Posts Tagged Alliance for Childhood

It Takes Guts To Depict A Healthy, Happy Childhood

Published by — This film’s 1950s vision of heaven for children’s play is as relevant today as it was when it was made.

Medieval storytellers and play-masters always faced the huge problem that Evil was so much more fun to portray than Good.  Devils often made their entrance from the back of the audience, delivering sin’s pinches to real bodies as they made their way to the stage.  The characters World, Gluttony and Lechery could flaunt their drunken or sacrilegious naughtiness, even as they were doomed to the fires of hell.  Virtue, Kindness, and Modesty?  Dull, dull and dull.  Tough work competing for attention.

But compete they did, because they had to.  Affirming visions of Good was the point of the stories, after all.  Facing adversity with triumph, in comedy, or noble defeat in tragedy, upheld an ideal of what it looked like when the community had it right.  However hard to achieve, good character was the basis of a good society, and so it had to drive a good story.  Performers had a moral obligation to imagine heaven on earth, because ultimately that was more satisfying to the audiences than cynicism.

These days, Hollywood has lost interest in ordinary, Leave-it-to-Beaver stories about healthy kids and families.  On the news we see children involved in violence, shootings, bullies, and toys that maim.  Frightened parents wrap their kids in bubble wrap, shielding them from life’s greatest lesson:  falling down, going boom, and making sense of what happened.  Actually, if we’d only let kids explore, watching them manage risk — climb a tree, build with tools — can be heart-stoppingly exciting.

So I was delighted to see that the Alliance for Childhood had dug out an old 1957 film that shows just such a bit of a heaven on earth for children.  It looks like a newsreel of the sort that used to play before the feature film.  In it “The National Playing Fields Association” promotes “Adventure Playgrounds,” described as having “originated in postwar Europe, after a playground designer found that children had more fun with the trash and rubble left behind by bombings — inventing their own toys and playing with them — than on the conventional equipment of swings and slides.”

Today adventure playgrounds are all over Europe and Japan.  Many call them “junkyard playgrounds” because they’re full of cast-off wood scraps, wire spools, paints, old pool slides, whatever.

As a 1950s vision of heaven, the children are spotless, even as they dig deeply in the dirt, dive into holes and dam streams.  Boys build while the girls cook, wearing dresses.  A gorgeously-voiced BBC radio announcer enthuses his way through a delightfully prosy script.  The camera lingers on kids having a blast learning that “Work is fun and service is satisfaction.”  The aesthetic is cornball, but every one of his words is just as relevant to today’s children, if not more so.

The narrator focuses on two conditions essential not only to having fun, but to building character.  Again, modern children hear a lot about bad behavior, with few if any images of attractive behavior other than getting good grades and excelling in organized sports.

The first condition is that children need to create worlds that belong just to them.  Everything in these playgrounds is created by the children’s hands.  “Nails and junk bring happiness,” and as the village of little structures develops, “so does character.”  Children choose what to build and do.  They begin or stop as they wish, and if they want to pull off to the side to be alone, that’s okay too.  This isn’t school or home; it’s their world, and no one else’s.

Douglas Rushkoff makes the point that kids are never the drivers when playing video games or other electronics.  They’re passengers in someone else’s software vehicle.  Likewise, organized sports are managed by adults.  But having a world of your own is critical to developing a sense of who you are.  Developing that world with others teaches you who you are in relation to them.

The second essential condition is the “Playworker,” whom we don’t see in the film.  Today European colleges offer 2-year degrees that certify playworkers to work for municipalities in parks, public playgrounds and the streets themselves.  The narrator notes, “Conspicuous by his or her absence, the leader guides, but never organizes; watches over them, but never interferes; is always there, but never in the way.”  The kids aren’t abandoned to create their own world; there’s attention, recourse to help and a potential relationship with a functioning adult.  Talk about an image of Good!  Imagine if U.S. municipalities cared enough about their kids to invest in people to watch over them out in the field.  Kids desperately need to feel safe in their own worlds, but neglect makes the streets dangerous.

As it is, we ignore children’s innate urges to build, dam, make things, climb, invent, interact, and make choices about their own lives.  Better to give kids a bit of land, some junk and to have someone standing watchfully to one side as they do so.  The last line of the movie is:  “And your reward is just this:  the sound of children’s laughter.  No music was ever sweeter.”

