Friday, March 9, 2018

Playing House Isn't Just For Girls?

       Nearly all children have at some time or other played house. At the age of four I was given an umbrella, which I set up on my bed. I found a shawl and some pins and draped the shawl over the umbrella so as to make a little house to sit in. I said to myself, "This is my house." The feeling associated with that statement can never be explained to a person who has not had it. I had the same feeling‚ very comfortable and deep‚ when, after being married, we moved into two small rooms in a boarding-house in New York; that was our house.
       My own experience as a boy is often brought to mind when on traveling through the woods I see the little shelters that boys build, a tree house, a cave, a wigwam of green stems or small trees. These habitations are often made by boys who have good homes, who are not in need of seeking shelter; these dwellings are made for no reason which the boys themselves can give. Frequently a part of the floor is dug up, and stores of chestnuts are collected underneath. In none of the playhouses I ever had could we stand up straight. There was a little raised platform in the middle on which we made a fire, and we sat in very uncomfortable positions. We were too hot in front and too cold in the back. The smoke filled our eyes. Meanwhile we were eating partly baked potatoes or half-burned chestnuts or doughnuts taken from mother's pantry; and we had feelings of comfort,of being at home, such as we never experienced in school or in our parents' dwellings. We recognize these feelings later in life when we come to establish our own homes, and have our own kitchens and tables and hearth-fires. These states of mind are not dependent on reason; they are made up of profound instinct feelings. The feelings which centered in one of these shanties were sufficiently strong to tie a group of boys together. We would fight with a neighboring group and steal their stores if we could. We were protecting our own home, our own people.
Children of the regency period play house in their nursery, 1795-1830.
       These feelings are common to most children, and are experienced by girls and boys alike, although the girl's shelter feelings seem to differ somewhat from those of boys. Many of my friends have furnished incidents from their own experiences.
       "In our nursery stood an old-fashioned three-quarter bed," says one, "with sides to keep the little ones from falling out. The four legs continued up into posts which supported a mosquito bar. This bed made a house with two stories, one under the bed, the other within the railed enclosure with a shawl to serve as a protecting roof. It is useless to try to describe our feeling of protection when enclosed in this comfortable dwelling. A chair served as steps to the upper story, and one child lived down-stairs while the others occupied the floor above. We made constant visitations up and down.
       A corner of the dining-room screened by high clothes-bars covered with shawls served as the first "house" for another friend. Still another records a large variety of houses. A great oak- tree formed one of these. Tents made of bed-sheets with an umbrella for centre-pole were used for evening and morning play. "We also made houses by sweeping up sand into little walls three inches high. Higher mounds of sand were used for seats, and a pile of bricks formed the stove. These houses were many-roomed, and it was forbidden to cross over the sand walls, except at certain spots where we had made doors. At times, however, we preferred smaller houses which we could occupy entirely alone, screened even from the sight of passers-by."
       Small indoor houses seem to belong especially to the experience of younger children, and the house plays increase in complexity as children grow older.
       Another friend used to make a tent out of the bedposts and sheets. A strong sheet was stretched from post to post and tied, and the sides of the "house" were draped with bedding, to keep out the enemy, in some cases imaginary, in other cases the smaller sisters. This form of house play continued for a long time, and had many variations and additions. At first the tent was used as a home, and the interior was separated into rooms by rows of pillows. Sometimes the space below the bed was a cellar or a cave filled with wild animals. Later the children made use of a heavy down comforter with which they built a cave. The party then divided into cave-dwellers and cliff-dwellers, sometimes visiting each other, sometimes waging war for the possession of each other's dwellings.
       The same friend who writes of these experiences moved at the age of eleven to a house surrounded by many acres of land. A large apple-tree, with low-hanging branches, was adapted to the needs of a playhouse. Boards were nailed from limb to limb, and the house was divided into many rooms. This much more complicated arrangement suited the demands of older children.
       Sometimes, in wanderings from the home-tree, the children played at being lost in the orchard, and as imaginary night came on, they found it necessary to hunt a suitable place for shelter from storm and wild animals. On the top of a hill, behind the house, was a group of pines, dark and cool, and "different' from the rest of the orchard. Under these pines they always made a temporary shelter, protected from the terrors of the dark by a packing-box and a fire. Foraging parties went out for food, cautiously entering the cellar and stealing potatoes from the bin. And out in that box, on a sweltering day, the children crouched before a hot fire, eating smoky, half-raw potatoes (they could never be prevailed upon to eat potatoes at the table), and were supremely happy. They had been lost, but had made a shelter for themselves. They felt protected and at home.
       Another friend's playhouse experience always took the form of a wigwam, usually inhabited with some companion. They built wigwams of clothes and quilts, and later of willow sticks tied together. These formed a defense which other boys tried to tear down. A great feeling of mystery was always connected with these structures. They had to be concealed. In a copse twenty-five or thirty feet above the traveled road the boys sat with a shawl and plaited the branches together to make the place more hidden. It was a great joy to make a horrible noise to terrify the countrymen going by, but the boys felt as terrified as those who passed.
       Even the crowded conditions under which city children live have not deprived them of this desire to find a place of their own, where they can feel at home, protected, sheltered. One of the common things for children to do in a city back yard is to get chunks of coal, or blocks of wood, or even a nail, and mark divisions in the earth. One sees these markings, also, on the asphalt pavement of the sidewalks. "This is my house. This is your house. And it feels different when they are in "my' house from what it does when they are in 'your' house. As far as I observed, the feelings of the house play are stronger with girls than with boys.
