Century of the Child: Growing by Design—
A Century of Nostalgia at the MOMA


The Museum of Modern Art’s Latest exhibition, Century of the Child: Growing By Design 1900-2000 gives a look at the evolution of design and purpose of children’s play. With seven different sections, we come to see how this has changed throughout the 20th Century.

The exhibit starts with simple designs as children at play is almost a foreign concept in the U.S. In 1890, only one public playground existed in this country. Chicago, the second largest city at the time, led the movement to dedicate urban space to the health and leisure of children.

As the exhibition moves from room to room, we see a change in time period and design. In the early 1900’s, children were seen as living symbols of change. During and after World War I, an Avant-Garde playtime arrived, seeking to refresh creativity. This includes minimalistic toys and learning tools, such as school desks and chairs. The combination of the two show how they have intertwined over the past century – bringing play into schools and learning into play.

The exhibition isn’t all about play, however. During the Great Depression, “play” shifts into propaganda, with a focus on patriotic consumption. This includes war posters with children on them and books and toys used to develop the “appropriate political beliefs.” But a growing health obsession leads to a transformation in design shortly thereafter. Light, air, and health become the major focuses for children, which includes more outdoor play. Displays of a “Skippy Racer” – an early version of the scooter – and black and white photos of light therapy sessions exhibit this change.

After World War II, toys were seen as a way to further the economy. Some of the toys we still see today – the Slinky (1945), Etch-a-Sketch (1959), Barbie’s Dream House (1962), and the largest selling toy of all time, the Rubik’s Cube (1974), are on display in their earliest form. This mid-century time period brought the power of play, with manufacturers developing new toys at rapid speed. This time period also includes the “playground revolution,” with models of different playgrounds throughout the world on display.

Possibly one of the biggest shifts that the exhibit showcases is the power of children to influence their parents. Where it was once the manufacturers’ and toys’ ability to influence what the child was playing with, it is now the child’s ability to coerce her parents into buying what she wanst to play with. This speaks to everything from television shows and video games to work and sleep spaces in a child’s bedroom. The Pee-Wee Herman Show and the Sim City video game are shown as how advances in technology affect play, and leave you to question how this will influence the future.

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of play is those who do not take it for granted. A UNICEF display shows South African wire toys and “learning kits,” including books, crayons, rulers, etc., that are sent to Third World countries. Whereas the modern world is seeing an abundance of toys flooding their homes, there are still those for whom toys are a luxury.

The exhibit is well-spaced, though slightly scattered in its design. Videos from each era are shown on large screens throughout and there are enough visuals to keep both children and adults entertained. Children will especially like the Shadow Monsters screen at the exit, where imagination and modern advances come together.

The exhibit exudes an air of simplicity and innocence that we’ve all experienced. I, myself, was surprised by the sight of a Spirograph (1965) that brought back memories of playing at my grandparents’ kitchen table as a young child. Though it was the early 1990’s, I’m sure I was still playing with the same toy my father and his siblings played with decades before – a connection that may soon be lost to technology.

Century of the Child: Growing By Design 1900-2000 through November 5th. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, New York. ?Exhibition free with entry to museum. ?Adult: $25; Children: Free?. Museum is free on Friday’s from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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