Curiouser and Curiouser

Over 150 years since Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the storyline and characters are still a global phenomenon. As the Victoria and Albert museum demonstrates in their exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, the fantasy world of Wonderland continues to inspire artists, writers and members of the public. The immersive display takes visitors on a journey to discover the evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from its humble beginnings in the 19th century to its worldwide celebrity.

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), an Oxford don, logician, writer, poet, Anglican clergyman, and photographer. Although Carroll is most famous for his literary works, he did not deliberately set out to become an author. Carroll’s career path changed one afternoon in July 1862, when he took a boat trip and picnic with the daughters of Henry Liddell (1811-98), the Dean of Christ Church College. Affectionately remembered as a “golden afternoon”, Carroll kept the three girls, Alice, Edith, and Lorina, entertained during the boat trip by making up fantasy stories about a girl called Alice and her adventures underground. The “real Alice” begged Carroll to write the story down, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born.

The “real Alice”, Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934), was only five years old when she met Charles Dodgson for the first time. Dodgson often asked Alice and her sisters to sit for photographs, so that he could experiment with his new camera. The Victorian era was a period of change, particularly in technology, science, art and politics, all of which inspired the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Of course, the character Alice was based on Alice Liddell, a girl with a stubborn, curious nature who bullied Dodgson into writing the story down. He presented Alice with a handwritten manuscript called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground as a Christmas present in 1864.

Before giving the manuscript to Alice, Dodgson researched the natural history of animals to make some of his characters, for instance, a dodo, as accurate as possible. Of course, some creatures in the story are entirely fictional. Dodgson also sought the opinion of his friend and mentor George MacDonald (1824-1905), a minister and author who loved the story and suggested Dodgson publish it. By the time Alice received her copy, Dodgson was already preparing the manuscript for publication and extending it from the original 15,500-words to 27,500 words.

Not wanting to publish under his real name, Dodgson decided to create a pseudonym. Inspired by the Latin version of his real name, Carolus Ludovic, he chose two other English names that derived from the same words: Lewis Carroll. Dodgson also wished to change the book title and toyed with Alice’s Hour in Elf-land and other options before settling on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Finally, Dodgson/Lewis was ready for Alexander Macmillan (1818-96), a co-founder of Macmillan Publishers, to print his work. For the illustrations, he approached John Tenniel (1820-1914), who worked tirelessly alongside The Brothers Dalziel, a wood-engraving business in London. By November 1865, the book was published.

Both children and adults enjoyed the “delicious nonsense”, which inspired Carroll to work on a second book. The production time took much longer because Tenniel had other jobs but managed to work on the illustrations from 1869 onwards. Carroll named the sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, which was eventually published on 6th December 1871. It rekindled the nation’s love of Alice and the odd characters, as well as introducing new and bizarre creatures.

Most people are familiar with the story of Alice who follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole. She finds herself in a hall with a tiny door, which she is far too large to fit through. She then discovers a bottle of liquid labelled “DRINK ME”, which she obligingly does, which causes her to shrink in size. Unfortunately, she can no longer reach the key to the small door, which rests on a table far above her head. Yet, she quickly discovers a cake labelled “EAT ME”, and grows to the size of the room. After flooding the room with her tears, Alice picks up a fan and shrinks back down.

Now Alice can fit through the door, where she meets several peculiar characters, including the Dodo, who starts a Caucus-Race, which consists of everyone running in a circle with no clear winner. Whilst Alice is based on Alice Liddell, Carroll based the Dodo on himself. Carroll spoke with a stutter and often introduced himself as “Dodo-Dodgson”. Carroll also referenced Alice’s sisters, Lorina and Edith, by mentioning birds called Lory and Eaglet.

Next, Alice meets the Duchess, who Tenniel based on Quentin Matsys’s (1466-1530) The Ugly Duchess (c. 1513). The painting is said to be a portrait of Margaret, Countess of Tyrol (1318-69), who had the reputation of the ugliest woman who ever existed. Since Matsys painted the portrait 150 years after her death, there is no proof that she looked as grotesque as the caricature. Nonetheless, Tenniel felt inspired by the painting and made the Duchess look equally ugly.