       Boys are especially interested in the construction of houses. A gang of boys in a district school in central New York built a house in a fence corner. All the boys of the neighborhood were invited to join in the enterprise, but as soon as the work actually began the group became a closed corporation. This is a most significant fact in its bearing on the connection of the shelter feeling to group life. No boy who had refused to assist was afterward allowed to come into the house. The walls were built of flat stones, piled as high as the top of the fence. Short rails served as rafters, and the whole was well covered with brush. One of the boys was chosen leader; his word thereafter became absolute law. That organization was the beginning of a "gang.''  The boys hurried from school in the afternoon and used every available minute for the completion of the house. Then cooking experiments were tried over a fire that never cooked anything, but burned and scorched and blackened, filling the house with smoke that refused to go up the hole prepared for it.
       The friend who tells of this stone house adds: "My feeling of intense personal ownership was never duplicated until about four years ago, when my wife and I purchased a house and established a home for the first time. Two years ago I happened to pass the spot where the old rail fence once stood. Not a trace of the playhouse remained, but upon gazing at the site the same thrill came over me that I used to feel as I squeezed through the narrow door and sat on those torturous seats, with a sharp stone or a jagged rail digging a hole in my back. I have never found an upholstered chair that could compare with those seats for comfort, and that could give in equal measure the sense of being at home.
       There is great need for encouraging this feeling for shelter and home through the plays of children. It may also be encouraged in other ways. My own children went back every summer to the locality where we had lived for sixteen years. They knew the people and the people knew us. The children knew where crabs were to be found, where clams abounded, and where they could fish for trout. They had associations with various places. There was the spot where one of them fell, there the place where we first raised the flag. That means continuity. During the winter they lived in Springfield, in New York, in Boston, and went to different schools. New ties were constantly made and constantly broken. This easy change makes for superficiality of character, unless it is balanced by some sort of continuity. One of the things which we must give our children is opportunity to develop their feelings for shelter and home by attachment to some locality, and by the various activities which come under the head of "playing house."
       This is true, also, with regard to the other play so frequently connected with playing house - the preparation and eating of food. One of the interesting things that small children do is to make mud pies. Sometimes mud pies have really been tasted, in an attempt to carry the play to an extreme conclusion. When the children grow older, they frequently progress to real cookery of a more or less primitive type, often carried on in connection with the plays of shelter. Boys are as much interested in their way in the mimic preparation of food as girls are. I have already mentioned the doughnuts and half-baked potatoes eaten in the shanty which I had with some other boys in the woods.  It was a great joy to make little loaves of bread and cake, and to have stores where we sold food. In connection with a house that my children built, they had a complete set of cooking utensils. There was nothing cooked on the real stove in the real house that was not also cooked while pretending on the little stove in the playhouse.
       A very real sense of increased power conies to the individual who is efficient in these activities of the home. There are feelings of complacency, enlarged personality, independence. There is a great difference between our feeling toward food that we have prepared ourselves or that some one at home has prepared for us, and our feeling toward hotel food.
       Two great factors have always held the family together: shelter and food. The kitchen has been the social center of the family during all time. Eating and the preparation of food have been connected with the development of social life. The kitchen with the copper pots on the wall was the place to which the neighbors would come, and the fact that we now set apart a separate room for the reception of visitors is socially an abnormal procedure. When people know each other well, they go out into the kitchen together.
       When people eat together they have expressed a definite social relation. They feel differently about each other. Frequently, if a man wants to ask a favor of another, he invites him to dinner; in that way he establishes a new relation. This set of feelings is one against which many intellectual people rebel. When the effort is made to get them together and it is suggested that they have something to eat, they say that you want to put something into their stomachs. This statement is not wholly true. "Putting something into one's stomach" does not express it. The symbol of breaking bread and eating salt together is a truer one. The common meal is the sign of fellowship. The cooking of food tends to bring people together. It is a basal element in the evolution of the social life. The meal is the time when men are free to meet. Hence the social activities grow up naturally at a meal, and the social traditions are associated with the partaking of salt and the breaking of bread. The state of the body after eating is favorable to social life. There is quiet and rest rather than hostility. A fundamental desire has been gratified. Hence the establishment of friendly relations is easy.
       The cooking of food has in the past contributed to racial advance and survival. Cooking means a great increase in the quantity of the available food-supply. It enables men to dry and preserve meats. It provides foods which could not be eaten uncooked. It aids the digestion of food. For all these reasons it tends toward greater vigor, and hence toward survival.
       Therefore, the playing with food seems to be another of the important preparations for life, because it gives the child an opportunity to express and so develop the instinctive feelings in connection with which so much of our racial growth has come about. by Doctor Luther H. Gulick, 1920, edited by K. Grimm

Building a playhouse for your kids.

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