SHCY 2013 recap: Interior/Exterior Spaces for Play

Annmarie Valdes, 3rd year PhD Student at Loyola University recaps Session 20 on Day 2 of the conference. This session dealt with interior and exterior spaces for play and recreation, 1600-1950.

I would like to begin this post on a short personal note: My initial attraction to this panel occurred in part because I spent the first decade of motherhood in, near or cleaning up after countless trips to the sandbox (along with the toys that they wanted to bring to the sandbox). On lazier days I allowed a space in the backyard for a “mud hole”. Even now I consider time spent in that particular “space,” the sandbox, invaluable—both for me and my children. The construction and destruction of worlds built with sand and mud—for me form part of the definition of play. During this time my thought about the sandbox and the mud hole was simple: children need a proper place (or space) to play. Simple? Maybe? And alongside this a couple of reminders 1) that historians need to be careful about interpreting play, as it is such a subjective activity and that what play is or means to and for children and adults if often different—adult research from an adult point of view and 2) when one has a personal interest and experience in a topic, how does one go about maintaining objectivity and 3) how can historians resolve the need for accounts from a child’s point of view?

So here goes my 2 cents:
The panel began with Dutch Art—paintings, many drawn from an exhibit catalogue entitled “Pride and Joy” which is a collection of Dutch paintings (in this presentation, from the 17th century) that portray children and their toys or objects of childhood (e.g. the highchair—for playing, eating and sleeping). As Suzanne Conway notes, these paintings are meant to be both allegorical and realistic (idealistic). In some of these paintings, the children or rather child is static with their accessories painted next to or in the background, and the interpretation offered notes that many of the portraits were commissioned by middle or more elite classes and the children are, in part, meant to represent the social status of the family. Another notable example were the paintings by Jacob Cats (sp?) and his portrayal of play in urban spaces—open spaces. These 2 paintings show movement and activity and offer a nice contrast to the portraits. Yet both are wonderful visual representations of the increasing social, cultural practice to cherish children—and/or how children were publically cherished.

Next Mary Clare Martin spoke about the intercultural exchanges between children of European missionaries and indigenous children in Africa, Asia and New Zealand. Ms. Martin offered 5 themes that guided her analysis of the exchanges about play and toys that took place between the children and adults from the archival sources she analyzed from missionary groups. Beginning with the context of the missionary zeal that attempted to spread the Christian model of “family” during the late 18th and throughout the 19th century. From this grows intercultural exchanges between these Christian families and the indigenous families—and from here Ms. Marin, though the lens of play and toys and the spaces of play examines how cross-cultural interactions were negotiated. For example missionary parents consider the difference between “healthy and dangerous” intercultural play. To play near or in the sea water (as the indigenous children did) was deemed dangerous, to play ball in the village is safe. Ms. Martin also pointed out the many variations of toys: homemade, natural, local and sent from abroad. These toys were contextualized as objects that connected children to “home” (Europe) and objects that introduced foreign culture on both sides.

Finally I end where I began, the sandbox. Tamar Zinguer traces the history of the sandbox, beginning with a letter written (in 1847) to Froebel from one his students who outlined an idea about a “plane of sand” that could be built and used by children (at the kindergarten, for example) to play. From here Ms. Zinguer traces how the idea of the “sand berg” becomes the sandbox—and how sandboxes became spaces within parks for children. The sandbox then becomes a space of potential for children to construct and deconstruct (a freedom of their imaginations). It is also a space where the child can “get dirty,” negotiate with their peers, and interact with children outside their class and race. Ms. Zinguer then ended with the retraction of the sandbox from playgrounds.

Together these presentations represent American and European practices of public spaces, building for children and their accessories. Simply put, children need a proper place (or space) to play!

What do you all think?

Where the Society for the History of Chidren and Youth meets online Follow us RSS