As activity created for and used by children, play have much to tell us about the everyday physical and social contexts of and attitudes toward childhood, both today and in the past (Calvert, 1998). The history of play as an activity created to develop and teach children and toys as objects crafted specifically for the amusement of children is linked with the history of childhood itself. Any study of play necessitates first a brief overview of the changing Eurocentric and American conceptualizations of childhood over time, including the cultural apperception of childhood as a distinct period in human development.
This historical-theoretical study used multiple perspectives to more deeply understand the phenomenon of early childhood play, especially its importance to teaching and education. The paper firstly explores historical context of childhood play; then it studies historical development of theories related to childhood teaching through play. Finally, some conclusive remarks are presented. Historic Framework: Childhood as Context Aries (1998) suggested that childhood, as understood in the 20th century, had no meaning in the Western world prior to the Middle Ages.
In Aries’ view, prior to that time, children seldom experienced what we now identify as parental loving concern. Few children survived infancy; those who did were treated as small adults, with the expectation that they fully participate in the everyday social and economic world of family and class. Associated with the emergence of commercial capitalism and the middle class, according to Aries, was the rise of a religiously based pedagogy advocating a new body of knowledge focused on the education and cultural inculcation of the young.
For the first time, children were regarded as innocents, deserving of adult protection (Aries, 1998). Aries has been criticized for basing his ideas almost solely on study of historical documents associated with the French educational system; a system created solely for young upper and middle class males (Calvert, 1998; Jenkins, 1998). Still, Aries was credited with creating “a space for examining the social construction of childhood as an ongoing historical process” (Jenkins, 1998, p. 16).
Unlike Aries (1998), Calvert’s (1998) examination of the artifacts of childhood and historical documents including diaries led to her certainty that parents have likely always viewed children as distinct from adults, and have surely loved and provided for their children to one degree or another throughout history. What have varied over time are the belief systems influencing how they treated their children. Calvert identified periods of distinct change in Americans’ cultural perceptions about childhood in the centuries that followed European settlement.
Well into the mid-seventeenth century, adults swaddled infants, dosed them with preventative medications, and kept them from open air and light, out of fear for their lives in a time of alarmingly high rates of infant mortality. Parents hastened those few who survived infancy toward adulthood, with its associated strength, vigor and independence (Calvert, 1998). Frontier realities of the American colonial experience surely favored families who followed such parenting strategies, assuring survival through the combined effort of as many family members as could be successfully brought through the dangers of infancy and early childhood.
In approximately the last quarter of the eighteenth century, confidence in the rationality of nature, and specifically its young, created a new paradigm for viewing children as inherently capable of growth to adulthood (Calvert, 1998; Jenkins, 1998). Rather than sheltering them from the natural world, societal and parental views encouraged children’s exposure to nature’s elements, including sunlight and air (Calvert, 1998). Gradually, and shaped by the romantic notions of the 19th Century, childhood came to be seen as fleeting, warranting protection from the corrupting influences of the adult world.
For children of the upper and emerging middle classes, whose experience has always been the primary focus of both Western societal expectations and academic study (Calvert, 1998), limiting children’s exposure to adults fostered the creation of separate spaces, furnishings and objects designed to preserve and prolong the innocence of childhood (Calvert, 1998). The industrial revolution that swept the Western world in the second half of the 19th and into the early 20th Century had a profound effect on societal attitudes about childhood, and on the lives of children themselves, especially those of the working class (Zelizer, 1998).
Middle class parents sought to prolong the childhood of their offspring, responding to emerging notions that children benefited when challenged by consistent, enlightened schooling and periods of constructive and educational play (Sutton-Smith, 1997). At the same time, other children provided an economic cushion for working class and American immigrant families, affording additional income at a time when employment of married women outside the home was arguably less acceptable.
For those families, child labor constituted a “legitimate social practice” and “morally righteous institution” (Zelizer, pp. 2-83) that had throughout history been the fate of all but the wealthiest of children. Not entirely unlike their middle-class counterparts arguing on behalf of orchestrated education and play, working class supporters contended that work served a socializing function, since it “kept children busy and out of mischief’ and established positive habits for successful adulthood (Zelizer, p. 88). Any discussion about its history in the Western world must acknowledge that child labor persists to this day in many nations that lack the economic, political and institutional advantages of the Western world.
By 1900, upper and middle class reformers in the United States had achieved sufficient political support to characterize child labor as a leading social problem among working class and immigrant families (Zelizer, 1998). Multiple, complex economic factors contributed to the reformers’ success over the following decades and, ultimately, the achievement of enforceable federal anti-child labor legislation near the end of the Great Depression.
