From “free play” to “pay to play” a 20th century journey

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You can imagine how very pleased (and frankly moved) I was when I received an invitation to speak at Penn State University this coming Wednesday.  I will be addressing the Josephine Berry Weiss Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar on the topic of what I see as thesteady movement from “free play” to “pay to play” over the course of the 20th century. 

Toys are tools of play.  They are not play itself.  Accordingly, all a person really needs is a good imagination.  Heck, you can even do it with a bad one.  I can remember turning a wooden chair upside down in my bed, covering it with a blanket and blasting off into outer space.  I can still bring back the almost indescribable feeling that experience gave me.  I really (well kind of really) thought I was in a spaceship.

Wii4 Toys have of course always been available in the 20th century but the cost of engaging in play has consistently gone up.  It is no accident that a cardboard box and a stick have made it into the Toy Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.  They are examples of free tools of play. 

I would not be surprised to someday see empty thread spools (with a rubber band, a slice of candle and a broken match stick you can make a little tank that will deftly speed across the kitchen floor); used up metal ink cartridges (they with a roll of caps, a match and a piece of pencil lead make for one great functional cannon); a piece of paper (fold it into a paper plane, cootie catcher or football and you can have hours of fun) and a piece of string (Cat’s Cradle being just one game you can play with string) gain well deserved entry as well.

Beyond the free tools of trade there are also numerous low cost play platforms (note that play platforms were not the invention of the video game industry).  How many games can you play with a simple rubber ball, a checker board, and a deck of cards or a piece of chalk? 

Not only have the tools of play increased in cost but the entrances to play environments have as well.  What was once a free trip to a public park has morphed over time into a not so free trip to an amusement or theme park? 

Why has this happened?  There are probably numerous reasons but my guess is that we have just gotten better at creating more advanced and sophisticated forms of play.  Jacks and jump ropes simply get lost in a world with so many choices.   

We have also mastered the art of marketing.  We do an amazing job of not only letting people know about our products but creating demand.

I am a proud member of the toy industry and take great pride in the joy we bring people every day all over the world.  Our creations don’t just bring pleasure but teach and point the way to adulthood.

I do wonder, however, if children, their parents and the world don’t miss something when little girls no longer remember jump rope chants; when little boys forget how to make paper airplanes and families lose the simple joy of appreciating a day just running around outdoors.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the toy industry created a public service ad that reminded people of these simple and free or nearly free experiences? 

What do you think?


7 thoughts

  1. I think you have raised a very important point.
    You do a great service to the toy and game industry with these thoughtful posts. This one is especially critical because imaginations get developed when children incorporate everyday objects into play and “make believe”—
    two words I absolutely love together.

  2. I love when I see my daughter playing hopscotch, hand games I played as a kid, and we are in the process of teaching her a mean game of jacks! One artist who seems to live by this philosophy is I found her site years ago and am amazed at the generosity of her sharing her paper toys.

  3. We currently have an old refrigerator box upstairs that has windows, doors and even a skylight cut into it, that my 5 year old uses as “Fort Christopher”. We play swords with everything from an empty gift wrap tube to sticks. Our yoga ball provides hours of entertainment for him! This isn’t necessarily because I am cheap (arguably, I am), but this is how I was raised. If my brother and I hadn’t had or been encouraged to use our imagination, we would have withered away in utter boredom. I can understand how easy and convenient a TV or iPad can be for keeping a youngster’s attention under control, but that path is long and very difficult to curve. It comes down to the parents and priorities.
    A public service announcement would definitely help, with a simple message: “Play With Your Kids”

  4. Dear Richard,
    I think what you speak of is such a complex and important issue in our society in general. We all long for a simpler time yet we involve ourselves with more and more technology each day. As a parent of 3, I think of the issues you bring up a lot. I limit their engagement with the video games and television, though I want them to be technologically proficient. I worry that all the products we buy are ruining the environment, and making them materialistic, yet I feel that they should be aloud to play in sync with their friends. They do run around outside and play with sticks and roll down hills, draw, build, bake, play house, dress up and pretend, etc. Most kids seem to still do a lot of the old fashioned stuff. The technology has afforded us a very comfortable lifestyle. There are so many good choices we can make for our kids to help educate and foster imaginative play. It is most important that we spend time playing with them, encouraging friendships and empathy. It is a free country, and we can choose to buy or not buy, what to turn on or off. We can teach kids to see through some of the marketing and say no. But I agree, it al can be a bit troubling and expensive!

  5. I run a shop in the UK called Little Nut Tree Toys – and a lot of our philosophy in toy buying is based around traditional games and activities. However, I guess even in times yonder, they manufactured toys (single bell rattles, teething rings etc). As you say Richard, technology has just improved the type of toy that is available.
    We do get lots of customers coming to our shop grateful for a ‘select’ choice of toys, rather than a warehouse that is full of over stimulating under educating plastic.
    I am a firm believer in letting kids enjoy their childhood.
    The worst product i have come across in my 6 years in the business is a company that have developed a reading system for kids aged from 6 months – where is the joy in that. When did we become so focussed on learning that we forget that babies and young kids go through the most intense learning in their early lives. Do we really need a DVD learning set for babies from 6 months so we can shout from the rooftops how incredibly intelligent our kids are.
    I say a healthy balance of indoor creative play, out door active play, technology play brings balance to our world.
    We can’t stop the speed at which our kids are exposed to technology, but we can be the ones ensuring old playground games and songs are remembered and carried on.
    I’m personally hoping that my son and daughter will be able to take over the technology costs of my website in a few years – blimey, they’re more confident than me around computers.
    Jo Nicholson
    Founder Little Nut Tree Toys Ltd

  6. Dear Richard,
    My 7 y/o daughter came home from school w/paper airplanes, it made me smile from the great memories. We then proceeded to make about 10 more planes, add paper clips for weight, folding wings differently for better results but most importantly we were playing together in a low tech world.
    Low tech lacks the glitz and buzz but given the opportunity, kids will play that way but I often see that it takes something from us as parents to this.
    We must engage our imaginations with our kids and that is very different than firing up the Wii. The entertainment factor is self generated vs. “being” entertained.
    Your article is perfect because the opportunity is always there for us to step into and its easy to forget about how simple and fun blowing bubbles can be.
    It’s fun to be a kid again, we just have to give up being an adult to do it even for those who work in the business, this can be challenging.

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