoff cites have concluded, that "Children have not changed. [They just want to] be children and do childlike things." (210) And herein lays the obstacle most likely to prevent readers from reaching the golden nuggets found in the final chapter. The division of the chapters into fifty-year increments remains unexplained and so seems historically unrooted. Moreover, because the object of each chapter is to discover how children's play has changed, the book's chronological organization inevitably results in repetition that some readers may find tedious.

Because of when Children at Play begins and ends, it presents a paradox that readers should not overlook. The book describes colonial America as having had essentially no generation gap—the number of children within a family, along with extended family and demographic isolation, created a seamless continuity between generations, in which children interacted and played with both siblings and adults. As family size decreased through the nineteenth century and stronger peer associations formed as a consequence of compulsory schooling in the mid-nineteenth century, a gap between America's generations emerged. Although that gap has persisted, and perhaps widened, in modern American society, Chudacoff argues that a compression of generations has occurred that carries important ramifications. The commercial consumer society and electronic age have created a society in which, despite the efforts of parents, children are pushed prematurely toward adulthood: preteens dress as adults and are exposed to the reality of divorce, poverty, war, and prejudice. At the same time, many adults attempt to cling to aspects of childhood, adopting the dress and electronic toys of teens. What is play for children is entertainment for adults.

Chudacoff insists, though, that professionals' advice urging parents to spend more time with their children and direct their play is misguided. Instead, parents should permit greater freedom in how, when, and where children play, thereby mitigating the problems associated with over-scheduling. To that end, Chudacoff urges Americans to again provide unsupervised spaces where children can freely manipulate their environment, directed only by their own creativity and ingenuity. These, and other, conclusions from the final chapter are by far the most interesting and salient of this important addition to the history of childhood in America.

1 Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2005).