Designing the Creative ChildPlaythings and Places in Midcentury America

Designing the Creative ChildPlaythings and Places in Midcentury America

Amy F. Ogata

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780816679607

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press


This book explores how a perception of children as imaginative and “naturally” creative was constructed, disseminated, and consumed in the United States after World War II. I argue that educational toys, playgrounds, the smaller middle-class house, thousands of postwar schools, and children’s museums, were designed to cultivate an ideal of imagination in a growing cohort of Baby Boom children. Psychologists avidly studied creativity after 1950, and their research was embraced by the educational toy industry, invoked in parenting guides, taught in school arts classes, and erected in new school buildings and museums. Enthusiasm for encouraging creativity in children met and countered Cold War fears of failing competitiveness and the postwar critique of social conformity, becoming an emblem of national revitalization. I describe how a belief in children’s capacity for imagination and independent thinking was transformed from an elite concern of the interwar years to a fully consumable and aspirational ideal that has not yet abated. I emphasize the ways that material goods and spaces embodied this abstract social and educational discourse. However, I also argue that things and spaces were not passive receptacles, but material actors that actively transformed a popular understanding of creativity during a crucial period of educational reform, economic expansion, and Cold War anxiety. Historicizing, rather than essentializing, the idea of childhood creativity, reveals how this notion continues to haunt everyday things, the built environment, and American culture.