The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history.
Play Stuff Blog
One of the great challenges for play scholars or anyone thinking seriously about play is discerning when something is playful and when it is not. As circumstances change, boundaries shift, or meanings alter, the same action may be playful or not be playful, the same object may be a plaything or not a plaything. Play can be an elusive quarry, just when we think we have it pinned down it escapes our grasp, and when we may not even be looking for it, it might appear.
Consider the vacuum cleaner. Most of us associate it with the drudgery of housework, the burden of chores. It seems like just about the most unplayful thing imaginable! But switch the context and the vacuum might in fact become a toy.
This is most evident in the case of children’s play. Perhaps a boy or girl enjoys using it in order to pretend to be a grown-up. There are numerous examples in The Strong’s collections of toy vacuums that allow kids to pretend to clean the floor like mommy or daddy. But sometimes the real thing becomes the plaything. Children may want to try pushing around the vacuum to pretend they are big. After a few passes they’re usually done, and it only remains play as long as they want to do it—as soon as they’re commanded to vacuum, it magically transforms from play into a hated chore. Voluntary choice is at the root of almost all play.
But it’s not just kids who might play with vacuums; adults sometimes will as well. This is situational and rare, of course, but it does happen! It might be after a party when people cleaning up and still in a state of reverie from the night’s events find themselves in a playful pirouette with the vacuum cleaner(s) as they sweep up the crumbs left over from the fun. Or a person by him or herself might suddenly crank the music and begin using the vacuum cleaner as a dancing companion like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. Maybe while making passes on the floor, one finds oneself creating an interesting pattern on the carpet. A parent might tease a child with a vacuum cleaner (“It’s going to get you”) as he or she flees in pretend horror. Or maybe someone vacuuming might tease a cat or dog. The line between play and cruelty sometimes depends on the perspective—it’s not play for the animal but may be play for the human in the same way a cat “plays” with a mouse.
Manufacturers have learned that making the vacuum a sort of plaything might even help sales. The Roomba, after all, is not merely a cleaning device, it’s also an excuse to buy something fun. Vacuuming suddenly seems more enjoyable if it also involves programming a robot. It’s doubtful the job gets done any better or more quickly or more cheaply, but there’s something playful about watching the vacuum skitter across the room following some mysterious algorithm for maximum effectiveness.
So is the vacuum cleaner a toy? No, it is fundamentally a tool. But it’s a good reminder that play has the ability to transform any activity into something fun. That’s why we have a vacuum cleaner in our Field of Play exhibit here at The Strong. In the words of Mary Poppins, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”
Denise Chaudhari was the first woman hired for the then-secret Xbox project, where she designed more than just the original "Duke" controller that launched with the system in 2001.
While processing the Don Daglow papers for The Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, I had the privilege of sitting down with Daglow himself when he was in Rochester for an event here at The Strong. Though our time together was short, the stories he told me made a big impression. I think it’s important to document these details that provide so much context for the materials we have in our archive and I’m happy to share these fun anecdotes with you.
1989 was the year of the Basel Convention, officially named the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. An international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, it is meant to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. It does not address radioactive waste. As of 2020, the United States signed, but never ratified the treaty.
For most of human existence our ability to play together has been circumscribed by our physical connection with others in our immediate vicinity, a radiating circle of family, friends, and neighbors, spiced with an occasional get together with more distant associates. As I write this blog, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has mandated new social distancing rules greatly limiting our ability to gather with others. And yet the play must go on.