We are familiar with the adage, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. But how do we define “play” and why is it so necessary? The author, who is Professor of American History at Brown University, has written a fascinating study of this elusive subject, from the year 1600 to the present day. The age group discussed is between 6 and 12, after early childhood and before adolescence, and the main focus, inevitably, is on the 20th century “when the most important and contrasting developments in the history of children’s play occurred.”

Chudacoff quotes with approval the words of that hero and rascal, Tom Sawyer: “Play consists of what a body is not obliged to do.” This means the free and spontaneous (unstructured) games that children have always invented and delighted in, when away from adult surveillance. According to Ilona and Peter Opie, historians of children’s games, the activities that flourished were those that adults either did not understand or disapproved. As the author shows, adult anxiety about how children should spend their leisure hours has a long pedigree. He also dismantles the myth of “a carefree childhood” that writers of a certain age love to reminisce about. But then he is studying a whole society rather than the world of Christopher Robin, so has to take account of the many grave factors that have impinged on childhood: poverty, parental death, disease, bondage and cruel adults.

Having written this list I realise that they are all neatly encapsulated in the writings of Charles Dickens – particularly David Copperfield. Yet Chudacoff, like Dickens, notes the extraordinary capacity of children to rise above their drab circumstances and create an imaginative world parallel, yet impervious to the real one, utilising the spaces available to them, whether woods and fields or streets and parks. Drawing on many sources, such as children’s diaries and autobiographies, the author notes that pre-adolescent boys and girls have seldom played jointly together when there was a choice of companions of their own sex, and that dolls, sleds and bows and arrows have long been items of childhood. “Toys” as deliberate artefacts for the young are of recent vintage.

In the period from 1600 to 1800, it is not surprising to learn that children spent much of their time with adults and undertook important duties early in life. Bible reading was an important feature of their lives and it was assumed that adults “had a basic responsibility to guide a child’s natural progress and to thwart bad habits”. In the colonial period Indian boys led more independent lives, imitating in their play the skills they would require as future hunters, and slave children had the hardest lives – but they also found loving surrogate “uncles” and “aunts” among the African-American community. More privileged white children had rocking horses, dolls’ houses, kites, stilts, hoops, marbles and bricks, but there was no toy industry as such and children still improvised the props they needed for their games. Recorded memories include much outdoor “roaming” – a word quite foreign to today’s children and their more fearful parents; it gave children license to wander around their locality in groups or individually, for the sheer pleasure of the freedom it gave them, with no sense of being unsafe.

Between 1800 and 1850 workplaces and households were gradually becoming distinct places. The middle classes began to have houses with cellars and attics, with separate bedrooms for children. Yards, empty lots and pastures were still the loci where children of all classes protected their own play culture. By 1850, when almost half the white population of America was under 19, it was becoming more accepted that childhood should be a time of play rather than a rehearsal for adulthood. Between 1850 and 1900 formal schooling began to be the norm. A new cohort of educationists had begun to analyse the requirements of childhood and recognise a child’s instinct for freedom; by the 1880s designated “playgrounds” had appeared in cities and toys had begun to be mass-produced. Even though playrooms were now filled with games, toys and books, Chudacoff notes that “children did what they have always done: adopted play styles that incorporated spaces, things and playmates in their own way.”

Commenting on the decades between 1900 and1950, author Robert Paul Smith remarked, “I think we were right about the grown-ups being the natural enemy of kids because we knew that what they wanted us to do was to be like them.” Play was encouraged but not “idling”; gymnasiums and youth clubs were organised for working class-children; there were parks, movie houses, penny arcades and candy stores and mass-produced toys such as Monopoly and model trains; in the 1930s came the invention of the chanting jump-rope games for the urban poor, particularly African-Americans. The “sheltered child” syndrome was still in its infancy; we are not surprised to learn that “most children preferred unsupervised byways, yards and vacant lots in which to play.” Child psychologists were paying increased attention to children’s games and Walt Disney had begun to dominate the cultural world of the young. For Chudacoff this era was a “golden age” for children.

His final time division, from 1950 to the present day, will be very recognisable to readers. The advent and influence of television was, predictably, enormous. Indeed, the author subdivides children’s play into two eras: before television and after. Toys marketed on TV revolutionised the toy industry; marketers rather than parents decided what toys children wanted – such as the Barbie doll. Unlike earlier dolls, Barbie reflected glamorous consumerism; her shape, clothes, style and general air of nubile precocity introduced a new and not altogether innocent element into play. As Chudacoff details, social trends were also casting a shadow over the erstwhile golden age: more married women were going out to work; there was also more divorce, single parenthood, so-called latchkey children and smaller families – all this in sharp contrast to previous generations.

And so we come to modern children – and what the author describes as the “endangered childhood”. He believes that children’s play “has eroded over time” with perilous consequences. Parents are more anxious than in the past about safeguarding children from perceived dangers, in the road, in playgrounds and from strangers. So they ensure they stay within call or in the house, playing with electronic games, watching TV and using the internet, not always wisely and not often supervised. “By the 1970s, a nation that was child-centred and steeped in prosperity began spending millions of dollars on expensive electronic games.” The improvised toys and the “roaming” and “roving” that characterised earlier generations had become a thing of the past.

The pressure from middle class parents to have successful and talented offspring has also cut into free time with after-school classes such as music, drama, karate and tennis, so that children have ever less time to mess about and “do nothing”. “Helicopter mothers”, forever hovering over their children’s activities and guilty about going out to work, no longer feel able to say to their children, “Don’t bother me. Go and play outside.” Over-structured and sedentary play has resulted in an explosion of unfit, even obese children, their imaginations formed by electronic, screen-based and virtual reality and unused to learning about their environment, its excitements and its dangers, by inhabiting it in a vital way. Whatever happened to the world of Tom Sawyer and the Famous Five?

The author has produced an absorbing piece of social history of the last 400 years. The most recent decades make uncomfortable reading. This unease is reflected in the frequent articles and letters to newspapers by members of the establishment, calling for a return to the freedom and innocence of childhood. By “freedom” is meant that freedom from constant supervision and restraint that children need in order to develop, just as much as they need healthy food; by “innocence” is meant a childhood not exploited and manipulated by political and market forces. We need again to give children space and time to play outside, to let them roam about and utilise their own play things. Otherwise Jack will indeed be a dull, overweight, listless and depressed boy.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.