Education Through Play

Education Through Play

Written by Henry S. Curtis in 1915, Education Through Play approached the issue of children's play from the belief that it is a “school problem, that no other city department can deal with it satisfactorily, and that thus far the school has not done so...also, that this play problem of the school children is the chief play problem of our cities.”1 Dr. Curtis concurrently wrote The Practical Conduct of Play, a guide especially for play workers and left other aspects of play, such as public recreation or play at home with little children, for later treatment. He had previously written Play and Recreation in the Open Country.

As the former Secretary and Second Vice President of the Playground Association of America, former Supervisor of the Playgrounds of the District of Columbia, lecturer and author, and visiting professor on play for universities, Dr. Curtis first laid a foundation by defining play. To do so, he referenced three theories of why play exists: The Surplus Energy Theory, Groos's Theory that Play is a Method of Education, and G. Stanley Hall's extension of Groos's theory through the evolutionary theory of Recapitulation.2

The Surplus Energy Theory, which holds that with the easier modern life the extra survival energy is expended through play, was reasoned inadequate. Dr. Curtis, noting that children will play when exhausted, felt that “Surplus energy is a favorable condition of play, but it cannot explain the form of it.”3

Professor Groos's Theory that play is an instinct which serves to educate the child for later life was expanded by Dr. Hall who defined instinct as the games handed down through the generations which originally were vital survival activities. Dr. Hall felt that the closer children's play comes to the original activities, the more pleasure is felt in the play. For this reason there is more joy in throwing at a target and in being in the out of doors for play.

In discussing the status of play in 1915, Dr. Curtis felt that “the greatest sinner against the spirit of play has been the school itself.”4 Besides taking the time and energy for play and mandating that it be for studies, the schools have also impeded the cultural and familial transfer of game knowledge through play with older children and through play with the mothers. Kindergartens replaced the mother's guidance in play and peer stratification, and urban culture minimized play contact with older children. The results being that children needed to be taught these otherwise inherited games and this has led Dr. Curtis to remark that “Probably play has reached the lowest ebb that it has ever reached in the history of the world in this country in the last fifty years.”5

Acknowledging three broad age periods – the Imitative Stage (birth through five years), the “Big Injun” Stage of individual play (ages six through puberty), and the Tribal Life Stage of teams and loyalty (puberty and beyond) – Dr. Curtis then explored the relationship of play with work since play's purpose is to prepare the child for their life of work. He declared that “there is no real difference between work and play except in the spirit in which it is done” and “Perhaps the greatest service that play has to render life is to give it the play spirit in which to do its work.”6 Indeed, he felt that “all good work is done in the spirit of play.”7

Dr. Curtis further discussed play through the chapters titled Physical Training, Intellect Training, and the Formation of Habits and Character. Believing that “Play is the life and spirit of childhood,” he recognized that play includes emotional and social factors as well as the physical.8 Citing medical research, he maintained that the main time for physical training is during the first years of life, a time when play is naturally happening. However, he felt “If play is to develop children, there must be spaces large enough to run in, organization to make the play interesting, and games that will use the trunk and arms as well as the legs.”9

Other physical factors explored are those of endurance; nervous system stability; health of digestion, heart, and lungs; and women's development needs. Dr. Curtis summarized that to achieve all these physical gains through play there “are three elements that are of very nearly equal importance: They are fresh air, the joy of the spirit in the activity, and the exercise itself.”10

Concerning the intellectual part of play, Dr. Curtis defined the object of education to be more about “self-confidence, energy, and a fixed purpose, with a small amount of information” than about mastering Latin or geography.11 He faulted the schools for teaching what adults need rather than what children need, which makes the students “sleepy and stupid.” He felt that “we must get away from the idea of the school as a preparation for adult life and think of it rather as a preparation of the child for a more successful childhood.”12 Enter the role of play, for “Play trains the child in the arts of childhood.”13

Dr. Curtis also felt that play assists the child in developing energy, social skills for everyday life, rapid and accurate judgments, and the capacity for team work. He concluded that the main purpose of education is to acquire “an alertness of mind and right mental attitudes” and that the mental attitude in play provides the “greatest efficiency in all mental effort; for in all good play there is a complete absorption in the thing at hand, entire forgetfulness of self, and that intuitive following of spirit guidance which leads to the largest result with the least effort.”14

Play versus idleness was a major concern in the chapter on the Formation of Habits and Character as well as the early formation of incorrect habits and morals which then become difficult to change later. He covered such issues as undirected play, imitation of adult play models, the development of the child's will, sportsmanship, honesty, justice, profanity and vices, loyalty and friendliness, and democracy in play.

Drawing on his education abroad, Dr. Curtis contrasted the German, English, and American schools and play movements. Acknowledging Friedrich Froebel as the “first great modern writer on the educational value of play,” he noted that Froebel “saw in the plays of children the perfect expression of the child soul.”15 Dr. Curtis also credited Germany as the source of the American play movement.

In America, he decried the school yard as “one of the least utilized of our educational resources.”16 For both the urban and rural school yards, Dr. Curtis discussed the issues of size, location, surfacing, vegetation, lighting, play equipment, games and sports, clubs, festivals, and play supervisors. Later chapters dealt with summer playgrounds, the school camp programs, utilizing the school as a community social center, and the necessity of moral athletics in the high schools and colleges. The appendix includes ten pages of rules for common games in these different venues.

With his extensive travel and experience with playgrounds, Dr. Curtis felt that “the only solution of the play problem of our cities that I can see is to put play into the curriculum of our schools.”17 His solution was either to take an hour out of the school day for play or to add an hour to the school day for play. He felt that games and athletics fulfilled the true object of education, which was to “make men, men of loyalty in civic affairs, and men of efficiency in business affairs.”18 As an example of this vision, he extensively reviewed the reforms and limitations of the program established in Gary, Indiana by Superintendent William A. Wirt.

Though guidelines for play teachers are included in other publications by Dr. Curtis, the right teacher or director is considered “the decisive factor in the success of the playground.” For this reason, he overviewed the Normal Course in Play offered by the Playground Association of America, other play courses offered at universities and normal schools (teaching colleges) at home and abroad, and summer school trainings. He envisions two classes of play leaders – the professional directors who only direct play and physical development in children and the teachers who include play as one part of their daily curriculum.

As to a broad perspective on play and our society, in Education Through Play, Dr. Curtis declared that “If we wish the world to be a warmer and more loving place, one of our first duties will be the promotion of play and sociability of the right sort among the children, and the extending of this childhood's necessity to advancing years, until infirmity or death make play impossible.”19

  • 1. Curtis, Henry S. Education Through Play. By Curis. New York: The MacMillian Company, 1920. p. viii.
  • 2. Op. Cit., pp. 2-5.
  • 3. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 3.
  • 4. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 9.
  • 5. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 9.
  • 6. Op.cit., Curtis. pp. 12, 14.
  • 7. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 13.
  • 8. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 17.
  • 9. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 22.
  • 10. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 46.
  • 11. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 49.
  • 12. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 50.
  • 13. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 51.
  • 14. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 58.
  • 15. Op.cit, Curtis. p. 85.
  • 16. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 113.
  • 17. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 185.
  • 18. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 192.
  • 19. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 84.