The Cheshire Cat, who belongs to the Duchess, has a distinguishing feature – his grin – and the ability to gradually disappear until only his mouth remains. The phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” predates the Alice books, and according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Second, Corrected and Enlarged Edition compiled by Francis Grose (1731-91), means “one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing.” Carroll may have based the character on Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-82), the Patristic Catenary (expert on the fathers of the Church) and professor of Hebrew at Oxford University.

There are other characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel who may be based on real people. Whether Carroll intended this is uncertain, but Tenniel’s drawing of the Lion and the Unicorn looks remarkably like his Punch illustrations of Prime Ministers William Gladstone (1809-98) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88). Whilst the appearance of the Lion and the Unicorn may be Tenniel’s input, Carroll’s reference to a conga eel that taught “Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils” certainly alludes to the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who instructed the Liddell children in drawing, sketching, and painting in oils.

One of the most memorable scenes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Mad Tea-Party, where Alice discovers the Hatter having tea with the March Hare and the Dormouse. Carroll instructed Tenniel to base his illustration on Theophilus Carter (1824-1904), an eccentric British furniture dealer. Carter used to wear a top hat and stand in the doorway of his shop, watching the world pass by. While at the party, the sleepy Dormouse tells Alice a story about three sisters called Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie. This is yet another reference to Alice and her sisters. Lacie is an anagram of Alice; Elsie sounds like “L.C., Lorina Charlotte’s initials; and Tillie is short for Matilda, Edith Liddell’s nickname.

Carroll loosely based the Queen of Hearts on Queen Victoria (1819-1901) because he thought children would recognise her authority. He may also have taken inspiration from the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) because the Queen is angry that the gardeners have planted white roses instead of red.

Not all characters have real-life human counterparts. Through the Looking-Glass has many referenced to nursery rhymes, such as Humpty Dumpty, and features pieces from the game of chess. Dodgson even took inspiration from buildings in Oxford; for example, the “Rabbit Hole” symbolises the stairs at the back of the main hall in Christ Church.

By the end of the Victorian era, the Alice stories and characters extended beyond the books. Products and merchandise containing Tenniel’s illustrations were much sought after, and the stories found new life on stage as part of dance performances and pantomimes. Before his death, the English novelist Walter Besant (1836-1901) said Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “was a book of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete.” Besant’s statement proved correct, and Alice continues to be a positive role model.

In 1903, Lewis Carroll’s famous book was adapted for film for the first time. With the title Alice in Wonderland, the silent film squeezed as many scenes into a ten-minute slot. At the time, this was the longest film made in Britain. Directors Percy Stow (1876-1919) and Cecil Hepworth (1874-1952) used all the available technology to create live versions of Tenniel’s famous drawings. Twelve years later, American director W. W. Young produced a 50-minute version of the film, albeit still silent.

The first “talkie” version of Alice in Wonderland appeared on screens in 1931, starring Ruth Gilbert (1912-93) as Alice. The following year, the “real Alice”, now married to English cricketer Reginald Hargreaves (1852-1926), visited America to take part in the centenary celebrations of Lewis Carroll’s birth. Although Alice had kept herself out of the public eye for most of her life, her presence in America inspired “Alice Fever”, and the books, merchandise, and films soared in popularity.

The following year, Paramount Pictures produced their version of Alice in Wonderland, which combined the storyline from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Previously, Lewis Carroll forbade stage productions to combine the two books, but since his death, producers disregarded his wishes. The film featured Charlotte Henry (1914-80) as Alice, Cary Grant (1904-86) as the Mock Turtle, and W.C. Fields (1880-1946) as Humpty Dumpty.

Without a doubt, the most iconic Alice in Wonderland film to date is Walt Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. Mary Blair (1911-78) developed the concept for the illustrations, modernising Tenniel’s drawings with bold and unreal colours. Today, Alice is recognisable from her long, bright blond hair, blue dress and “Alice band”, a hair accessory named after the character. The lively script and music earned the film a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, but it lost to An American in Paris.

In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures reproduced Alice in Wonderland as a live-action film directed by Tim Burton (born 1958). It is a much darker, fantasy version of the story, which serves as an unofficial sequel to the original. Alice is now 19 and thought her adventures in Wonderland were all a dream. She soon learns they were not when she falls down a rabbit hole for the second time in her life. The creatures of Wonderland need Alice’s help to defeat the Red Queen, not to be confused with the Queen of Hearts and slay the Jabberwocky, a dragon-like beast written about in Through the Looking Glass.

