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The Study of Play (April 2019): The History of Play

By Charles Kroncke and Ronald F. White

The History of Play

Some historical research documents timeless universal global patterns, whereas other research is more contextual and emphasizes the history of specific behaviors and events that have taken place at various times, in various places. Historians of human play identify both universal and contextual patterns. Many, if not most, historical works draw on the authors’ or editors’ interpretation of the past in order to elucidate and reform the present and plan for the future. Books on the history of play follow that pattern.

In A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child-Saving Movement, Joe Frost summarizes the history of play from the early Greeks through the twentieth century, but he focuses mostly on history of play in the US from Colonial times onward.  In Children at Play: An American History, Howard Chudacoff argues that due to the US’s distinctive sociopolitical environment “there has never been a time of carefree childhood in American history” and that children’s ability to play independently has been eroded over time. There are several excellent books that visually document the history of play, and two in particular deserve mention. Brenda Biondo’s Once upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920–1975 provides valuable pictorial documentation of playgrounds. Biondo is a photographer, and the visuals she offers (which extend to old postcards, drawings, and schemata) are both stunning and informative. The volume is enhanced by a foreword by Susan Solomon (an expert on playground architecture and design) and an afterword by philanthropist Darrell Hammond (whose work centers on building playgrounds for children). The catalogue for an exhibition by the same name, Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America, edited by Monica Obniski and Darrin Alfred, provides a rigorously illustrated history of the witty and creative design of materials meant for play—from playgrounds and play spaces to toys and furniture.