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Conclusion TODAY, CHILDREN’S PLAY in the United States is a multibilliondollar industry consisting of much more than the mass of toys, games, gadgets, and characters stacked on the shelves at Toys “R” Us and Walmart. The business of keeping kids happy also includes for-profit entertainment centers, media, organized sports, party planners, athletic coaches, and more. Yet the same society that has taken such great pains to enrich children’s play seems also to be making children unfit, dull, and even violent. According to figures compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, as recently as the 1960s, doctors classified about 4 percent of American children between ages six and eleven as overweight; by 2002, the percentage had quadrupled to 16 percent, and childhood obesity—not to mention childhood diabetes—had become a matter of serious national concern.1 Much of the explanation for this trend accuses fat-filled foods and beverages that youngsters consume, but, more relevantly to this book, commentators also link a sedentary lifestyle to the apparent slack physical condition of one in six American preteens.2 Flabbiness of mind as well as body, say critics, also results from sitting for hours on end in front of a TV or computer screen, where mass-produced story lines of violence, sex, and avarice allegedly divert young people from healthier endeavors.3 Some even assert that the undermining of traditional active play styles, combined with mass media and a desire to treat and dress children as adults, has destroyed the entire concept of childhood.4 The long view of history suggests that things are never as bad, or as good, as they may seem. A survey of children’s play and children’s culture over the course of American history reveals several themes of continuity and change. Shifts have been both subtle and dramatic; continuities have been both obvious and overlooked. Over time, three basic changes have altered the play of American preadolescents: those involving place, those involving things, and those involving uses of time. 214 Major Shifts in Play Place From the colonial era to the present, natural play sites have diminished while constructed settings have multiplied. There is nothing surprising about the fact that, as the United States became more urban (and suburban), more families lived remote from the natural landscape , and fewer children had access to forests and fields where they could indulge in “roving” and “roaming” and where they could integrate waterways and wildlife into their play. And as informal neighborhood play has declined, many preadolescents now express their autonomy at the mall, where they “roam” either after a parent has driven them there or when they arrive by their own devices. But simple changes in habitation do not fully account for changes in play environments; shifting cultural views of childhood have mattered , also. Parents and social arbiters always have tried to protect children from the dangers of their surroundings, but they have applied different strategies at different times. In a general sense, before the nineteenth century, parents worried less about the places where children played—as long as they did not stray too far afield—than they fretted about whether or not play accorded with God’s and society ’s designs. As the nineteenth century advanced and built environments expanded, youngsters appropriated new sites for exploration and amusement. But their trespass onto adult-oriented spaces provoked concern over, and restriction of, their uses of those spaces. Thus an early-nineteenth-century book on Youthful Sports warned readers that blindman’s bluff should not be played indoors, and at around the same time the city of New York banned kite flying in certain sections of town.5 The hazards and temptations lurking in modern urban society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries intensified efforts by adults to divert children from unsafe environments into protected spaces. The playground movement and rise of Little League, clubs, scouting, and other organized activities provided settings that adults could supervise, though children did not always use those sites in hoped-for ways. By the end of the twentieth century, parents’ desires to shelter and entertain youngsters resulted in expanded formal play sites, but those same desires also enlarged home-based play activity.6 Thus, a general, though not total, shift to formal rather than ad hoc Conclusion 215 play sites has constituted one of the most salient trends in play over the past three centuries. Things Also, a major revolution has occurred in the matériel of...


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