Brian Sutton-Smith—He Helped us Find Our Way on the Playground

Brian Sutton Smith, 1970sI first heard of Brian Sutton-Smith when I was an undergraduate at Bowling Green University in Ohio. Though he had by then moved on to Columbia Teacher’s College, the campus still reverberated with stories of the inspired teaching and impish good humor of this prolific young scholar, a dashing New Zealand import fully in tune with the sense of liberation and rebellion growing in America in the late 1960s.

Solving the Mystery of the Angel of the Asphalt

A friend sent me this striking image a collector had reproduced as a postcard in 1993, and titled “Angel of the Asphalt: A Miracle on Maplewood Drive.” The attribution on the back guessed its original date at 1954. Irony had accumulated over those four decades between the original and the reproduction. The collector, in a…

Toys for the Busy Executive

Do you keep a toy on your desk? Perhaps one of those widgets like a Newton’s Cradle with its clacking, momentum-conserving chrome spheres; the mysterious Magic 8 Ball with its looming messages; that perpetual motion drinking-bird thingamabob; or maybe the insoluble Rubik’s Cube? A recent conversation with Julie Lasky, the New York Times feature writer,…

The Vacation: Typically American?

We think of “the vacation” as a typically American invention. The trip to the beach in summer, the fall color tour, the week at the ski resort in winter, and the excursion to the theme park during Spring break mark American calendars and give an exuberant rhythm to the year.

A Drone of My Own: Toys and Technology

This Christmas an online commerce company (you know which I’m talking about) failed to cancel an order in my wish-list and so delivered to our front door a foot-long, remote-controlled, battery-powered, blimp-shaped, gyro-stabilized toy drone. At the museum, I’m up to my ears in thinking and writing about play and toys, but playing is another…

Please Christmas Don’t Be Late!

I count the chance to watch A Christmas Story, a film based on the recollections of the radio raconteur and writer Jean Shepherd, as one of the distinct joys of the season.

Tracking Irony Across Lionel Trains History

The historian’s craft always requires probing the past for significance. Making sense of bygone events obliges investigators to guard against irrelevance and superstition. We historians aren’t numerologists or astrologers, and so we sort out ironies and coincidences from meaningful events.

What Are You Going to Be? (For Halloween….)

This season of make-believe and dressing up is a good time to think about pretending—one of the cornerstones of play. For kids, make-believe is partly aspirational. If you’re little and you dress as a crime fighter or superhero you take in the fantasy, feeling power surge in your imagination. You have nothing to fear, even…

Can the Dictionary be a Toy?

While on vacation and passing through a park recently, a Scrabble game in progress at a picnic table caught my eye and then my ear.

Wrestling in Lincoln’s White House

Abraham Lincoln, burdened as only a commander in chief could be in the midst of terrible civil war, beset by feuding or reluctant generals, harried by restive dis-unionists in border states, beleaguered by constituents petitioning for pardons or pleading for favors, under continual threat of assassination, and struggling with bouts of melancholy, found respite in…