The Other Side of Play

The Other Side of Play: Fear and Frustration in the Design, Consumption and Use of Construction Sets

Published in the Journal of Design History, 33 (3), 2020, 193-208.


Play is typically considered to be a highly pleasurable and stress-free activity; nevertheless, there is a strong but neglected connection between toy design and the fear of a technological future. The production and promotion of technology-inspired toys for middle-class children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected both the great fascination of adults with new technology and their anxiety about its impact. Different types of technical toys were meant not only as playthings, but also as tools for coming to terms with a changing social and technological milieu. For children themselves, playing with construction sets could be a source not only of pleasure, but also of frustration. This essay discusses a range of negative emotions related to construction toys and offers insights into this hitherto under-researched aspect of play. We argue that toys of a technical nature offered a small-scale and safe environment for testing out practices and mentalities related to the tensions and contradictions of modernity.