Play is not ordinary life. It stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites.
The title and marketing pitch of the Wellcome’s winter exhibition, Play Well, suggests that play is good for us all, young and old. Like ‘wellness’ and ‘mindfulness’, it’s another technique to add to your psychological repertoire for staying sane in the end-times. But as every weary parent knows, true play is not so much an attitude as an altered state, akin to shape-shifting or dreaming, a state from which most adults have long been exiled. Play Well’s curators clearly know this too. The exhibition’s inspired juxtapositions of historical toys, films, photographs, and artwork explore this creative tension between the generations. Particular kinds of visions emerge when adults – psychologists, educators, artists, and toymakers – look back at this prelapsarian form of thought and action called Play. What is implicit throughout this show is that these visions rapidly shade into various forms of utopian politics.
The architecture of the galleries resembles an enchanting padded cell, replete with curvy walls, low lighting and quilted informational panels. It is divided into three zones, shifting gradually from a concern with origin stories to a sociological mood which places present-day norms into potential crisis. The striking centrepiece of the first room, ‘Nature/Nurture’, is a cabinet of Friedrich Froebel’s twenty Gifts and Occupations. Froebel, the nineteenth-century founder of the German Kindergarten movement, was originally a mineralogist who went in search of structural connections between crystals, organic forms, and children’s thought. The Gifts – appealing woven balls and progressively complex geometric blocks – might be described as Platonic Forms for Babies: an introduction to the foundations of knowledge. The Occupations are prescribed activities for older children, such as modelling clay, paper folding, cutting, weaving and sewing. What is instilled through these objects and tasks is a kind of a tacit knowledge, a sensuous and aesthetic instinct for materials, pattern and form. As the displays indicate, a generation of children educated in Froebelian nurseries, including Klee, Kandinsky, Le Corbusier, Lloyd Wright, and Buckminster Fuller, went on to revolutionize architecture and design in the early twentieth century. Art historian Norman Brosterman has even described Kindergarten as the ‘seed pearl’ of modernism.
Another feast for the eyes is found in an adjoining display on the work of Froebel-educated child psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld. Her ‘World’ and ‘Mosaic’ techniques, devised in the 1920s and 30s, are recreated here: magical cabinets of tiny toys and printer-trays packed with coloured diamonds. Once selected and transformed into tableaux by her patients, these therapeutic objects provided her with new insights into these children’s psychological ruts and preoccupations. Lowenfeld always sidestepped the theoretical demands of psychoanalysis, though her form of play therapy was also in search of an unspoken, archaic past. In the dusky light of the gallery, these creations take on a brooding, totemistic aura.
This section also introduces one of the exhibition’s important threads: the democratisation of play (a child’s ‘right to play’ was enshrined by the UN in 1989), as well as play’s complex relationship to poverty. During the early twentieth century, Margaret McMillan created free nurseries for the deprived children of factory workers in London, releasing them from squalor and over-population. Maria Montessori founded her first nursery for the poor children of Rome in 1907, and Loris Malaguzzi’s innovative approach to collective childcare in post-war Italy (now the Reggio Emilia tradition) was a form of grassroots social reconstruction. But the exhibition also suggests that authentic play is ‘poor’ in the sense that the imagination works most fiercely upon crude materials. In the 1920s, Walter Benjamin observed the following curious phenomenon: “Children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked on. They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring or carpentry. In waste products they recognise the face of the world of things turns directly and solely towards them…Like the ragpicker, children redeem things from the fate of the commodity.” For Benjamin this rag-picking clearly had a political as well as a creative motive, representing a form of social levelling in which “once mislaid, broken and repaired, even the most princely doll becomes a capable proletarian comrade in the children’s play commune.”
Although never explicitly mentioned, this ‘rubbish’ theory of play is everywhere at work in the exhibition: in the found objects transformed into toys in a Bangladesh refugee camp, in the unnerving video ‘Boys and Sculpture‘ (where artist Eva Rothschild invites a group of young boys to destroy her artworks), and in the adventure playground movement, which used historical detritus – WW2 bomb sites and factory off-cuts – to create anarchic play spaces during the 1950s and 60s. An intriguing public information film made by the Ministry of Health in 1951, entitled Your Children’s Play, advocates this kind of poor play as noble and emancipatory. “Children sometimes value things that we regard as rubbish”, reminds the voiceover, over long close-ups of a pine cone, used matchstick and rusty hinge, playthings disdained in the film by arrogant parents. “We just don’t know how imagination can transform them.” Inevitably there is a melancholy dialogue at work here between historical generations too: between a post-war, pre-consumerist society and our own times, in which market forces run rampant.