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland starred many leading actors, such as Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Alan Rickman (Caterpillar), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat) and Barbara Windsor (Dormouse). At its release, critics were torn between loving the computer-generated imagery (CGI) and hating that it “sacrifices the book’s minimal narrative coherence—and much of its heart.” Many fans of the original Alice complained the film ruined Lewis Carroll’s work. Having said that, Alice in Wonderland (2010) won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

The Alice in Wonderland franchise was initially aimed at children, but in the 1960s, the stories began to appeal to artists, particularly those affiliated with the Surrealist movement. Surrealism, as a cultural movement, developed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Artists within the group aimed to change people’s perceptions of the world and explored the desires of the unconscious mind. The founder of the movement, André Breton (1896-1966), claimed: “everyone has the power to accompany an ever more beautiful Alice to Wonderland.” Encouraged by this, several Surrealist artists used Lewis Carroll’s dreamlike characters and storylines as inspiration for their creations.

One Surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí (1904-89), provided illustrations for a limited edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1969. These illustrations are a stark contrast to Tenniel’s original images. Each full-page artwork needs studying carefully to understand and appreciate the scene. Many contained typical Surrealist motifs, such as a melting clock, as seen in The Mad Tea-Party illustration. Alice appears as a stick-figure-like girl wearing a full-length skirt, playing with a skipping rope. On each page, Alice differs in size but is usually tiny in comparison to other elements in the artwork.

The Alice stories and themes also inspired the Psychedelic movement in the mid-1960s. In the United Kingdom, artists combined Wonderland with politics and social issues, and in the US, the stories inspired hallucinogenic artwork and multi-sensory experiences involving sound, images and movement.

Joseph McHugh (b.1939), the founder of the poster design company East Totem West, created kaleidoscopic prints based on characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One features the White Rabbit standing on a chequered floor surrounded by objects from the story. Yet, all these elements are difficult to see due to the psychedelic pattern of blues, reds, greens and browns. Through his work, McHugh aimed to appeal to the hippie and freethinker generation of the 1960s.

Whilst Wonderland lent itself to the more abstract forms of art, it also appealed to more traditional artists, such as the Ruralists. Ruralism aimed to revive and update former painting styles, such as those by English landscape artists and the Pre-Raphaelites. The movement wanted to focus on typically English themes, including cricket and classic novels by English authors. They particularly admired the works of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and music by Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

Pop Artist Peter Blake (b.1932) and his contemporaries formed the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975 after becoming disillusioned with London and their former art styles. Their aims were “to paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic. We still believe in painting with oil paint on canvas, putting the picture in the frame and hopefully, that someone will like it, buy it and hang it on their wall to enjoy it.”

After forming the Ruralists, Blake’s work frequently included literary subjects, such as works by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Lewis Carroll. During the 1970s, Blake produced a series of illustrations called Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Rather than replicate the Victorian-style illustrations by Tenniel, Blake painted Alice as a modern (seventies) girl. In one picture, titled ‘Well, this is grand!’ said Alice, Queen Alice stares out at the audience while a typically English country garden unfolds behind her.

During the 1950s and 60s, commercial artists used Alice, Wonderland and other characters to advertise brands and products. The release of the Disney film increased the popularity of Alice in Wonderland and companies fought to partner with the franchise. Sweet manufacturer Barratt’s used the Disney illustrations to advertise their Christmas crackers, and Ford Motor Company used coloured versions of Tenniel’s drawings to promote their new Falcon Wagons. The Irish brewery Guinness also partnered with the Alice franchise – one of the most peculiar pairings. The company hired artists to produce illustrations that loosely resembled Tenniel’s illustrations, combined with some Lewis Carroll-esque text. One poster reads: “He thought he saw a Dome that held Discoveries galore; He looked again and saw it was A Guinness by Thames Shore. ‘We know it’s Good for You,’ he said, ‘Need man discover more?'”

