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Examining the Child At Play: MoMA’s Century of the Child

Aug 24, 2012

by Chappell Ellison

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In 1900, Swedish design reformer Ellen Key stated that the “century of the child” was upon us, predicting that we’d spend the next 100 years addressing how children should be raised and nurtured. Now, we can safely say that Key was right. We live in a time where dad bloggers, car seat designers, Diaper Genies and mountains of parenting books are the norm. Century of the Child: Growing by Design, a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, begins with Key’s statement and tries to explain how we got to this point, through a history of children’s toys and memorabilia. The show tries to address so many facets of childhood — politics, ethics, philosophy — that the narrative thread isn’t totally clear. What does become clear, however, is that our ideas of child rearing are constantly in flux, changing through time and across cultures.

At the start of the 20th century, children were viewed as miniature adults. These notions began to shift as the exploration of childhood development blossomed. Out of the dark, somber wood of spartan school houses came the playful techniques of Maria Montessori, an Italian medical student with an interest in children with learning disabilities. Montessori believed that physical objects would stimulate children’s senses, and her activity-based teaching methods and colorful learning toys (see above image) inspired designers and schools around the world. Montessori’s work established childhood as an integral realm of study for philosophers, psychologists, artists and designers.

The Museum of Modern Art

Left: Poster by El Lissitzky, 1929. Right: Pamphlet by Paul (Geert Paul Hendrikus) Schuitema, 1927-28. From the Museum of Modern Art collection.

The decade between the two world wars repositioned children as a symbol of national pride. To nourish these torch bearers, designers looked to three themes: light, air and health. Architect Jan Duiker addressed these themes in his open-air school for the healthy child, built in Amsterdam in the late 1920s. Each floor of the steel-framed structure featured cantilevered gardens and large, open windows, looking more like a modern oasis than a scholastic environment. Printed material from the era encouraged proper nutrition and physical exercise, even for the tiniest of toddlers.

The exhibition isn’t all smiles and delight — an unexpected darkness hovers around the edges. Military exploits were (and still are) fodder for child-targeted designs; an Italian child’s tableware set manufactured by Richard Ginori features illustrations of pith helmets, rifles, tanks and other symbols of colonialism. A 1930s child’s kimono from Japan hangs from the ceiling of the gallery, its fabric patterned with images of armed soldiers and boy scouts. World War II posters and Soviet-era advertisements promoted the shining face of youth as the pillar of society. An Italian poster from 1935 panders to the country’s young boys, encouraging them to join dictator Bernito Mussolini’s army when they grow up. A later exhibit mentions the AK-47, “an assault rifle designed in the Soviet Union at the end of World War II … simple and light enough to be wielded, stripped and reassembled by child soldiers as young as eight years old.”

Museum of Modern Art

School desk by Jean Prouvé, 1946. From the Museum of Modern Art collection.

Fortunately, the exhibition rounds out with a view of the slew of international designers determined to create nurturing items for children that celebrate the preciousness of growing up. For example, Renate Müller’s therapeutic hippopotamus, one of her many burlap-sewn beasts, aid in the development of children’s tactile senses. Sven-Eric Juhlin’s creation of the sippy-cup signaled the first effort to design an item for children, rather than miniaturizing adult goods. Other incredibly compelling items in the show were developed for disabled children: Twan Verdonck’s Tummy helps children deal with anxiety, while the Krabat Jockey chair is designed to help children with cerebral palsy.

Museum of Modern Art

Indoor play area by Renate Müller, 1985. Collection of Zesty Meyers and Evan Snyderma

At this exhibit, I expected to see midcentury modern toys, bubbly and rainbow colored, pristinely sealed in glass vitrines. MoMA still delivers just that, despite the show’s heavy undertone. Inspiring toys from the 1960s-1990s provide a moment to reflect upon the pure joy of being a kid. And any retrospective on  childhood just wouldn’t be right without a Slinky or Legos, both of which make an appearance. But no matter how colorful or silly, every object designed with children in mind comes with heavy implications hidden behind a layer of innocence. Children take cues from their surroundings, which are shaped by designers, politicians and parents. The objects in the exhibition show our struggle to determine how children should be raised. Just as growing up is a learning process, so is figuring out what’s best for our kids.

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54 comments

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 6 years ago

    Interesting! Great subject for an exhibition.

  • OuterKnits

    OuterKnits from OuterKnits said 6 years ago

    Fascinating!

  • kgpaintings

    Kirsten Gilmore from PaintingsByKEGilmore said 6 years ago

    The conjoined school desk pictured is beautiful...but I doubt the designer has ever taught young children. ;)

  • MishaGirl

    Michelle from MishaGirl said 6 years ago

    Interesting read!

  • VoleedeMoineaux

    Hillary De Moineaux from VoleedeMoineaux said 6 years ago

    So fun!!!!!!!

  • SpareBedroomStudio

    SpareBedroomStudio from SpareBedroomStudio said 6 years ago

    What an interesting post!

