1. Girls clowning around, Bentonville. From left: Dorothy Love,unidentified, Hattie Finney (standing), and Ora Crawley, 1920s. Jo Hall Collection (S-96-2-64)
2. Soap box derby, Fayetteville, July 1940. Washington County Historical Society Collection/ Northwest Arkansas Times, photographer (P-2525C)
3. Northwest Arkansas Girl Scouts play tinikling, Bull Shoals State Park, Mountain Home, 1966. NOARK Girl Scout Council Collection (S-97-2-769)
4. Clyde Barker pushing Wayne Martin in a wheelbarrow, Pettigrew, circa 1940. Wayne Martin Collection (S-99-32-567)
5. Jimmy Parson with toys, Carroll County, 1950s. Ardella Braswell Vaughan Collection (S-88-252-32)
6. Unidentified girl with dolls, Northwest Arkansas, circa 1910. J.D. Johnson Collection (S-86-122-12)
What is play? Merriam-Webster defines it as "the spontaneous activity of children." The word comes from "plega," an Anglo-Saxon word meaning sport or game. While children's activities are often described as play, similar activities by adults are termed leisure. Recreation is seen as more purposeful and organized, like playing a sport.
The notion and importance of play has changed over the centuries. When Europeans first settled in the New World, they didn't have time for play. The average child might have a couple of modest, homemade toys—a carved animal, a rag doll—but chores filled up most of the day. Entire families worked at farming, homemaking, and earning a living. This was mostly a matter of survival, but Puritan belief also held that idleness was wrong.
Things started to change in the mid 1800s with the Industrial Revolution. As cities grew and technology advanced, people left the farm to work in factories and at jobs in town. At the end of the long work week, employees were left with a bit of free time. But what to do with it? Progressive-era social reformers promoted leisure activities as a way for the working class to renew their mental and physical energy and connect with family.
Before the Industrial Revolution, children were treated as little adults, wearing similar fashions, working strenuous chores, and being exposed to the same unpleasant realities as grown-ups. As industrialization progressed and affected society, children came to be viewed as innocents needing protection, instruction, and nurturing. Childhood was recognized as a separate phase of life, and toys, fashion, and attitudes changed accordingly.
At the beginning of the 19th century, adults believed that children's toys and games should both educate and teach morals. America's move towards industrialization made toys more plentiful and affordable for the expanding middle class. More toys meant more marketing. Products were designed and sold on an annual cycle, with Christmas as the focal point. By the late 1800s, it was okay for toys to be fun.
The growth of the business world changed society as well, bringing ideas of teamwork and competition to activities such as sports. Leagues were formed, rules were refined, and the strenuous, manly life was promoted. The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in England in 1844 to build character through a variety of means, including athletics. The notion of "muscular Christianity" furthered this idea by equating physical fitness with good morals and a strong nation.
Attitudes towards play changed even further in the 20th century. After World War I adults started participating in their children's play. Youth culture came into force in the 1950s as television shows and products were marketed to children. By the 1980s scholars started wondering what toys say about us. Do beautiful, shapely dolls make us feel inadequate? Do toy guns and war play decrease our sensitivity to violence?
In many ways, today's play seems different from earlier generations. Safety concerns keep children nestled safely at home or at sanctioned events, rather than roaming neighborhoods on their own. Activities are highly structured. There are play dates for youngsters, specialty camps for all sorts of pastimes, and numerous after-school activities. Technology and an emphasis on early education have brought computer games that teach toddlers their ABCs. More and more, children and adults are scheduling play, turning it into a job rather than free-spirited fun. Even dogs have their own play parks and doggie-day care activities. A 2007 study found that one in three American workers don't take all of their allotted vacation days. And when they do travel, many engage in goal-oriented activities while juggling work-related emails.
So what does the future of play hold? Will we overschedule ourselves, making play a chore rather than a pleasure? Will businesses marketing must-have gear and lifestyles make play too expensive? Will we be harmed by violent, addictive, or dangerous games and sports? Perhaps we'll once again find time to relax and enjoy a favorite activity, free from stressful competition and the need to get something done.