Designing the Creative Child
Playthings and Places in Midcentury America
Publication Year: 2013
The postwar American stereotypes of suburban sameness, traditional gender roles, and educational conservatism have masked an alternate self-image tailor-made for the Cold War. The creative child, an idealized future citizen, was the darling of baby boom parents, psychologists, marketers, and designers who saw in the next generation promise that appeared to answer the most pressing worries of the age.
Designing the Creative Child reveals how a postwar cult of childhood creativity developed and continues to this day. Exploring how the idea of children as imaginative and naturally creative was constructed, disseminated, and consumed in the United States after World War II, Amy F. Ogata argues that educational toys, playgrounds, small middle-class houses, new schools, and children’s museums were designed to cultivate imagination in a growing cohort of baby boom children. Enthusiasm for encouraging creativity in children countered Cold War fears of failing competitiveness and the postwar critique of social conformity, making creativity an emblem of national revitalization.
Ogata describes how a historically rooted belief in children’s capacity for independent thinking was transformed from an elite concern of the interwar years to a fully consumable and aspirational ideal that persists today. From building blocks to Gumby, playhouses to Playskool trains, Creative Playthings to the Eames House of Cards, Crayola fingerpaint to children’s museums, material goods and spaces shaped a popular understanding of creativity, and Designing the Creative Child demonstrates how this notion has been woven into the fabric of American culture.
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
Title Page, Copyright
Introduction: Object Lessons
...Arnold Gesell, the influential twentieth-century pediatrician and child-development psychologist, believed that “by nature” the child was “a creative artist of sorts. . . . We may well be amazed at his resourcefulness, his extraordinary capacity for original activity, inventions, and discovery.” Such awe at the child’s apparently innate creativity has its roots in the romantic era, and has not only persisted but also expanded in our own age...
1. Constructing Creativity in Postwar America
...The notion of the creative child emerged in earlier generations as an educational and artistic ideal, but it was newly constructed and commodified as an aspect of middle-class culture with the rapid population expansion of the baby boom after World War II. The years after the war have been called “child-centered” for the huge numbers of children born during the largest extended baby boom in U.S. history. In 1947, 3.8 million babies were born to American parents. This number reached 4 million every year from 1954 to 1964. These 76.4 million children born between 1946 and 1964 were significant in part because of their sheer number, but also because of the attitudes of their parents and the societal shifts they embodied...
2. Educational Toys and Creative Playthings
...on children owing to the baby boom stimulated a national debate over child rearing and encouraged both sharp public interest in education and unprecedented spending on children. In addition to buying new parenting guides and magazines advocating techniques for raising a healthy, well-adjusted child, postwar parents spent record sums on amusements. In 1954, a trade organization estimated that the American toy industry brought in a billion and a quarter dollars annually, and during that Christmas season, families purchased an average of nine toys per household...
3. Creative Living at Home
...of playing with blocks, cards, and other construction toys. Although these were age-old favorites of the middle-class toy box, in the years after World War II the act of building itself acquired new relevance. One of the biggest problems facing postwar reconstruction was housing. A severe shortage throughout the Depression and limited wartime building made housing a pressing social and architectural issue. Returning GIs, a rising birthrate, and an increasing demand led to the Housing Act of 1949, which promised a decent home for all Americans...
4. Building Creativity in Postwar Schools
...together with housing, the most widely discussed architectural challenge after World War II. High prices and scarcity of materials during the Depression and wartime had left few possibilities for renovating or even maintaining older structures, much less constructing new schools. Furthermore, the population migration to areas in the West and to developing suburban towns created a need where there was little existing provision for school-age children and nothing that could match their ever-growing numbers...
5. Learning Imagination in Art and Science
...In these newly built institutions, special rooms for art, science, and shop put spatial and educational emphasis on teaching children to become productively creative. Yet if new elementary school architecture only appeared to reinforce creativity as an educational value, shifts in art instruction after World War II fully assimilated childhood creativity into the curriculum...
Epilogue: The Legacy of Consuming Creativity
...thought and action, and was widely considered a fundamentally human and democratic quality. If, as many suggested, childhood creativity was an untapped natural resource, then it could be cultivated, harvested, and consumed, making the creative child both a sentimental and a strategic figure. The project of the creative child was, and still is, the dream and the work of adults...
...for the financial support of the American Association of University Women, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian Institution, the CRS Archive Center at Texas A&M University, and the Spencer Foundation. I thank Pieter Martin for taking on this project and Kristian Tvedten for expert guidance at the University of Minnesota Press...
About the Author
Amy F. Ogata is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City. She is the author of Art Nouveau and the Social Vision of Modern Living.