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering said 6 years ago

    Very neat article. The indoor play area is cute too~!

  • IcingOnTheCupcake

    IcingOnTheCupcake from IcingOnTheCupcake said 6 years ago

    Very interesting, I'm sure an excellent exhibit to see in person.

  • Ayshma

    Ayshma from ArtPieces said 6 years ago

    Wow, amazing, I really want to see this exhibition, :( But Iwould not be able to see it. thanx for posting this, atleast I got to know about this :)

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 6 years ago

    Interesting! :)

  • thewhitepepper

    Christina from thewhitepepper said 6 years ago

    Former Montessori school teacher here! So glad to see her mentioned..she was an amazing woman, doctor and educator!!

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl said 6 years ago

    That looks really good. I now need a field trip, I can tell.

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 6 years ago

    Fun!!!

  • audreytolove
  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDConnection from TheIDconnection said 6 years ago

    I just love the desk!

  • twitchandwhiskers

    Mei-Ling Uliasz from twitchandwhiskers said 6 years ago

    Had a chance to visit the exhibit last week. I was so inspired by the innovative and whimsical design. LOVED seeing parts of Pee Wee's Playhouse there and sitting in the over-sized chair at the beginning of the exhibit. Highly rec!

  • reflectionsjewelry

    Emily Delfin from reflectionsjewelry said 6 years ago

    Children truly are shaped by their surroundings. Makes you think about what your kid has for influences.

  • ChristineShmistine

    Christine from FineArtWithaTwist said 6 years ago

    That poster is pretty disturbing. I love the toys... and the desk is just awesome!

  • vinproelegance

    Vinpro Elegance from vinproelegance said 6 years ago

    Interesting post!

  • cberez

    CB DESIGN'S from CBDesignsPR said 6 years ago

    Very interesting!

  • AlohaFeathers

    Melissa Bonte from SurfingBaby said 6 years ago

    This is a really interesting article. My late grandmother had her PhD in Psych and has some fairly famous papers published on the 'effects of war in children's play.' She was in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor and spent many hours studying kids playing on the playground after the attack. This article reminded me of her work. Thanks for sharing.

  • pasin

    pasin from Pasin said 6 years ago

    interesting post!

  • BirdiesCozyNest

    Becky from BirdiesCozyNest said 6 years ago

    Seems like adults need to take cues from our children, by following what they love and providing for them the tools and support and love to follow their passions, no matter how often that changes.

  • PinkCheetahVintage

    PinkCheetahVintage from PinkCheetahVintage said 6 years ago

    Loved Moma when I got to visit a couple of years ago. I've actually started getting rid of a ton of my kids toys. It seemed like too many toys was overwhelming and they couldn't focus to play. Now, with less toys, I find them playing more and even getting much more creative. Toys=fun :)

  • rikkicondon

    Rikki from Riksride said 6 years ago

    Inspires another collector avenue! Still nothing beats the big ash wood blocks and, Lincoln Logs..any mention of the Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf School and the basic toys for children that are so popular today? Over 1400 items connected to the Waldorf/Steiner philosophy are currently for sale on Etsy. Almost the same amount for Montessori... always a struggle to raise a child in today's violent society...the whole toy gun issue never goes away!

  • bosquecarpentry

    Gabriel Montes from bosquecarpentry said 6 years ago

    I was interested in toy making at on point, but my nephews found a way to break everything I let them test. Frankly, the liability scared me. So, now I just make things for big kids, like me.

  • HoneyThistle

    Wei from HoneyThistle said 6 years ago

    This sounds like such a cool exhibit. Would love to go back to NY & visit the MoMA since I missed out the first time.

  • PennyBirchWilliams

    Penny Birch-Williams from PennyBirchWilliams said 6 years ago

    Wish I could see this exhibit! I think it shows the slow but steady growth of understanding childhood and how influences from many sources affect children growing up. Toys, advertising, education, television, games, and so much more are specifically designed and aimed at kids, sometimes with a message that is not so benign. (That USSR poster is just plain freakish.) Mostly though I think (and hope) designers are looking to enhance the growth and expanding intellect of children. But I always encouraged lots of time with art supplies, physical activity, legos, blocks, puppets, books, and other things to stimulate creativity when homeschooling, and less time with tv, video games, and more passive activities. Worked for us!

  • PaperThyme

    Arlene and Emily from PaperThyme said 6 years ago

    Wonderful post!

  • PattiTrostle

    Patti Trostle from PattiTrostle said 6 years ago

    Great post! Thanks!

  • FancyFawnVintage12

    Ashley Lowe from FancyFawn said 6 years ago

    Very interesting read!

  • DressyDollsCompany

    Leila from DressyDollsCompany said 6 years ago

    Thank you!

  • isewcute

    June from isewcute said 6 years ago

    Fascinating article!

  • amusebeads

    amusebeads from amusebeads said 6 years ago

    It's nice that so much is available that caters to the various and unique needs and learning style of each individual child. I wish more parents and teachers would take advantage of the opportunity to teach a child in the best way possible for that child.