Although Tenniel and Disney created the two most popular visual versions of Alice and the other characters in Wonderland, every artist and designer has different visions and competes to develop new interpretations. This is particularly the case in theatrical and dance performances. The costumes and scenery need to stick close enough to Carroll’s original descriptions for the audience to recognise the familiar story, but they cannot be copies of previous designs. As technology has developed, the stage settings and special effects have become very ambitious, but there continues to be the issue of making fantastical costumes practical for the stage.

The V&A exhibition showcases several costumes worn on stage in various performances. Since Disney’s interpretation of the story, Alice is frequently depicted in blue, which many costume designers continue to replicate. To stand out from other stage shows, some designers look at Tenniel’s original illustrations, such as those in the young children’s book The Nursery Alice (1890), in which the main character wears a yellow dress. This is the colour the designers used for the costume in Alice, an opera performed in Hamburg in 1992.

Off the stage, fashion designers have used Alice in Wonderland as their inspiration for new clothing lines and one-off pieces on the catwalk. Designers include Christian Dior (1905-57), Vivienne Westwood (b.1944), Viktor&Rolf, Thom Browne (b.1965) and various Japanese-punk fashion houses.

Visiting the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the V&A is almost like falling down a rabbit hole. From beginning to end, the installations look as wonderfully creative and psychedelic as Wonderland. Each section represents a different part of the Alice stories as well as various interpretations over the past century and a half. The further into the exhibition one travels, the “curiouser” it becomes until you start believing the Cheshire Cat that “We’re all mad here.”

The exhibition has more value for adults, who will appreciate the wealth of information and the opportunity to remember the stories and characters from childhood. Of course, it will also appeal to children, who will enjoy searching for the White Rabbit, watching film clips, and playing with fun-house mirrors and other interactive displays. The lights, sounds and twisting paths throughout the exhibition make visitors feel bewildered as Alice when she first entered Wonderland. You will likely exit the museum feeling entirely bonkers. “But I’ll tell you a secret: All the best people are.”

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is on now until Friday 31st December 2021. Tickets for the week ahead are released every Tuesday at 12.00. Adult tickets cost £20 but children under 12 can visit for free.


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Play Well

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Stockport, 1966 – Shirley Baker

Extended by popular demand until 13th April 2020, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Play Well explores the lives of children, societies, historic toys, games and contemporary designs to try to work out why humans, both young and old, play. More broadly, the exhibition asks what does “play” mean and why is it important? With the help of a group of 5 – 11-year-olds from Argyle Primary School in Camden, Play Well examines the significance of play in childhood and its importance in education, social development, emotional resilience and physical wellbeing.

Research over the years has revealed that play is essential for learning about the world as well as having fun. There is also evidence the urge to play is not exclusive to humans. Animals, both domesticated and in the wild, have been observed playing. Polar bears have been caught on camera sliding down snowy hills on their stomachs and a monkey was filmed looking after a rock as though it was a baby or a doll. The concept of play is not something that is learnt, it is an instinct, however, it does require the right environment to be beneficial.

Philosophers, psychologists and educators have researched the value of play in education and, although there are many differing opinions, many think encouraging children to explore the world through their actions can be as good as or even better than formal teaching methods. One man who believed this was the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852). He described play as the “highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul”.

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Friedrich Fröbel

Fröbel began his career in education in 1805 at a secondary school in Frankfurt where he learnt about the radical ideas of the educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Pestalozzi’s motto was “Learning by head, hand and heart” and he believed that every aspect of a child’s life, including play, contributed to their education. Inspired by these ideas, Fröbel went on to found a Play and Activity Institute in 1837, for which he later coined the word kindergarten.

Kindergarten, a German phrase meaning “garden of children”, reflected Fröbel’s belief that children should be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden”. Women, who were trained by Fröbel, opened kindergartens across Europe and the concept eventually reached the USA in 1856, although was conducted in German until 1870.

“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.”
Fröbel, Sonntagsblatt (c.1840)

For use in his kindergarten, Fröbel developed educational play materials, known as Fröbel Gifts (Fröbelgaben). These were used alongside other aspects of his child-centred approach to education, including singing, dancing and gardening. The Gifts were physical items children could play with that had educational benefits. Fröbel initially developed six gifts but they were eventually extended to twenty. Each focused on a different age group.

