The Play Movement and Its Significance

The Play Movement and Its Significance

Dr. Henry S. Curtis, a leader in the American play movement, wrote The Play Movement and Its Significance (1917) to provide “a concrete picture of the extent of the development of play in this country, the sources from which the movement has sprung, and the direction in which it is going.”1 At a time when the daily realities of the industrial revolution were evident, he believed that recreation for adults and organized play for children “can do more to correct the evils of institutional life than any other single agency.”2

Written especially for playground commissioners, superintendents of schools, social workers, and mothers' clubs, Dr. Curtis first presented an historical perspective of the importance of play for the development of children. He maintained that originally “it has been through play that children have always acquired their motor coordinations, trained their judgments, and formed social habits.”3

With the rise of Christianity in America came a corresponding rise in the role of education to teach the children and prepare them for adulthood. This new emphasis replaced play, which Dr. Curtis decried because “the child deprived of play was cut off from those stimuli to which his mind most readily reacted.”4

The industrial revolution brought further changes with the migration of families to increasingly crowded cities and the elimination of children's work in a family livelihood. Though “work in general can never be as educative as play for children,” Dr. Curtis noted that the choice left to children in the city was now between play and idleness.5 From social concerns about such idleness, the disappearing positive influence of the home, and the rising evil influences of the streets, pool rooms, and dance halls, arose “public-spirited citizens” who felt “a new social spirit and sense of responsibility” for the “weak and dependent.”6

Along with child welfare legislation, settlement houses, hygiene movements, and industrial democracy, the play movement was one of society's remedies to the changes brought by mass manufacturing. It is with these social motivations that the “Renaissance of Play” came to America, beginning in Boston, Massachusetts.7 Dr. Curtis noted that usually the movement began in cities through a woman's club or a private playground and recreation association and that the early focus was split between school playgrounds and municipal parks. Ironically, the larger industrial companies, especially the steel companies, were also beginning to provide playgrounds for their employees and their families.8

Dr. Curtis, as Vice President of the Playground and Recreation Association of America, included a detailed history of the beginnings of the Association and its role in spreading and establishing the play movement. He felt the greatest current need of the movement was for facts that would inform comprehensive community recreation plans and for legislation that would support and fund such plans.9

As an overview of the play movement, Dr. Curtis maintained there were five aspects of the play movement in America: the social reform goals of re-instituting supervised play, the incorporating of play into the schools, the beginnings of establishing play for preschool children, the public recreation needs, and the “rebirth” of the spirit of play in society generally.10 He also foresaw the coming increased need for adult recreation due to the pending national Prohibition legislation that would close the saloons and the rising trend toward eight hour work days which would allow more leisure time for workers.11

With this general foundation, Dr. Curtis defined the “three ideals of play which are absolutely essential to any large success.”12 Reflecting his opinion that children's play needs supervision and organization, these ideals included 1) that every child have play time every day, 2) that they play with children of the same age and sex as themselves, and 3) that they play with the same friends every day in order to “secure a team spirit.” He also generally felt that children do not play much unless they are organized and supervised by adults.13

Seeing the schools as the only entity to potentially provide all these conditions, Dr. Curtis discussed at length the challenges and possibilities of including play in the public school curriculum. He noted the bold changes being made in Gary, Indiana, for instance, and the issues of sufficient play acreage; after school, weekend, and summer usage of school grounds; necessary supplies and equipment; and special needs for sport tournaments, physical training for girls, and training for supervisors.

Municipal Playgrounds and Public Recreation are further topics, though they are noted as secondary choices to utilizing the schools, school buildings, and school playgrounds. The city systems of Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Oakland are highlighted as well as the three general recreational opportunities: water, hills or mountains, and forests.14

Other innovative places to play are mentioned in Chapter 6, such as safely using city streets for dedicated play and dancing, recreation piers, temporary vacant lot play spaces, and roof top playgrounds and gardens. A chapter for the special play needs of the blind, deaf, “feeble-minded,” insane, orphan institutions, hospitals and sanitariums, penitentiaries, and “industrial schools for delinquents” is also included.15 Dr. Curtis believed that the schools or institutions for these populations have “an abundance of time, and unless play is organized idleness always finds evil work for idle hands and evil thoughts for idle brains.”16

The special needs of the changing country life are explored in Chapter 8, beginning with the fact that at that time 43% of farms were being rented out and the owners were moving to the cities.17 After noting why the farm families were leaving the land, Dr. Curtis proposed giving the farm life a “new spirit” through revitalizing and consolidating the rural schools, including play in the curriculum, and fostering a sense of community through the churches and a social center for recreation.

Additionally, Dr. Curtis discussed some of the private organizations seeking to make a recreational difference with communities and youth, including the YMCA and YWCA, the boys' and girls' clubs (forerunners of the 4-H organization) and the newly formed Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and Girl Scouts.

Concerning the details of incorporating play and recreation opportunities, Dr. Curtis discussed the necessity of beginning with a survey that discovers the recreational needs of the community, the play facilities already existing, and any possible future play sites. He continued the discussion with suggestions on locating a playground optimally and equipping them sufficiently, including the creating of equipment though such diverse groups as the school children themselves, the state penitentiaries, machine and steel companies, and the local neighbors.

Dr. Curtis ended the book with a cost-benefit analysis of play and recreation, asking the question, “What is the value of public recreation to the city?”18 Perhaps the answer is seen in the response Detroit workers made to the city of Little Rock that was offering to pay them fifty cents more a day to come to Arkansas, “What can we do on Saturday afternoons and Sundays? Here our children have good schools and playgrounds, we have a good time when we are not at work. We do not care to go where we shall not enjoy ourselves even if we do get more pay.”19

  • 1. Curtis, Henry S. The Play Movement and Its Significance (1917). New York: The MacMillian Company, 1917. p. v.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 2.
  • 4. Op.cit., Curtis. pp. 8-9.
  • 5. Op.cit., Curtis. pp. 4-5.
  • 6. Op.cit., Curtis. pp. 8-9.
  • 7. Op.cit., Curtis. pp. 10-12.
  • 8. Op.cit., Curtis. pp.12-14.
  • 9. Op.cit., Curtis. pp. 21-27.
  • 10. Op.cit. Curtis. pp. 18-21.
  • 11. Op.cit., Curtis. pp. 28-29.
  • 12. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 30.
  • 13. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 177.
  • 14. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 93.
  • 15. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 166.
  • 16. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 177.
  • 17. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 178.
  • 18. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 315.
  • 19. Op.cit., Curtis. p. 317.