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Reviewed by:
  • Children at Play: An American History
  • Ellen Berg
Children at Play: An American History. By Howard P. Chudacoff (New York: New York University Press, 2007. 288 pp.).

What the reader notices almost immediately in Howard P. Chudacoff's Children at Play: An American History is the author's artful integration of a variety of complementary sources. Chudacoff analyzes "several dozens of children's diaries and several hundred autobiographical recollections of childhood" to partially reveal the secret world of children's play from 1600 to the present. In each time period, data regarding relevant demographic, cultural, and economic shifts are included to contextualize trends in play. Additionally, a variety of secondary sources illuminate adults' constantly evolving perceptions of children's place in society and the ideal functions play should serve. What Chudacoff highlights most effectively through children's "voices of the past," however, is that there are countless ways that play has remained essentially unchanged over time.

Chudacoff recognizes that memories of childhood are often imperfect and sometimes "self-congratulatory," but his case for using diverse first-hand diaries and accounts is convincing. By situating the patterns revealed by these data [End Page 803] within the broader social context, and addressing potential sources of doubt as they arise, Chudacoff lays a strong foundation for his broad analysis of the past four centuries of children's play in America. Chudacoff's history focuses primarily, but not solely, on children ages six to twelve, a cohort that in his estimation is relatively understudied, yet one for whom play is particularly meaningful.

A critical component of Chudacoff's chronological account is the inclusion of differences and similarities across gender, race, and class lines. For roughly two centuries prior to 1800, family size remained relatively large, and regardless of race it was not uncommon for children to care for younger siblings and contribute to family subsistence. More than in any later period, children's lives were entwined with those of adults, however Chudacoff finds that there was still time to play. In the case of most black children, slavery clearly limited their freedom, but they still found ways to circumvent adults' restrictions and play openly (in some cases with white children). While girls in all racial groups were typically assigned tasks close to home, and therefore played close as well, Native American boys are thought to have enjoyed the most freedom, as their "play" often consisted of sport-like games and the practice of hunting-related skills away from adult supervision. By the end of this period, adults (in particular white adults) viewed appropriate play activity as educational and effective in constraining children's inherently rebellious nature.

The 19th century was in many ways a transitional time period. This century saw a dramatic increase in the "stuff of childhood," as the manufacture of formal toys increased exponentially. This increase paralleled many adults' recasting of childhood "rebelliousness," as "playfulness," and their recognition that play was necessary for healthy development. Unstructured play was encouraged to a point, but manuals were published to help adults determine just what this delicate balance should be. As the 19th century drew to a close and the percentage of children in the population decreased, adults' efforts to protect them became even more concerted. Organized movements to save children from the dangers of both exploitive labor practices and the dangerous lure of idleness emerged in the early 1900s. Children's play was to be functional, healthy, and safe, and playgrounds, skating rinks, and other "safe" venues were built accordingly. Children in many ways however, rejected adult intervention and found creative, and often unintended, uses for playground spaces. The author's well-chosen quotes from children's diaries and other accounts detail that throughout history, for children in this age group, such nonconformity could be a unique source of pleasure. Chudacoff proposes that today children are more likely to stay indoors or in their own yards, as parents' concerns for their safety have reached an all-time high. In keeping with their predecessors' tendencies to "roam" freely, however, children with the means to access the internet today may similarly "roam" through cyberspace encountering ever more ethereal dangers. This is yet another example...


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pp. 803-805
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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