Gift one, intended for babies, involved soft balls of yarn in red, yellow, blue, purple, green and yellow. By holding, dropping, squeezing, rolling and hiding the balls, children developed an awareness of spatial relationships, movement and colour. Gift two, for one to two-year-olds, consisted of a wooden cube and sphere. Fröbel recorded children’s delight in discovering the sphere could roll but the cube would remain where it was placed. Gift three (2-3 years) also involved wooden cubes. This time, children could use eight small cubes to piece together a large cube or create another shape. Gift four (2-3 years) involved rectangular shapes that could also create a cube when placed together. Gift five (3-4 years) included a mix of cubes and rectangles and Gift six (4-5 years) introduced triangular prisms.

Further Gifts included tiles (Gift 7), rings (Gift 9), drawing slates (Gift 10), paper cutting (Gift 13), paper weaving (Gift 14) and paper folding (Gift 18). These gifts have influenced the many educational techniques that are still in use today, for instance, building blocks and alphabet blocks. Yet, it is not only education that these Gifts affected; they have been a source of inspiration to architects and artists.

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Seaside Resort in the South of France – Paul Klee, 1927

Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) were exposed to Fröbel Gifts as children and the geometry of the building blocks stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Wright was given a set of Fröbel blocks when he was about nine years old. “For several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and, among other things, played upon these ‘unit-lines’ with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod)—these were smooth maple-wood blocks. All are in my fingers to this day.”

Fuller recalled that it was Gift 19 that had the greatest effect on him. “The teacher brought us some toothpicks and semi-dried peas, and told us to make structures… I tried to make something that would work… I found the triangle held its shape when nothing else did.” Fuller went on to popularise the geodesic dome, a structure made up of triangular shapes.

The Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) also grew up with Fröbel’s philosophy. He adopted geometric shapes and patterns into his work and went on to work at the Bauhaus, a revolutionary school of art, architecture and design. Many teachers at the school were familiar with Fröbel and used his ideas in their teaching.

Although Fröbel’s kindergarten still exists today, other methods of teaching have been developed. The 20th century has been named “the century of the child” due to the amount of research and focus on childhood, education and play. In 1914, sisters Rachel (1859-1917) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) set up a nursery school for children of poorer families, which focused on both education, play and health. Children from impoverished families who were too young to go to school, often spent the day playing in dirty gutters, picking up all sorts of illnesses. Not only did the McMillan’s nursery provide a safe place for the children to play, but it provided a healthy environment too. “Once inside the child comes under the influence of the great healers, earth, sun, air, sleep and joy… the buildings should face south or south east, and in order to have this, the line of the rooms or shelters must be straight, the walls at either end shaped in butterfly form to catch all the sunshine possible.” (Margaret McMillan, 1919) Unfortunately, Rachel died three years after the opening of the nursery, so Margaret renamed it the Rachel McMillan Nursery School in her sister’s memory.

A similar type of establishment was set up in northern Italy during the aftermath of the Second World War. Named after the village in which it was founded, the Reggio Emilia Approach allowed pre-school children to learn through play, which in turn helped them come to terms with the war they were born into. The Reggio Emilia Approach has since spread to other countries, however, their principles remain the same:

  • Children must have some say over what they learn; additionally, the senses play a big role in the learning process.
  • Children must be able to touch, move, listen, see and hear in order to fully process something.
  • Children are encouraged to interact with other children and explore the world through material items and relationships.
  • Children should be encouraged to always express themselves and be given infinite means and opportunities to do so.

By the early 20th century, a connection had been drawn between children’s emotional health and play. Children had been left orphaned or traumatised by the First World War and had no way of processing their feelings. British pioneer of child psychology, Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973), began to study child behaviour, eventually setting up the Children’s Clinic for the Treatment and Study of Nervous and Difficult Children in Notting Hill, London in 1928, later the Institute for Child Psychology (ICP). By studying how children play, Lowenfeld developed the Lowenfeld World Technique, a type of therapy that allowed children to express themselves through play rather than words.

For her research, Lowenfeld conducted individual sessions with children during which she would record how they played. An example displayed in the Play Well exhibition was a world a troubled child created with farmyard figurines. The child was prone to outbursts and violence when he first met Lowenfeld, however, processing his thoughts by creating imaginary scenes helped him work through his feelings and gradually become more sociable.

