A history of children's play and play environments: toward a contemporary child-saving movement 9780415806206

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A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement

Joe L. Frost

A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments

Children’s play has historically been free, spontaneous, intertwined with work, and set in the playgrounds of the wilderness, fields, streams, and barnyards. Children in cities enjoyed similar forms of play but their playgrounds were the vacant lands, parks, and surrounding countryside or seashore. Today, children have become increasingly inactive, abandoning traditional outdoor play for sedentary, indoor cyber play, and diets of junk food. The consequences of play deprivation, the elimination and diminution of recess, and the abandonment of outdoor play are fundamental issues in a growing crisis that threatens the health, learning, and development of children. This valuable book traces the history of childrens play and play environments from their roots in ancient Greece and Rome to the present time in the high stakes testing environment. Distinguished scholar Dr. Joe Frost explores the evolving nature of childrens play in both natural and built play environments, chronicles its benefits, and identifies impediments to play and playgrounds. Through this exploration, the author shows how this history informs where we are today and why we need to re-establish play as a priority. Ultimately, the author proposes active solutions to play deprivation—a much needed child-saving movement to preserve childrens free, spontaneous outdoor play, recess, and natural and built play environments. This book is a must-read for scholars, researchers, and students in the fields of early childhood education and child development. Joe L. Frost is the Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus, University of Texas.



A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement

Joe L. Frost


Routledge Taylor & Francis Group


First published 2010 by Routledge 270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016 Simultaneously published in the U.K.

by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2010 Taylor and Francis Typeset in Minion Pro by Keyword Group Ltd. Printed and bound in the United States of America on acid-free paper by Walsworth Publishing Company, Marceline, MO All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopy¬ ing and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark Notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Frost, Joe L. A history of children’s play and play environments : toward a contemporary child-saving movement/ Joe L. Frost, p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-415-80619-0 (hb : alk. paper) - ISBN 978-0-415-80620-6 (pb : allc. paper) ISBN 978-0-203-86865-2 (ebook) 1. Play. 2. Early childhood education. 3. Child developmentUnited States. I. Title. LB1139.35.P55F765 2009 306.4'81-dc22 2009014942 British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 10: ISBN. 10: ISBN 10: ISBN 13: ISBN 13: ISBN 13:

0-415-80619-4 (hbk) 0-415-80620-8 (pbk) 0-203-86865-X (ebk) 978-0-415-80619-0 (hbk) 978-0-415-80620-6 (pbk) 978-0-203-86865-2 (ebk)


This book is dedicated to my family. To my wonderful wife, Betty, who patiently accepts my absence and freely gives her wise counsel. To Nita and Tom, Terry and Bill, and Hailey and Blake, who enrich our lives and the lives of their students, friends, and colleagues.



List of Figures


List of Tables


Foreword by Stuart L. Brown, M.D.


Preface Acknowledgments


xvii xix



Early Historical Views on Children’s Play


Childrens Play in Ancient Greece and Rome


The Play of Medieval Children


Irrational Play, Child Abuse, and Accidents in Medieval Times


Reformation and Renaissance Philosophers/Educators on Play


Pre-modern Philosophers on Play


Friedrich Froebel: The Architect of the Kindergarten or “Garden for Children”



Linking the Contributions of Early Scholars


Play and Play Environments in Early America


Play and Play Environments of Native American and Early Settlers’ Children The Changing Picture of Early Colonists’ Play

35 38

Girls at Play in Nineteenth Century New England


Boys at Play in Nineteenth Century New England


Playing in the Country: Hunting, Fishing, War, and Recess


The Western Frontier: Work, Play, Muddy Roads, and Wilderness



The Play of Slave Children: “Play Is Fun, Work Is Hard”


Culture, Circumstance, and Play


The Early Child-Saving Movement: Shame of the Cities


Victims of a Stolen Childhood


Irrational Play: Begging, Picking Pockets, and Outwitting the Police


Settlement Houses and Playgrounds for the Poor


Orphan Trains, Farms, Coal Mines, and Factories


Enduring Elements of the Child-Saving Movement


Setting the Stage for a Twenty-First Century Child-Saving Movement



viii • Contents 4


The Evolution of the Play and Playground Movement Early New York: “City Where Crime Is Play” The Many Faces of the Play and Playground Movement Stages of Play Environment Development The New Psychology and the Institutionalization of Play and Playgrounds The Playground Association of America (PAA) The Normal Course in Play Successes and Limitations of the Play and Playground Movement

84 85 89 98 100 103 105 108

Play and the Child Study Movement: Nursery Schools, Kindergartens, and the Developmental




Approach to Play Play and Child Development in Kindergartens The Child Study Movement and the New Psychology Applying the New Psychology to Education Play and the “Whole Child” Child Development Becomes a Scientific Discipline The Emergence of Professional Organizations Advocating Play Decades of Promise and Gathering Storms

111 112 117 119 122 126 132 136

Play during Hard Times: The Great Depression Bursting the Economic Bubble and the Dreams of Americans Pleasant and Not-So-Pleasant Memories Stories from Children of the Depression Double Trouble: The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Play and Play Environments of City Children during the Depression The Awakening

138 139 143 152 157 163 170

Natural, Built, and Adventure Play Environments: Back to Nature Natural Play Environments: Wilderness, Vacant Lots, Habitats, and Gardens Manufactured Apparatus Playgrounds: Steel and Stone The Novelty Era: Dennis the Menace Adventure Playgrounds: Tools, Pets, Junk, Loose Parts, and Gardens The Modern Era: Standardized Playgrounds The Postmodern Era of Play Environments: Back to Nature


The Value of Play and the Consequences of Play Deprivation The Rush to Distinction and Mediocrity Developmental and Therapeutic Values of Play Play, Brain, and Play Deprivation Obesity, Illness, and Dying Young

198 199 202 204 209

174 177 180 183 190 193

Contents • ix The Causes of Play Deprivation: A Perfect Storm Out-of-Control Cyber Play The Perpetual Evolution of Safety Standards

A Litigious Society

214 214 220 223

Under-parenting and Over-parenting: Baby Boomers to Generation XXL No Child Left Behind: A Flawed Political Mandate

Needed: A Twenty-First Century Child-Saving Movement 9

Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement Tessons from the Past The Postmodern Era in Children’s Play and Play Environments Building on the Early Child-Saving Movement The Play and Playground Movement The School Gardens Movement The Childrens Zoo Movement The Nature Study Movement The Organized Camping Movement The Childrens Museum Movement

Building Ecosystems for Play

228 230 235 237 238 240 240 241 242 244 245 245 246 248

Child Development Centers and Learning and

Enter the Government

249 249 251 252 253

Confronting the Play/Fitness/Elealth Crisis and Restoring Outdoor Play


Development through Play Expanding the Voice of Play and Play Environments Nonprofit Organizations and Coalitions Private Foundations

Convincing Adults that Children Need Play at Home

From Junk Food to Basic Nutrition

256 257 258 260 262 264

Getting Parents Active and Emotional: Countering Fear


Remembering Lessons from History


and Recess at School Countering Pills and Disabilities Turning off the Tech Toys Getting Children back to Nature Equity for Children in Poverty