Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

A History of Play in Photos

A History of Play in Photos

a \'shȯrt-rēd'\ piece

I've been sifting through a lot of my own photos recently in preparation for indexing them and putting them 'in the cloud'. This is no mean feat as I have a lot because of being very, very old. The collection of these photos of children at play date from the early 1980s and go right up to the present day (almost exactly).

While browsing through them there are obvious differences through the decades and the quality of images gradually gets much better as camera technology improves so detail becomes clearer; but the main differences are the usual historical ones: clothes, hairstyles, featured toys, etc. You would think that such a relatively long-term collection like this would show significant changes in the detail of children's play too and in some respects it does, yet there are far more consistencies than differences.

One image, taken in the playground of a small rural primary school and dated 1986, shows two boys laying down on the playground over lunchtime playing a game of 'battleships' on a rudimentary electronic gaming machine. A big difference to the Hi-Tec electronic devices of today but a dated sign that something 'new' has arrived on the playscene. It is the earliest photograph I have showing such an electronic device being played with in this way and yet I don’t recall any popular or media panic over this at the time.

Despite that there are many more consistencies in the collection. For example, there are dozens of photos of children playing with hoops, ropes, stilts, beanbags and balls both in the 1980s, 90’s, the naughties, and more recently. Quite how they are being played with is very similar too. This is despite the feeling that some people may have that such playthings will have lost children's interest and been superseded by the electronic.

In a historical sense, there exist images of children playing with balls in paintings dating back centuries and stretching back even further on the design of ceramic pots and plates. Yet a ball, is a ball, is ball and if the nature of the thing has not significantly altered then the likelihood is that it will be used in the same way through time, as it appears it has.  

Possibly the most recurring images in the collection, though, are of children playing with yet another recurring plaything – natural materials, such as grasses, flowers, sticks and stones, etc. And the reason for that is likely to be the same as for the ball above.

For example, I'm looking at an image taken just this year in a New South Wales primary school of a child playing with a stone and in a way that is near-identical to a another photo I took in a UK school in the early 2000s, and yet a third from the mid-1980s showing much the same thing. Stones have not altered. Children have, yet the fundamental nature of what makes play ‘play’ has not. That is the most significant finding from these photos and other, much older collections.

Everything has a history and assumption is the great deceiver but the camera never lies.




QUESTION – How far back do your photos of children at play go? Do you have photos of you playing as a child? Can you see any differences/consistencies?


This expanded and revised version was first published on 17/12/2016