Good image.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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The Most Educational Toys are Completely Free, Or Mostly

Published by — The best, most educational toys don’t always need to plug in, have a micro-processor or cost a fortune.


Ah, the quiet week, the post-holiday pause. The gifts have been purchased, wrapped and unwrapped. The house is returning to normal. Most of the nation’s children are busy with new goodies from under the tree. Most will spend their vacation downtime hunched in front of some sort of screen. Some might actually be physically active, using a Wii to simulate an outdoor activity in a messy bedroom.

Consumer Christmas jumped to light speed with TV, of course. Before then Christmas was a time to spoil the children A LITTLE BIT with a doll or a toy car, chocolates, and a sweet collection of myths and magic. Solstice, Hanukkah and the Nativity are all celebrations of the waxing of the light as we face the dark of the season. But who notices that anymore? The season’s holy days are now fully transformed into a toy orgasm, in a triumph of mass advertising over cultural tradition.

So let’s head over to the Geek Dads column in Wired Magazine to see if your kids got the hottest must-have item. The columnists home-test toys with their very own children, or geeklets. These tech-heads know whereof they e-speak.

Jonathan Liu puts it right out there with “The 5 Best Toys of All Time.” And they are:

Stick, box, string, cardboard tube and dirt.

Hmmmmm. Not exactly sophisticated, cool, “the latest,” or advertised as educational.

Some readers objected to his priorities, so Liu included a few more in a subsequent column. They are:

Bubble wrap, rock, ball and water.

Once I got over the shock of the refreshing lack of batteries needed, I wanted to add doll, sand and clay.

But whatever. For once I am at one with hip, young super-sophisticates. Liu acknowledges that his choices involve a bit more risk than video games, and thus need some unintrusive supervision. But adults should be doing that anyway.

Still, the contrast between super-absorbing electronic entertainment and the traditional elements of play raises the question: What is a toy?

While researching children’s play and its relationship to academics, I found this oft-repeated saying: A good toy is 90 percent child and 10 percent toy.

A video game, or a movie-character doll, have plot lines already laid out. A kid “plays” by doing the plot correctly – finding the right pre-made path through the video adventure, or following the movie character’s story line precisely. Zero creativity.

Three important qualities characterize traditional play materials. (Ropes and blankets that make up indoor forts are hard to call toys, exactly.)

First, a good toy brings out the personality and passions of the child. What does he like to do? What does he repeat so he can get better and better at it? Is he a builder? Game-player? Adventurer? Pretender? Children are always telling us what skills and interests they want nourished, if we listen.

Secondly, traditional playthings are the way the child’s brain uploads the features, benefits and liabilities of the world around her. Sticks, for example, can be anything. (Which is why forbidding toy guns always seems to me like a losing proposition.) They can dig, be weaponry, scepters, farm tools. But they can also poke, hit and hurt. They come from trees, which are giant jungle gyms when frightened adults aren’t looking.

In a video game, the weapon in the avatar’s hand has no weight, length or other properties that might inform a kid’s later encounter with, say, tools. Playing with play stuff gets the kid ready to handle real stuff.

Because third – and this is a point almost entirely lost on adults – play is a way of getting ready for work. As kids get older, their traditional toys increasingly mimic adult work. Kids like to pretend to be adults. They want to tinker, build or cook, like the adults. Cars and roadways are dangerously adult, but kids can reproduce them in a sandbox.

On a fact sheet, The Alliance for Childhood recommends that you “bring back the art of real work. Believe it or not, adult activity – cooking, raking, cleaning, washing the car – actually inspires children to play. Children like to help for short periods and then engage in their own play.”

This is huge. If children learn to work through their play, later when they’re adults, they’ll look for work that has an element of play in it for them, hopefully. If play is just about being passively entertained, even with “interactive” features supplied by a keyboard, then work and school will just be boring drudgery because they’re not entertainment. Lots of essential work is tedious, but playful people can find the game aspect and make it work for them.

Honestly, I believe that the key reason we’re struggling to raise our kids’ academic achievement is that we’ve sucked play out of learning and work. Our work can look like such a drag to kids. We come home, plotz in front of the TV, and make it seem like there, on the screen, life finally has some juice.

Surely Geek Dads get their fill of playing with screens when they work. So no wonder that when they get playthings for their kids, they want to go retro with dirt, water, and totally fun cardboard boxes.

But theirs shouldn’t be the only such lucky kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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