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5 The Golden Age of Unstructured Play, 1900–1950 SAMUEL NATHANIEL BEHRMAN was one of America’s most important dramatists and scriptwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, but just twenty years before that time he was an ordinary kid growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts. He swam and canoed in nearby Lake Quinsigamond (often to the consternation of his protective parents), played baseball, and hung out at the neighborhood drugstore. Looking back on his youth, Behrman recalled that one of his most vivid memories was joining a group of friends “to walk boldly downtown on Main Street on Saturday morning and ride up and down in the elevators of the Slater Building just for a fling at the illicit.”1 Ruby Berkley Goodwin, an African American writer, was a nearcontemporary of Behrman but from a very different family and a very different part of the country. Born in 1903, Goodwin was raised in southern Illinois, daughter of a coal miner and granddaughter of an ex-slave. She had what she considered an ordinary childhood, a time when, she recalled, “everything was a game. . . . Every season had its own special type of game, and the long winters did not tax our ingenuity .” Poor but creative, young Ruby had few toys, so she fabricated playthings out of household objects and played games using leftover corn kernels as prizes.2 Growing up in the 1930s, Jane Gray never became famous, as Behrman or Goodwin did, but her childhood in Rochester, New York, resembled that of her more literate contemporaries. Like Behrman, Gray played baseball; like Goodwin, she fashioned impromptu playthings . Hers were made out of cardboard boxes and “things like that.” When Jane was ten years old, her family moved and she got her own bedroom. There she often played with her dolls, dressing and undressing them and pushing them around in a small buggy. She also owned paper dolls of the Dionne quintuplets and of Shirley Temple, and she cut out clothes for them from catalogs and fashion magazines.3 126 Individuals such as these three, experiencing childhoods in the first half of the twentieth century, were surrounded by myriad adultdirected opportunities for play. Their parents bought them toys— whether construction sets for boys or dolls for girls—herded them into playgrounds and club meetings, celebrated them on their birthday , and strived to shelter and enlighten them in school and out. Adults, like those of previous generations, wanted to be sure that children learned as they played, to guide young imaginations toward functional ends, and to safeguard their kids from harmful influences. But no less so than their forebears, children of the era concocted mischief and courted danger. They just could not help it. As memoirist Janet Gillespie recollected from her 1920s youth: We were happy, intoxicated by the obvious havoc we were causing. I knew perfectly well we were being naughty but I also knew with calm certainty that we were naughty only in grownup terms. Since all the really interesting and original things we did were labeled “naughty” by the adult world, I didn’t mind being naughty at all. I liked it and so did [my sister]. We were not interested in goodness; it was too boring.4 Too boring. There lay the key to a youngster’s point of view. To be sure, accounts such as those above are retrospective and sentimentalized , but they almost unconsciously reflect a viewpoint that occupied many a young mind. Whereas adults wanted young people to “grow” emotionally and intellectually as they played, to always do something useful, and to “play nice,” children craved fun as they defined it. That definition sometimes included mischief—being “naughty” and “having a fling at the illicit.” Young people of preteen ages sought to incorporate the whole world into their own culture, to transform and to control that world. They knew how to occupy themselves with virtually anything. For example, in his humorous but insightful recollection of his pre–World War II childhood, Robert Paul Smith ruminated on how a new technological device like a phonograph could engender consequences that no professional educator might ever foresee: I learned that when the records went around slow, the sounds were slow, when they went around fast, the sounds were high. This, I believe , is science, and I found it out for myself. I found out that when 1900–1950 127 the turntable went around fast, the horse chestnuts flew off. I would like to say that I found out that...


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