Children at Play: An American History

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If you believe the experts, “child’s play”; is serious business. From sociologists to psychologists and from anthropologists to social critics, writers have produced mountains of books about the meaning and importance of play. But what do we know about how children actually play, especially American children of the last two centuries? In this fascinating and enlightening book, Howard Chudacoff presents a history of children’s play in the United States and ponders what it tells us about ourselves.

Through expert investigation in primary sources-including dozens of children's diaries, hundreds of autobiographical recollections of adults, and a wealth of child—rearing manuals—along with wide—ranging reading of the work of educators, journalists, market researchers, and scholars-Chudacoff digs into the “underground” of play. He contrasts the activities that genuinely occupied children's time with what adults thought children should be doing.

Filled with intriguing stories and revelatory insights, Children at Play provides a chronological history of play in the U.S. from the point of view of children themselves. Focusing on youngsters between the ages of about six and twelve, this is history “from the bottom up.” It highlights the transformations of play that have occurred over the last 200 years, paying attention not only to the activities of the cultural elite but to those of working-class men and women, to slaves, and to Native Americans. In addition, the author considers the findings, observations, and theories of numerous social scientists along with those of fellow historians.

Chudacoff concludes that children's ability to play independently has attenuated over time and that in our modern era this diminution has frequently had unfortunate consequences. By examining the activities of young people whom marketers today call “tweens,” he provides fresh historical depth to current discussions about topics like childhood obesity, delinquency, learning disability, and the many ways that children spend their time when adults aren’t looking.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Can it be true that children no longer know how to play? Chudacoff argues otherwise. Although adults have perennially felt compelled to protect children and guide their play—encouraging board games, for instance, in the 1800s—to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say.” -The Atlantic

"Once upon a time in the U.S., children played outside, with siblings and family members. But as urbanization increased, so did safety concerns. Then, there was the rise of commercial toys in the 20th century. The result - the birth of self-structured play created by children themselves. These were the findings made bye Howard Chudacoff, professor of history at Brown University, and author of Children at Play: An American History."-Millie Acebal Rousseau,Vista Magazine

“At a time when children’s play seems under siege, Howard Chudacoff’s history—the first of its kind—arrives to tell us what we are letting slip away. . . . His history demonstrates that the topic of play is anything but trivial. And by showing us where we’ve been, he can help us decide where, as a culture, we want to go.”

-Wilson Quarterly

“This book is a model work of synthesis and a truly enjoyable piece of scholarship.”
-American Historical Review

“In this wonderfully polished, scholarly treatment of children and play from Colonial times to the present, Chudacoff uses excellent historical methodology and perceptive psychological insights, putting primary sources to good use, as he presents an illustrated, chronological history of children at play from ages six to 12.”

-Library Journal

“A fascinating look at the culture of childhood through children’s games.”
-American Quarterly

“The tension between how children spend their free time and how adults want them to spend it runs through Chudacoff’s book like a yellow line smack down the middle of a highway. 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.”
-The New York Times

Dominique Browning
In a fascinating and provocative survey, Children at Play: An American History, Howard P. Chudacoff traces the evolution of the ways in which children have amused themselves since colonial times. Using letters, diaries and literature as his sources, he examines adults' attitudes toward play, as "the devil's workshop," or as the work of childhood. At the same time, he shows what children have done to amuse themselves—either in spite of the adults or abetted by them…Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University, builds up to a scathing critique of modern parents' intrusion in children's play.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Throughout American history, argues Brown University historian Chudacoff (The Age of the Bachelor), parents have sought to control their children's games and toys, but kids have been determined to set the terms of their play. In the colonial era, children typically played with improvised toys, and parents tried to prevent play from degenerating into "idleness," insisting that games must serve God or family. In the 19th century, consumer culture intersected with a new conception of childhood as a distinct, adorable life stage to be cherished, while children increasingly played with toys that brought them into contact with the market. By the 20th century, adults, influenced in part by the new field of child psychology, focused on educational toys and directed kids off the streets and into playgrounds, where they could be carefully supervised. The tension between parental prerogatives and children's autonomy manifests itself still, says Chudacoff: parents try to keep children indoors for fear of dangers lurking outside, but children take new kinds of risks playing in cyberspace. While a bit dry and broad, Chudacoff's work gives historical depth to debates that continue to rage over what constitutes appropriate child's play. 22 illus. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In this wonderfully polished, scholarly treatment of children and play from Colonial times to the present, Chudacoff (American history, Brown Univ.; The Evolution of American Urban Society) uses excellent historical methodology and perceptive psychological insights, putting primary sources to good use, as he presents an illustrated, chronological history of children at play from ages six through 12. Throughout, he notes the variations among different socioeconomic groups and notes that, whatever the context, children seem to have a "remarkable capacity to create their own pleasure." He decries the current multibillion-dollar children's entertainment industry. How lovely (and sad) to think that wrapping a package in brown paper and string or creating one's own play money was once considered as engaging (perhaps more so?) than having a new mass-produced "educational" toy. The authors of another kind of book relating to childhood play, The Dangerous Book for Boys, an enchanting new volume for children of all ages that consciously hearkens to an earlier era, observe that "You want to be self-sufficient and find your way by the stars." Chudacoff, in this fine volume, draws much the same conclusion. Highly recommended for all libraries.
—Ellen D. Gilbert

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814716656
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 269
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard P. Chudacoff is George L. Littlefield Professor of American History at Brown University. His many books include How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture, and The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture.

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Table of Contents

1 Childhood and Play in Early America, 1600–1800
2 The Attempt to Domesticate Childhood and Play, 1800–1850
3 The Stuff of Childhood, 1850–1900
4 The Invasion of Children’s Play Culture, 1900–1950
5 The Golden Age of Unstructured Play, 1900–1950
6 The Commercialization and Co-optation of Children’s Play, 1950 to the Present
7 Children’s Play Goes Underground, 1950 to the Present
About the Author

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