Tracing the development of play in Scotland

Child playing Play Scotland said there should be a legal right to play

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An ideal childhood is generally considered to be a carefree one, full of play. The Scottish Parliament recently heard a call from a campaign group for there to be a legal right to play.

But when did the idea of play, as opposed to children just playing, become so important?

"I like playing outdoor games lots," says nine-year-old Kate. "And I also like playing imaginary games, just with a few toys or animals or dolls, or something like that.

"If you have lots of work and no play, you're going to be very dull and you won't have any fun."

But when did an idea of play as being important in itself come to the fore?

Professor Robert Davis of Glasgow University says that while children have always played wherever and whenever they are living, there was a real change in thinking towards the end of the 18th Century.

"The concept of children's play as being something defining about childhood itself receives far greater attention," he said.

"We started to prize childhood in a special way, as a phase in the development of human beings it was vital to protect for the future wellbeing of every individual."

These ideas were influential in the embryonic early-education movement, and were famously put into practice in a small settlement in South Lanarkshire.

Aerial shot of New Lanark New Lanark's founder began the gradual move away from child labour

New Lanark may be busy with tourists and a couple of chattering school parties on the day of my visit, but 200 years ago it was a cotton mill and village.

It is now a World Heritage Site in recognition of the huge influence it had on ideas about how people should be treated at work and what a decent childhood involved.

Under the management of the social pioneer Robert Owen, children were not allowed to work in the mill until they were 10 years old - quite a contrast to what was happening elsewhere in the 19th Century. He believed everyone had the right to education and recreation.

Lorna Davidson, the director of the New Lanark Trust, said the regime was much more concerned with children as little human beings rather seeing them as being "like any other machines".

She said the forecourt outside The Institute for the Formation of Character had been the world's first playground, and that time was built in for exercising and drilling during the day.

"Now if you think that it wasn't until the 1870s that they finally passed legislation to stop young children being used as chimney sweeps, you can see that Robert Owen was around half a century ahead of his time," she says.

"He very much recognised the importance of playing out in the fresh air, of children enjoying themselves."

The playgrounds of today are of course very different places. For instance, the first sand pits only appeared in the American city of Boston in the 1880s.

But does the very idea of separate places for children to play say anything about how, historically, children themselves were viewed, or what kind of mischief they might get up to?

Illustration of the dancing class at New Lanark As well as academic subjects, the children at New Lanark also got singing, dancing and nature lessons

Colin Heywood of Nottingham University said that in the late 19th Century, adults had been worried about children doing things like knocking on doors or breaking windows with their balls.

"So people start to think, well we've got children in schools, we've got children out of the factories, out of the workshops," he said.

"We want them to spend their time productively though, we don't just want them hanging around the streets - so they start to think about designing spaces for children.

"So there's an element of wanting to take children off the streets and get them to do something useful that would make them good citizens."

Helping their families and the community at large was a familiar part of life for Highland children, as it was in other parts of the country.

Historically, they were expected to help with tasks like planting and harvesting, reflected in a break from school which was known as the tattie holidays.

'Expected to work'

"It's only probably in western society in the last 50 years or so that childhood has been recognised as a discrete period of one's life where one maybe shouldn't be burdened with responsibilities," says Jennifer Maxwell, curator of the Highland Museum of Childhood in Strathpeffer.

"But these children were learning early on the skills and the tasks that they needed for their adult lives that they were expected to take up."

Indeed, in many parts of the world children are still expected to work.

"It's a luxury of our society that we have extended the period where children are unconnected with work," says Professor Davis of Glasgow University.

"One becomes a full member of society in most other parts of the world, and in most periods, by actively contributing to wealth production, food production and subsistence more generally."

So does how we view childhood matter?

Professor Davis thinks it does.

"The developments we've seen in childhood in the last 200 years are not simply another potential model of childhood, but actually may represent a breakthrough in the understanding of what a healthy, vital childhood can be - and therefore setting important benchmarks, goals even, for every civilised society to attain," he said.

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