Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2493
CHILD'S PLAY

by Andrew Boyd

Today, child’s play. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

American satirist H. L. Mencken once quipped that Puritanism was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

This puritanical “fear” extended to children. Play was a sinful distraction. Children were expected to do their chores, study the bible, and repress their emotions — or risk a severe beating. And for a reason. As explained by Benjamin Wadsworth, early president of Harvard College, children were a “fountain of Sin, and wickedness; an evil Treasure from whence proceed evil things … liable to … the Unquenchable Flames of Hell.” Play, it seems, was a first step on the road to eternal damnation.

image of Benjamin Wadsworth

Thankfully, our views aren’t so puritanical these days. We recognize the importance of play in human development. Play nurtures creativity. That’s why it’s become such a central theme in education. Not just recess, but play as education.

Take, for example, the teaching of fractions. Give children a cardboard pizza and a pair of scissors, and they’ll discover two halves equal a whole. Through play, curiosity is stimulated, concepts emerge, and the mind expands. Of course, play can’t supplant formal instruction. A seventh grader who can explain fractions with pictures but can’t add 1/23 and 1/18 isn’t properly educated.

picture of children at play

Toys have long been used to facilitate learning through play. It’s a joy to watch a child whose imagination is captivated with a toy’s possibilities. And it’s only recently that we’ve discovered a toy with unimaginable possibilities: the computer.

We need only look at the vast market for today’s computer games to recognize the power of the computer as toy. The question is how to harness this play-power to promote educational creativity.

And here, we’ve only begun. The Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab is home to an array of computer projects aimed at improving creative play. The lab’s Computer Clubhouse centers let children create “their own animations, interactive stories … and robotic constructions.” The “Say What?!” project “explores the relationship between empathy and civic engagement” by fostering “mutual understanding, collaborative problem solving, and self-expression.” Lofty goals for child’s play. We can’t say exactly where all this activity will lead. And we need to be sure we promote real learning, not just game playing. But however things evolve, I suspect our children will be spared from “the Unquenchable Flames of Hell.”

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For related episodes, see TOYS and FRIEDRICH FRÖBEL AND KINDERGARTEN.

B. Daniels. Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1996.

W. Garrett. “Puritan attitudes toward the upbringing of children.” Antiques Magazine, February, 2000.

The Media Lab. Web site of the MIT Media Lab: http://www.media.mit.edu. Accessed May 12, 2009.

Both pictures are from Wikimedia Commons. The picture of the children at play is courtesy of the German National Archives.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.