Spontaneous yet rule-bound, fun yet vitally beneficial – play shapes the period of explosive growth from birth to adolescence. This universal human activity not only helps us understand our social and cognitive development, but also offers us a glimpse into broader society.
Play is the basis for our most foundational relationships. We form bonds with our parents by touching, smiling and cuddling. However, in Britain from the 17th century, upper-class women often gave the responsibility of rearing their newborns to wet nurses. Children formed meaningful bonds with these caretakers from their interactions and play during these formative years.
Construction-based play has long been seen as a fundamental building block of development in children. In this engraving, the cherubic ‘Little Architect’ builds a tower of dominoes. The Victorian era, to which this image belongs, was the first to recognise childhood as an important stage of life associated with rapid cognitive growth.
The liberating nature of play is depicted perfectly in this late-19th-century poster advertising a performance of the ‘See-Saw Waltz’. The respite that play provides can be seen through the sheer joy with which the children cast aside their books and bags and run to the improvised seesaw, released from the confines of their schoolhouse.
Imaginative play allows children to collaborate to create elaborate fantasies that are governed by universally agreed-upon rules – here, the apothecary dispenses drugs to the patient, and the roles cannot be reversed. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, upper-class English children enjoyed the luxury of pretend playing, creating their own intricate scenarios. By contrast, their lower-class counterparts were forced to take on jobs in the manufacturing industry, where they worked in dangerous conditions, with rules enforced by factory foremen.
“Nobody wants to play with me.” The benefits of group-based play are certain, yet its dark side must not be ignored. Exclusion and bullying may sometimes be based on childish playground meanness, but more often than not, our prejudices lead to socially endorsed forms of bullying. In this lithograph, a child with AIDS faces social exclusion. Similar exclusion was seen during the decades of racial segregation in the United States, or in countries like India, where caste-based discrimination can be seen even in schools or on the playground.
Sport as a form of play is not just a central component of physical development, but a channel for emotional expression as well. Though society frowns upon uncontrolled violent behaviour, children are encouraged to engage in competitive, physical sport governed by rules as a socially legitimate outlet for aggression. In this engraving from 1858, the gleeful manner in which the boys exchange blows is in direct contrast with the stilted civility of their elegant mothers.
Play therapy was pioneered in the 1920s by Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, the first children’s psychoanalyst, as an innovative way to gain insight into a child’s unconscious. Psychologists believed that play allowed children to express themselves and confront trauma they may not have been able to consciously process. Various tools and therapeutic approaches are used to design targeted play therapy sessions. This image depicts a therapist using an assortment of farmyard figurines to engage the child.
As children mature into young adults, the importance assigned to play diminishes. Less value is placed on unstructured activity and greater emphasis on structured preparation for adulthood. This is especially true for girls, who are rapidly constrained by societal norms and expectations of age-appropriate behaviour. Routledge’s 19th-century instructional manuals prescribed important skills for young adults: while the ‘Every Boy’s Annual’ encouraged adventurous outdoor activities like fly-fishing, the ‘Every Girl’s Annual’ focused on ‘ladylike’ domestic arts like needlework and cookery.
In the postwar years of the 20th century the role of women in society underwent a significant change – women broke out of their roles as wives and homemakers and started to fill the workforce. Yet this advert, depicting gender-based play, suggests that despite the wave of societal change, traditional ideas of gender norms had very deep roots, and the boundaries of gender roles were established right from childhood.
In the modern world, physical play is ceding ground to digital entertainment. Though digital toys seem to be products of new technological advancements, they might not be as novel a phenomenon as we may think. The use of automata, or self-moving machines, for amusement and recreation, goes back centuries. This 17th-century toy features a skeleton dancing to the music produced by an automatic organ, both programmed by pinned cylinders. This hydraulic puppet show may well be a precursor to today’s animatronics- and special effects-rich world of entertainment.
About the author
Devika Madgavkar is a senior at the Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai, India. Her interests focus on the history of health and paediatrics. She has been a volunteer with play therapy programmes at the Dr Ernest Borges Memorial Home for paediatric cancer patients and at the Ummeed Child Development Centre, an NGO at the forefront of developmental paediatrics in India.