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  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 9:42am

Let's hear it for the toys: exhibit sheds light on child's play

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

Children are known for their unfettered approach to creativity. Unshackled by tradition and technique, youngsters freely express their view of the world - a trait noted by artists such as Expressionist painter Paul Klee, who sometimes tried to see the world through a child's eyes.

An exhibition opening today at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), entitled Century of the Child: Growing By Design, 1900-2000, examines how educators in the 20th century tried to inspire and encourage such creativity in children by means of book, toy and game design.

The show, which is curated by Juliet Kinchin from MoMA's department of architecture and design, features 500 items culled from 100 years of play. These include building blocks from Germany's turn of-the-century Kindergarten movement, Charles Eames furniture from the 1950s, and bouncy Space Hopper toys from the 1960s.

The exhibition also explores the darker side of the subject. In Germany and Italy, propaganda was designed to brainwash children into supporting fascist ideals. Less disturbing, but still insidious, are the advertising designs that were used to turn children into a new consumer class in the US during the 1960s.

Century of the Child is divided into chronological sections, which show the changing relationship between play and education over the period. The toys and games may become bigger and more complex as time advances, but the main theme remains the same. Except during authoritarian times, children have been encouraged to freely explore their thoughts, feelings and artistic impulses.

European designers produced educational tools like building blocks that encouraged self-expression in the 1910s. Paper folding and cutting were popular games used to encourage creative play, and designer Friedrich Froebel made a number of instruments that revolved around pricking, parquetry and arranging steel rings.

The Spirograph, an imaginative 1965 toy invented in Britain, used interlocking saw-tooth rings to guide a ballpoint pen to draw fascinating abstract shapes. In the 1980s, the US television show Pee-wee's Playhouse told young viewers that not only was it OK to be different, it was better.

The years following the first world war turned this paradigm on its head. Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and militaristic Japan all sought to indoctrinate them with their various value systems.

Sakampf, a disturbing board game from 1933 Germany, encouraged children to join the Hitler Youth movement. A game from Italy, Tombola: Storia Geografica di Etiopia, encouraged support of Mussolini's colonial ambitions in Africa. Soviet posters and books reinforced the values of collectivism, while those from Japan propagated militarism.

The fact that Germany and Italy were at the forefront of innovations in education before the first world war may have informed what was to come, curator Kinchin said at the show's opening: 'The utopian social agenda can quickly morph into something dystopian, and design can be made to manipulate children. We'd be kidding ourselves if we said that all modern design for children was beneficent.'

The progressive approach to education in the 20th century was sparked by Swedish social theorist Ellen Kay's 1900 work Century of The Child, from which the exhibition takes its title. Kay argued that the well-being of children was the main challenge of the next 100 years. The new century also heralded the birth of the 'modern', and children were, naturally, seen to embody all that was new. In their own way, designers rose to Kay's challenge.

The progressive ideas expressed in the exhibition are very relevant in today's conservative times. It shows that, for most of the last century, educators and parents celebrated and encouraged free-thinking, experimentalism and serendipitous creativity in children. Scheduled activities were never mentioned.

Century of the Child: Growing By Design, 1900-2000, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, until November 5.

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