Victorian Child’s Play: Less is More

boys and girls must have time for free playRead this morning:

“My early memories run from 1870, when we moved into a big house in Canonbury, until 1879, when my happy childhood was abruptly ended. I hope to show that Victorian children did not have such a dull time as is usually supposed.

“It is true that we had few toys, few magazines, few outside entertainments, and few means of getting about.  But we got so much out of the few we had, by anticipation, by ‘saving up,’ by exhaustive observation of the shop windows, and by the utmost use of the things we did achieve, that the well-to-do child of today can never get the same kind of pleasure.  The modern ready-made well-stocked farm-yard, stable, or railway station, after a few days’ admiration, asks for nothing but destruction, for there is nothing else to do about it.

“For us, a large box of plain bricks (i.e. blocks) was the foundation of all our doings. It served for railway stations, docks, forts, towers, and very kind of house. Another box of bricks, thin and flat with dove-tailed edges, enabled us to build long walls around our cities. Some two dozen soldiers, red for English and blue for French, mostly wounded and disarmed, carried out grand manoevres on specimens of granite and quartz arranged on the mantelpiece, and and were easily mobilized anywhere. A packing-case did for a shop, where goods of all kinds were sold for marbles or shells or foreign stamps. The whole room was occasionally the sea, where a chair turned upside down was the Great Eastern, well and truly launched on the floor, for laying the Atlantic cable.  A fat Lempriere’s Dictionary did for a quay or a transport wagon or an enemy town.”

A few pages later she tells of an occasional two week holiday the family would take to the sea-side, always staying with the same lodging house, where the land-lady would bring down a four legged stool with red velvet padding for the little girl to play with, but not, the land-lady would plead, any of the ‘boys,’ her four older brothers.  So their mother would keep the stool in reserve until the brothers were out on adventures of their own which a little sister who could not yet swim could not partake in.   Molly says of the stool:

“I had such glory in it that it compensated for my being left at home. It became in turn a tablet, a bed, a funeral coach, a train, a station, a pirate vessel for stealing Mother’s brushes or cotton (Mother water colour painted), and oftenest of all it was Bucephalus, one which I careered about the room, conquering country after country.  The boys returned all too soon.”

She also writes of playing with discarded pieces of an old chess set, using scraps of fabric to make clothes for them as little dolls, although she hated sewing and she refused to play with regular dolls other than using them as an audience for classes she taught and sermons she preached when playing alone.

We have an old wicker stool, probably a foot tall and a foot long, and it has met with similar play over the years. Although not as elegant as red velvet, you can flip it upside down and it makes a lovely baby bed, manger, cage for stuffed animals, or a boat if you are a very small tot and you only perch lightly on the edge of the rungs with your feet inside, balancing precariously.

If children are not playing this way, happily for hours with only a few toys, or with objects which are not toys at all but imagination has put them to rich use, I would wonder if we were having too much screen time or too many toys- or both.

I’ve written before about how we learned that the children played much more happily and spent more time with the same play when they had fewer toys. We also had observed this principle at church- the less we brought, the better they behaved. They could happily spend 15 or 20 minutes just playing with Mama’s hands (which are, after all, the ultimate interactive toy), but if I brought a bag of goodies, they had emptied out 30 small toys and exhausted them of all interest in five.

I don’t think we are very different from our children.  The more we have, the less interested we are in any one of our possessions.  The less we have, the more productive and varied use, the greater the enjoyment and interest in one thing.

 

(From the delightful book, A Victorian Family, by Molly Hughes, also published as Mary Vivian Hughes. I have a hardback volume.  It was also published as 3 different volumes, A London Child of the 1870s, A London Girl of the 1880s, A London Home in the 1890s, and there is a fourth book not included in this volume,  A London Family Between the Wars, about her life as a widowed mother with three sons to educate.  You can get a slipcovered set of the first 3 as paperbacks quite inexpensively.

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