There is much black humour to be found in the next room, ‘Toys Like Us’, where the problem of gendered play raises its Barbie-shaped head. The original postwar versions of LEGO are contrasted with the girls-only ‘Heartlake News Van’, a 2014 LEGO Friends set comprising a pink truck where female TV presenters do their hair and make-up before going on air (a minifigure of Andrew the cameraman is included). The curators’ blurb reminds us that, in an anti-utopian move, the company is “moving away from the original aims of LEGO toys as a gender-neutral tool of infinite communication”. The Friends theme was developed within girls’ focus groups, a fact that suggests toy manufacturers must choose between countering or capitalising on the rapid effects of social reproduction. Another display tells the story of a 1990s militant group, The Barbie Liberation Organisation, who were concerned that the Mattel brand was “brainwashing young girls into a system of beliefs and values that seek to subjugate women.” BLO members infiltrated Toys R Us and swapped Barbies’ voice-boxes with those of GI Joes and encouraged the public to follow suit. A number of surprised customers received Barbies who barked “Vengeance is Mine!” and Joes who yelped “Ken’s Such a Dream!” Other political and moral interventions in toy-making are explored here, including @ToyLikeMe’s Hulk with Diabetic Line and Rollerblading Barbie with Vitiligo. Yet we know how well children resist such attempts to correct the world’s cruelties.
If girls’ play has long been shoehorned into a rehearsal for regressive social roles, then the third room, ‘Rules and Risk’, has much to say about the problem of boys and the relationship of play to aggression and delinquency. This raises the issue of how drastically children’s physical autonomy and territory have shrunk during the last seventy years, and the obvious implications for physical and mental health (anyone who wants to know why this has happened should read Matthew Thomson’s Lost Freedom). A map of three generations’ ‘roaming zones’ in a Sheffield suburb underlines the point starkly. There are many important documentary images collected here: photographs of children playing in the ruined streets of the East End, Manchester’s Moss Side and Glasgow’s ‘Forgotten Gorbals’, and some remarkable paintings by Glaswegian artist Joan Eardley. She captured, on the cusp of its disappearing, a world in which kids freely populated the city: tracing in rough, energetic lines the ways young children form conspiratorial huddles, hunch their shoulders to fend off harm, gaze from the shadows of doorways. Adults are always elsewhere.
The emergence of ‘digital play’ is given even-handed treatment. The Wellcome Collection worked with a group of teenagers to create a series of games, showcased here, which reflect their experiences of growing up as digital natives, as well as their anxieties about potential addiction. But given all that comes before, it is hard not to feel that computer games offer an impoverished version of what play should be: tactile, territorial, deconstructive of the adult world. This is still best expressed in the adventure playground concept, which was advanced by postwar figures such as philanthropist Margery Allen in London, and architect Aldo van Eyck in Amsterdam. These playgrounds were state-sanctioned versions of what Johan Huizinga (whose 1938 book Homo Ludens opens the exhibition) described as the basis of all play: “the consecrated spot, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain.” Post-war adventure playgrounds were exciting environments, hallowed even, because they struck the right balance between danger or disorder, and adult-led government.
The quest to keep these ideas alive continues. In 2017 the HOPSCOTCH project (Hi-Tech Observation of Play and Social Communication Trajectories in Children) tracked the movements of children in school playgrounds by attaching sensors to their shoelaces and hats, charting how games and conversations become more complex when play-workers introduce equipment and activities into an empty space. This made me think that the happiest forms of play often take place not when children are left entirely to their own devices (in either sense of the word), but when adults and children find the time to work together, mixing memory and invention to transform the junkyard of the past into something new.
Katie Joice is a PhD student in the History Department of Birkbeck College London, and a member of the Wellcome-funded Hidden Persuaders project. Her thesis is entitled ‘The Empty Frame: Child Analysis and its Visual Cultures 1932-80’.