Playing in the Name of Life: Biopolitics and the American Play Movement

Abstract: This paper will explore the argumentation made by advocates of the American play movement during the Progressive Era. With reference to Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, this paper will show that the argumentation in favor of playgrounds in America’s urban centers was, in fact, highly (bio)political. Contrary to what one might assume from taking into account the conventional historiography of the Progressive Era, the political endeavors of the American play movement (serving as an example for many other Progressive sociopolitical efforts) were not solely motivated by its advocacy’s charitable character. Analyzed on the basis of the concept of biopolitics, the arguments in favor of public provision of playgrounds will expose the movement’s true colors. These were mainly saturated with white, middle-class ideals concerning the act of play and the effects it had on children as well as on society as a whole. On the one hand, the activists sought to counteract the supposedly chaotic living conditions of urban centers by providing playgrounds for mostly immigrant children. On the other hand, they aimed at disciplining the individual bodies of these children through supervised play in accordance with Progressive ideals so that the children would eventually become productive members of society.

When thinking about notions of childhood that are characteristic of the Progressive Era, one most likely associates them with the image of children working in the factories of the rapidly industrializing United States. Formative for such associations are, for example, the now very famous photographs by Lewis Hine. He not only managed to capture the working child’s experience but more importantly played a role in raising awareness and in encouraging political activism to address issues like child labor.1 Against the background of these leading images, one tends to overlook another important component of the life of a child during this period, which is pointed out by David Nasaw: “The children of the street worked hard—and then they played hard” (viii). Notions of childhood during the Progressive Era were thus also defined by their acts of play and, in a way, even contributed to the prevalent present-day understanding of this very concept. The Progressive Era witnessed political actions that sought to establish laws protecting children from the dark and dangerous surroundings of the factories—some of which were portrayed in Hine’s photography. Thus, the idea of providing children and adolescents with a safe space in which to pass their leisure time gained momentum, and eventually led to the formation of the play movement.2 The rise of the play movement has to be acknowledged as one of the major factors conducive to constructing dominant modern American notions of childhood. Alongside scholars of various disciplines who claim that childhood is a sociocultural construct, Jane Eva Baxter elaborates on the contemporary (Western) discourses of childhood. She argues that these discourses are based on bourgeois notions of family and individuality as well as on an emphasis on the human being’s biological development, which society traces back to medically defined phases of personhood, such as childhood and adulthood (161, 163).

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