Neil Postman, argues in his book “The Disappearance of Childhood” that the idea of childhood as a separate, innocent time for play and learning is very much a recent invention.
In hunter gatherer societies children have plenty of time to play and also to learn naturally from older children and adults going about their business.
But, as Postman convincingly argues, the Middles Ages (or the Dark Ages) was a very harsh time for children. Children were expected to work from a very early age, and work hard, and parents were free to do with them as they like. At age 7, they were considered to have reached the age of reason and were given the same sentence for any crime as adults (including hanging for theft).
It wasn’t until the 1600s that the modern conception of childhood started to come about. Parents and community groups and churches opened schools and eventually playgrounds. During the Victorian Era especially, Children’s Literature thrived along with the concept of childhood as an innocent time for play and learning, to be protected from adult concerns. School nevertheless was often harsh, but was a huge step up from factory work and mining and the many other forms of child labor.
H.G. Wells, very much in the spirit of the times, published, in 1911, “Floor Games“, a book extolling the delights of play. Wells describes in loving detail the creative play of his two sons as they used their imaginations to create towns, and towers, railways and islands, etc. This was exactly the sort of play he had enjoyed immensely growing up, and that he wanted to share with his two boys.
Later on, his book became the inspiration of Sandplay Therapy. The idea being that children, allowed to play, in a creative, non-structured fashion are able to work out their emotional traumas. Sandplay is a form of Play Therapy which has been extensively studied and found to be effective at improving the emotional life of children.
According to the Scientific American article on Play, “Research suggests that play is also critical for emotional health, possibly because it helps kids work through anxiety and stress.” …
“Afterward, the kids’ levels of distress were assessed again. The anxiety levels of the anxious kids who had played had dropped by more than twice as much as compared with the anxious kids who had listened to the story. (The kids who were not anxious to begin with stayed about the same.) Interestingly, those who played alone calmed down more than the ones who played with peers. The researchers speculate that through imaginative play, which is most easily initiated alone, children build fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations.”
For most of human history and prehistory, children spent most of their time playing. Then the Dark Ages arrived which was a grim time for children, who were forced to work long hours just to survive. From the time of the Enlightenment, child labor was gradually outlawed, allowing more time for playing and learning. Now, that TV (and other electronica) has replaced play, too many children are being treated as residents of a “Home for the Infirm”: little play, but lots of TV, lots of prescription drugs, and constant hovering supervision.