Those factors included the growing demand for an educated and skilled labor force, federal institution of the family wage, and an unprecedented number of adult male immigrants who became the competitors of children who had previously filled the need for unskilled labor (Zelizer, 1998). On a deeper, moral and sociopolitical level, mandated exclusion of American children from the work force disclosed underlying and persistent conflict about the value and meaning of childhood itself (Jenkins, 1998; Zelizer, 1998).
Emotionally charged and historically legitimized notions of the child as parental property and a potential source of familial status or shame (Sutton-Smith, 1997) further complicated two persistently contradictory strands of thought that had characterized Western societal views of and approaches to childhood across recorded time: “one celebrating freedom from adult control, the other insisting on the necessity of adult restraint” (Jenkins, p. 9), education and protection through parental and societal oversight (Calvert, 1998). The same competing, often conflicting perspectives on childhood continue to influence ways in which today’s children are parented, educated, and entertained. However, other cultural and political changes are involved, as well. American children of the late 20th and early 21st Century, exposed as they have been through expanding technology, may no longer be best served by societal attempts to shield them from the surrounding world.
In fact, it is arguably no longer even possible to preserve children’s innocence by isolating them from the reality of everyday human experience (Calvert, 1998). Western societal views about childhood may once again favor educating children to understand and cope in the adult world, rather than attempting to shield them from it. In a world of social interaction and near-instant communication that is fraught with social danger, including deadly communicable illness, violence and child molestation, “innocence has become vulnerability” (Calvert, p. 9).
Jenkins (1998) has argued that the meaning with which the child and childhood have been imbued over time appears complex and contradictory because there is no single, unitary meaning. Meanings and societal viewpoints are not successively discarded as a part of ongoing cultural change. Rather, according to Jenkins, it is most helpful to consider our modern view of childhood as “a palimpsest of ideas from different historical contexts” (Jenkins, 1998, p. 15) including the Romantic and Victorian; medieval and modern.
Furthermore, frameworks for understanding childhood are a part of’ the folk psychology implicitly understood by members of a shared cultural world, leading individual parents and society at large to act upon a set of shared assumptions as much as on the latest scholarly pronouncements or changes in social policy in their dealings with and expectations of children (Jenkins, 1998). Historical Development of Childhood Play Theories Psychoanalytic Theory First psychoanalytic theorists, such as Freud, provide another perspective on play. Freud was also interested in fantasy play.
In terms of play, Freud (1958) thought, “every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he arranges the things of this world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better” (p. 45 as cited in Landreth & Homeyer, 1998). Because children can symbolize in a play situation, it is a safe way to express their inner most thoughts and feelings that they couldn’t do by just talking out loud. The process of play provides healing for hurts, releases emotions, dissolves tension, and gives vent to pent-up urges toward self-expression” (Landreth & Homeyer, 1998, p. 94). Play is a natural way children express emotions, feel experiences of power, and through play children are able to make the world the way they would like it to be.
According to Koplow (1996), “In order to avoid feeling overwhelmed by relative helplessness, preschool children borrow strength through their identifications with parental figures and “heroes” who become sources of pride and hopefulness. While it is difficult for children to fulfill their desires to “be big like Daddy” in the here and now, enacting hero fantasies allows them a less conflicted route to a position of power and status” (p. ). Due to the many developmental benefits of play, especially emotionally, therapists use play therapy to help children having emotional difficulties or challenges work through emotions and feelings in a safe context (Koplow, 1996).
Play therapy provides a context “using play symbols to establish a connecting dialogue between child and therapist, and between the child’s conscious and unconscious experience” (Koplow, 1996, p. 75). Thus, according to a psychoanalytic perspective, psychological development has a very important connection to play, especially for emotional development.
Freud’s catharsis theory connects the play of children as a way to release their energy, emotions, and frustrations. According to this theory, children play to “get it out of their system” (Holland, 2003, p. 36). According to Holland (2003), Freud’s catharsis theory holds some promise to sway teachers away from banning childhood play. First, she believes the view that children use play to “get it out of their system” (p. 36) is a relatively common view, which Parsons (2003) also found in her survey of parent’s perspectives on childhood play.
Second, Biblow (1973, as cited in Holland, 2003) found that children who engage in high-fantasy play are better at reducing or changing their emotional states that may lead them to act aggressively. Moreover, if this correlation exists, then Holland argues that children should be free to express themselves in the fantasy play of their choice, to reduce or change their emotional states. In fact, she found that children expressed less aggressive behaviors in activities that eliminated their ‘zero tolerance’ policy on play, thus possibly supporting the perspective that play can be cathartic.
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