When Play Was Play: Why Pick-up Games Matter.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Chudacoff, Howard P.
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: When Play Was Play: Why Pick-Up Games Matter (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Bishop, Ronald
Accession Number: 254405161
Full Text: When Play Was Play: Why Pick-up Games Matter. By Ronald Bishop (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. ix plus 203 pp. $19.95).

One day a half century ago, in an era in which TV sets were fat and full of tubes, Isabel Alvarez was playing with her sister when they made a wondrous discovery. "See, those old televisions used to have the cardboard [backs] with holes in them," Isabel recalled. "So we took the cardboard off and put our dolls in there and played that it was the city of Manhattan." (1) This charming story represents what Ronald Bishop would label "unstructured play," and it well might have provoked a parental admonishment common when children create their own amusement: "Don't play with that! That's not a toy."

When Play Was Play is about restoring unstructured play and encouraging parents, as the last chapter's title reads, to "leave those kids alone" so that imagination such as that exhibited by Isabel Alvarez and her sister can better flourish. The book's context is a modern take on "what's the matter with kids today?" Bishop's answer is that they don't know how to play. He contends that a cultural melange of fear of what lurks on city streets (real and unjustified), an emphasis (obsession?) with educational enrichment in and out of school, and two-parent employment has caused parents to herd their kids into structured activities that keep them safe and supervised but removed the fun of self-structured play. More over, what little free time children have for their own play now is consumed in front of a screen, either a computer or television.

Bishop, an associate professor in the Department of Culture and Communications at Drexel University, bolsters his analysis with in stories about how people used to play. He collected 150 of them in a somewhat unsystematic fashion and supplemented them with a dozen or so focused interviews. From these, he constructs a "metastory" about pick-up games and the meanings people attributed to them. Trying hard not to romanticize his own youth pick-up games (hockey) and those of others, Bishop contrasts the informal amusements and improvised toys that most of his story-tellers describe with the ways in which toys and play activities of today are created and imposed by external sources rather than from children themselves. He employs frame analysis from newspaper articles and news broadcasts to illustrate the irony that though parents and other adults may say that they favor unstructured play, they really mean unstructured play that is organized by the older generation.

As antidote, Bishop argues for the restoration of "jamming," what Eric Eisenberg, another communications professor, has defined as "personally involving, minimally disclosive exchanges between individuals." In more ordinary language, jamming seems to mean simple play in which participants experience fun rather than some productive function and do so by engaging with others without doing so at an intense level of personal involvement. Bishop contrasts this kind of autonomous, unstructured activity with today's youth sports, which have become so professionalized, so adult dominated that they remove the opportunity for kids to develop real passion for what they are doing. Moreover, he believes, removing the control of games from youngsters does not allow them to cultivate the toleration and fair play that they are capable of developing if left alone. These skills are only in part why unstructured play - pick-up games - matter, just as important, Bishop argues, following the sensible contention of Brian Sutton-Smith, is the fact that play makes kids - and adults too - happy. It need not always be, probably should not be, productive; it should be fun.

Bishop successfully manages to finesse the romanticism of his own and others' reminiscences, but his analysis does have a few drawbacks. For example, only briefly does he refer to the negative qualities of children's unstructured play. Kids, especially when left alone, can be cruel to each other, even (or especially) in their games. He notes that "the strong often prevail" (p. 146), but there is not much mention of exclusion, bullying, or physical injury that can result from unstructured or unsupervised play. Also, when discussing games, he invariably uses sports as examples, overlooking the ways that kids create their own amusements by doing such things as neglecting rules of a board game and either making up their own rules or using the pieces (e.g. Monopoly money) for purposes not intended by the manufacturer. Finally, the focus is on group activity when in fact much of the most common unstructured play has been and is done alone. Nevertheless, the book is engaging and thought provoking; it situates play where it ought to be: in the realm of joy and freedom.


(1.) Alvarez quoted in Amanda Dargan and Steven Zeitlin, City Play (New Brunswick, NJ, 1990), p. 121.

Howard P. Chudacoff

Brown University
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.