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Squiggle drawings

Lowenfeld was not the only psychiatrist to notice the connection between play and emotional wellbeing. Donald Woods Winnicott (1896-1971) trained as a child psychoanalyst during the 1920s and served as consultant paediatrician to the children’s evacuation programme during the Second World War. During this time he observed that mothers had the greatest impact on their child’s development. Anti-social behaviour developed when a child had not experienced the “mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding…”

Winnicott also observed that play was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. He noted that play did not necessarily need to involve the use of toys or objects but could be similar to the ways adults “play” by making art, participating in sports, telling jokes, having hobbies and so forth. From this observation, Winnicott developed the “squiggle game”.

The squiggle game was a “game with no rules” which involved both Winnicott and the child’s participation. First, Winnicott drew a shape on a piece of paper, then the child would add to the “squiggle” to turn it into a drawing. Winnicott would also allow the child to make the first squiggle, which he would then finish off. After this, doctor and patient would talk about the drawings, creating stories that would often reveal insights into the child’s life.

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Play Lab

Due to the research by Winnicott, Lowenfeld, Fröbel and other psychoanalysts, play was declared a basic human need in 1989 by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nations have since been obliged to provide spaces for children to play and many schools, nurseries and kindergartens use play-based learning. To make sure children of low-income countries, often those affected by war, could access safe areas to play, the Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) committee established Play Labs, designed to ensure that vulnerable children aged 2–6 years were provided with a safe place for healing through play.

Now partnered with Lego, BRAC Play Labs have been established in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda. Over 7000 children have been given the opportunity to play and to learn, including those in refugee camps. Whilst these labs are only for younger children, research suggests the experience they have will impact on their whole development.

After looking at the psychology of play, the Wellcome Collection went on to explore what play looked like in wider society. The simplest form of play is imaginative role-play, which allows children to assume different identities. This can be acted out by a child on his or her own, or within a group, often in the school playground. Other playground games involve chanting or singing, using lyrics that date back several decades. Familiar songs include Oranges and Lemons and A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea.

Throughout time, children have played with inanimate objects, for instance, sticks. As shown in the picture book Not A Stick by Antoinette Portis, a stick can easily become a horse, a sword or a dragon when given a little imagination.

Of course, for the past few centuries, companies have been producing items specifically for play, such as teddy bears, dolls and toy cars. Over time, however, these have become associated with particular brands and stereotypes. Lego, for instance, which probably stems from Fröbel’s gifts, was initially suitable for both boys and girls. In more recent years, however, Lego attempted to make sets specifically for boys or specifically for girls.

Lego is not the only franchise that is guilty of this. Toys like Barbie and Action Men are targetted at specific genders. In 1993, activist Igor Vamos tried to emphasise how ridiculous or even dangerous teaching children to believe these stereotypes could be by founding the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO). Allegedly BLO infiltrated Toys R Us and switched the voice boxes of 300 Barbies and GI Joe dolls, making GI Joe say things like “My desk is a mess,” and Barbie, “Vengeance is mine.”

Specific franchises have even taken away the need to be imaginative. Toys based on films, for example, encourage children to act out scenes they have seen on the screen rather than create their own. With companies competing with each other for sales, these types of toys are eradicating the more traditional dolls and toys of by-gone years.

Researchers have begun to suggest toys, such as Barbie dolls, can lower a child’s self-esteem. A Barbie doll is not a realistic representation of a human, nor is a heavily muscled Action Man. Since these dolls have become iconic, it is not easy to change their appearance. Instead, campaigners are now focusing on the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the toy market.

In 2015, journalist Rebecca Atkinson founded #ToyLikeMe, a creative collective that called on global toy industries to start positively representing disabilities. Since then, franchises have begun producing toys that would resonate with over 150 million disabled children. Barbie and Playmobil are just two of the companies involved. Today, children can play with Barbies with prosthetic limbs, figures in wheelchairs, a diabetic Incredible Hulk toy, a monkey with hearing aids and dolls that are blind, bald or suffering from conditions such as vitiligo.

Children’s behaviour and ways in which they play remains a topic amongst researchers today. Despite the increase in gender-specific and franchise-specific toys, psychoanalysts still believe children need the opportunity to challenge themselves physically, emotionally and mentally through play. London based artist Eva Rothschild (b.1971) set up an experiment that allowed eleven boys between the ages of 6 and 11 to explore an art exhibition in which normal gallery rules were forgotten.

