An example to us all: Child development and identity construction in early 20th-century playgrounds

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At the turn of the 20th century, children's play came under new and heightened scrutiny by urban reformers. As conditions in US cities threatened traditional notions of order, reformers sought new ways to direct urban-social development. In this paper I explore playground reform as an institutional response that aimed to produce and promote ideal gender identities in children. Supervised summer playgrounds were established across the United States as a means of drawing children off the street and into a corrective environment. Drawing from literature published by the Playground Association of America and a case study of playground management in Cambridge, MA, I explore playground training as a means of constructing gender identities in and through public space. Playground reformers asserted, drawing from child development theory, that the child's body was a conduit through which `inner' identity surfaced. The child's body became a site through which gender identities could be both monitored and produced, compelling reformers to locate playgrounds in
public, visible settings. Reformers' conviction that exposing girls to public vision threatened their development motivated a series of spatial restrictions. Whereas boys were unambiguously displayed to public audiences, girls' playgrounds were organised to accommodate this fear. Playground reformers' shrewd spatial tactics exemplify the ways in which institutional authorities conceive of and deploy space toward the construction of identity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)599-616
Number of pages18
JournalEnvironment and Planning A
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2000


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