  • Zalavintage

    Zane Saracene from Zalavintage said 6 years ago

    We were just talking about this last week with photos from another exhibit, Ivy Style, (Preppy), how when I was a child I stood in the backseat of my moms lincoln convertible, wind blowing my hair, my arms wrapped around her neck to hold on as we sped 20 mph to the grocery store, it was freedom...now I've seen parents slapping the playground when their child falls down, bad sidewalk...bad sidewalk... while I was the parent who received the dirty looks when my daughter fell down and I laughed and told her to get up and go, what's the big deal? what are we giving up when we allow ourselves to be strapped in and teaching our children to conform to the ridiculous...

  • lorimittan

    Lori Mittan from MonCheriShop said 6 years ago

    Interesting article. As a young mother of a 13 month old girl, I'm constantly learning, relearning, and still trying to figure out what is best. I read a blogger article of a minimalist new mom stating that her baby daughter would never know commercial-based toys. My first thought was "yeah, I totally agree with that!" Then my thought turned to my daughter with her plush Elmo doll and how she carries it everywhere. She adores it. Instead of waking up crying in the morning in her crib, she wakes up and plays with it. It' teaching her how to entertain herself, which is great. It just goes to show there is no right way to raise a child. *The main focus on raising a child is love: for them to know that they are loved and how to love others.*

  • takingshape

    Aleta Ford Baker from AletaFordBakerDesign said 6 years ago

    what? no train sets and Barbies?

  • TheHandmadeClassroom

    Aly Parrott from alyparrott said 6 years ago

    Great, great post. Thank you for sharing this!

  • AveryBethDesigns

    Patricia Bryant from AveryBethDesigns said 6 years ago

    very well written. such a deep perspective. it is definitely the case that we still deal with the issue of how best to raise and treat our children. it would have been fascinating to see a collection of children's toys from throughout the decades.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    Great article, I loved visiting the museum of childhood in edinburgh when I was there. So fascinating to take a look back into childhoods past.

  • MinaMinette

    Jan Penn from MinaMinette said 6 years ago

    Aren't those colors amazing on the indoor play area??!! I could play there all day!

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 6 years ago

    ♥ Love this post. Thanks for sharing. Wish I could see the exhibit.

  • cmu55

    Connie from LittleTurtleHatShop said 6 years ago

    Love this post!! Interesting read.

  • peachtreedesigns3

    Laura from peachtreedesigns3 said 6 years ago

    I, too, wish I could go see this exhibit. What an interesting history.

  • andrewkonkle

    Andrew Konkle from Theteepeeguy said 6 years ago

    Wow, different times for sure. The USSR poster is a curious if creepy piece. Toys abound today on Etsy, take a look around.

  • guoying

    Ying Guo from YingArt said 6 years ago

    Wish I could find these toys for my kid, even though I didnt have them when I was little.

  • captainbuckrogers

    buck rogers said 6 years ago

    Its refreshing to see the study of our influences we pose onto children, as they are the future. A small peek of curiosity in a youngsters mind can go a long way. Great article!

  • suzanneartist

    Suzanne Urban from SmirkingGoddess said 6 years ago

    Great article, don't have kids but work in an educational institution.

  • epicstitching

    Mel Ladner from epicstitching said 6 years ago

    It's nice to read a statement on childrens toys and raising them that isn't about coddling our children or "protecting" them to death. Obviously we don't want children in warfare or carrying guns but I think many times these days people are imposing the idea of fear on their children. Fear everything and thus making us a more violent society as then we react with an instinct to survive instead of an instinct to help each other. it's a study that could likely go on forever and never have an answer everyone agrees upon. However I think it's important that we challenge our belief in raising children often so as to always be trying to better them (and ourselves).

  • papernickle

    Brandy from BrandyCupcakesStudio said 6 years ago

    Parenting is truly the most difficult job I have ever had. It is so easy for me, personally, to find myself completely overthinking every decision I make, from toys to food to books, spending more time debating the "best" path/life for my child than actually attempting to help her attain it. I continually remind myself that so many people I know(and so many before them throughout the ages) were raised in drastically different ways, and they all turned out ok. Not all, but certainly many or most. As long as I love my child as much as possible, and provide the best I am capable of providing for her(healthy food, books and toys that encourage her to think, act, move), she is probably going to be ok. Just like I am, despite not having been exposed to every expensive educational toy, best quality diet and child rearing philosophy under the sun. I just do the best I can, and hope that my child realizes that's what I am doing.

  • windycitynovelties

    Windy City Novelties said 6 years ago

    Love the old school desk!

  • recycledwares

    Nerrissa W from RecycledWares said 6 years ago

    i like toys that make a child think and be creative.

  • pogoshop

    pogoshop from pogoshop said 6 years ago

    Super interesting!

  • BlueSquiggle

    Monique Flannagan from BlueSquiggle said 6 years ago

    Fascinating article! I want to know more! Love all the little containers!

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