Rothschild installed replicas of her contemporary sculptures at Chisenhale Gallery, East London and instructed the boys to enter the room and look with their eyes for a long as possible, after which they could touch the exhibits. A video of the experiment is shown as part of the Play Well exhibition. Initially, the boys were cautious, refraining from touching anything for many minutes. After some time had passed, some of the boys got restless and began egging each other on to be the first person to touch something; as soon as one person had, they all began to touch. Once again, they were fairly gentle but as soon as one sculpture collapsed, the boys became more violent and, soon, nothing was left standing.

Unfortunately, there are a limited amount of opportunities for children to act as freely as the boys in Rothschild’s video. Societal rules, health and safety concerns and fears have hindered children’s freedom to play.

“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.”
– Marjory Allen

In postwar Britain, it was not uncommon to find children playing on the streets. Many children, left unsupervised by busy parents, found themselves exploring bombsites, turning them into unconventional playgrounds. Photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) documented the street culture in working-class areas of Greater Manchester between the 1960s and 80s, revealing that children were still playing outside on the pavements, unconcerned about the dangers of strangers or vehicles.

Adults, however, were becoming increasingly aware of the risks children faced on the street but did not want to prohibit the freedom to play. As the cities and towns became more urbanised, children were limited as to where they could play, so a playground movement was organised to create specific areas for children. This mission is still important today and is the reason the majority of public parks have an adventure playground containing swings, slides and climbing frames.

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The Frog Pond at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, Mark Neville, 2016

Unfortunately, today’s playgrounds are under threat due to limited funding. There is very little money for maintenance and repairs, and many parks are being sold off to building contractors. Contemporary photographer and activist Mark Neville travelled around London parks, taking photos for his book Child’s Play. Although the book was published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Foundling Museum, it is entirely relevant to the Play Well exhibition. The book and photographs focus attention on how conditions for children can be improved and the real and imagined barriers to play in cities.

Neville’s book warns of a “shrinking childhood” and its connection to the rise of mental health problems in younger generations. Not many children are given the freedom to go outside alone, unlike their parents who may have grown up playing on the streets. Grandparents may have been walking over a mile to school without a parent from a very young age and great-grandparents were allowed to wander even further.

Do the risks of playing outside outweigh the risks of a child’s mental health? Children who have not had the freedom to explore are more likely to fear the outside world and become anxious when leaving the safety of their home and parents. Whilst it is not safe to play on pavements due to the increase in road traffic, Neville and other activists are advocating for a national strategy for play and an increase in funding for adventure playgrounds.

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In the 21st century, physical play is rapidly being replaced by digital play. Unable to play outside when they desire, children are finding ways to have fun and socialise online or through video games. Ironically, the people who restricted children’s freedom of physical play are concerned about the effects of digital play. In 2018, gaming addiction was listed as a disease by the World Health Organisation, however, this has not stopped families, schools and children from adopting digital technology.

To end the exhibition, a set of digital screens allow visitors to play games designed by 14-19-year-olds. RawMinds, a project that takes place twice a year at the Wellcome Collection, invited a group of teenagers – “digital natives” – to create games based on their experiences. They were encouraged to consider both the positive and negative aspects of gaming, resulting in games that help to forge friendships, tackle anxieties about the world and limit addiction. One game required two players to work together rather than against each other; neither player could complete the game without the assistance of the other. Another game explored the concept of visiting a shopping centre as a socially anxious child. Children suffering from anxiety would recognise themselves in the game’s characters and other children would learn to understand the minds of their peers.

Open to all ages, Play Well is an eye-opening exhibition that draws attention to the importance of play. The psychology of play is something that is not often addressed or even thought about and it is interesting to discover the theories about childhood development. Having learnt about Fröbel, the McMillan sisters, Lowenfeld and Winnicott’s theories, it is worrying how little opportunity children have to learn through play today. Yet, it is reassuring to discover the effectiveness of a few wooden blocks and the opportunity to express emotion.

Play Well is a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and will remain open until 13th April 2020. The galleries are open every day except Mondays.


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