A Presentation for the American Folklore Society & International Society Folk Narrative Research Conference sponsored by the Children’s Folklore Section and the Folklore & Education Section in Miami, Florida, October 2016.

Unfortunately I will not be able to deliver this paper in person, but share it here:


“A man with no family has no history and no eyes to see the future. He goes about blind. Our family, our relatives are not only those around us, they are also those who have gone before us. They are our history.” Tom Smith, Coast Miwok, 1898. Design by Meredith Eliassen, 2016.

What is childhood that we, as folklorists, need to study and chronicle its actual appearance? We understand it to be the time or condition of being a child. However, this understanding, our sensibility, our consciousness of childhood is in itself – ephemeral – as is childhood. The consciousness of childhood, is according to media ecologist Neil Postman, “a social artifact, not a biological category.”[1] A universal manifestation of this social artifact is curiosity – that ability of a young human to happily entertain himself or herself playing with an empty box or vessel once the novelty of the vessel’s contents has worn off, or to have the ability to create imaginary worlds with inanimate objects such as a twig, a stuffed animal, or an ordinary rag doll.[2] These inner workings of childhood as a human developmental stage and child culture with its quirky reflections of adult society are fodder for folklorists to chew and interpret. This presentation is informed by media ecology and considers how media has transformed the very nature of childhood over many generations at gateways to the future, as well as its implications today for children’s folklore and narratives that contain posterity’s unfinished stories.

If a folkway is defined as an actual way of thinking or behaving shared by members of a group as part of their common culture, then childhood is the folkway means for accessing common culture.[3] Children naturally explore, experiment, and create opportunities to test and expand boundaries within familial and societal contexts. Original play allows children to holistically experience events that involve a certain degree of risk and failure to provide opportunities to learn and develop knowledge and skills needed to survive as adults. For instance play jumping into and over puddles can test a child’s physical attributes as well as properties of the physical world. Likewise, childhood offers the potential to choose an actual vessel portal for imaginative play in order to explore its possibilities.

Historically events have occurred that interrupt, inform, and transform childhood. For instance, during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), population sex ratios were dramatically skewed causing men to overly romanticize children and childhood in their absence. Conversely, the legalization of same-sex marriage within our lifetimes has prescribed an institutionalized shift in adult constructions of family and childhood that may or may not resonate with all common folk. Folklorist, however, must also consider today’s child within a dominant adult-designs, consumer-driven context. Here, definitions of childhood differ: Postman, in the late-twentieth century, delineated the period of modern childhood to exist from the age of seven to seventeen years, coinciding approximately with school years.[4] Today it could be argued that childhood has increasingly extended into adulthood.

Likewise, technological innovations have historically interrupted, informed, and transformed childhood.[5] Media ecology examines how communication media affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value. A medium can encompasses complex message systems that impose certain ways and paths for thinking, feeling, and behaving. However, media ecology goes further; it asks how our interactions with media help or hinder our shared human chances for survival.

Marshall McLuhan asserted that three inventions were vectors for successive social transformation: the written phonetic alphabet carried humans from tribal to literate society; the printing press carried humans from literate to print society; and the telegraph carried humans from print to today’s increasingly electronic society by progressively arousing different brain patterns over generations that are distinctive to each particular form of dominant communication. For instance, we take for granted that humans could always perceive color as we perceive it today, but advances in communications and the manufacturing of material objects over centuries has altered our color perception.[6]

During the Tribal Age, the primordial medium for mass communication was speech: the ear was the dominant receptive sense organ, and therefore, hearing, touch, taste, and smell became more strongly developed in humans than sight. In the Bible, readers are introduced to the ancient tribal child named Samuel who exemplified this auditory sense that seemed to cross cultural boundaries (I Samuel 3: 1:11). Here, “consciousness,” can be defined, as awareness or perception of an inward spiritual or psychological fact, or, an inward awareness of an external object, state, or fact.

When we think of childhood, we think of a period where play is connected with social immersion; the common definition for play in this sense suggests taking on or pretending to be in an adult role. In the time of the Ancients, children played clapping games that incorporated the most fundamental human sensory toy – human hands –required no external equipment. Dolls and other inanimate objects, conversely, were introduced, and became more complex and paradoxical media external extensions of the child’s being, where subtle issues of parent-child control came into being.

We cannot underestimate the significance of new media on young children. Historically, Native Americans on the West Coast used baskets as if they are extensions of the human body; infants got immersed in water-holding baskets as they got immersed in culture. Native American basket engineers were media ethno botanists who manufactured amplified baskets from spiritualized raw natural materials. Here we sense the concept of ecology as the study of environment and how its structure and content impact human beings: when the United States government attempted to eradicate the tribes in southern Oregon, they destroyed functional Native American baskets as a war tactic.[7]

During the Literary Age (or visual era), the eyes became the dominant sense organ. Media ecologist Walter J. Ong, in distinguishing orality by examining thought and its verbal expressions within illiterate populations, illuminated a monumental shift from a world of sound to a world of vision that emerged with the printed word. According to Ong, scribing was not just an appendage to speech, it moved speech from an oral world into a new sensory world – that of vision –subsequently transforming speech and thought. Ong concluded, “Notches on sticks and other aides-memoire lead up to writing, but they do not restructure the human life-world as true writing does.”[8] Yet, even though the ancient media of speech and song were radically reconfigured with the introduction of the new media of reading and writing, they were never supplanted.[9]

The translation of sounds into letters and new visible symbolic objects radically altered the human consciousness: words could be read repeatedly and when individuals became literate, they could build upon recorded knowledge and advance thinking. When Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) began to mass-produce pocket-sized texts featuring italic type in 1502, this technology allowed humans to easily transport and share ideas. Media ecologists concur that with the print age, a consciousness of childhood as a distinct period of human development first emerged with a moral chiaroscuro of print media where the semantics of childhood was delineated by adult societal constructs of parenthood.[10] This change was monumental enough to be reflected architecturally with the development of the study as a distinct space where heads of noble households could seek privacy and isolation from dependents that included women, children, and servants in order to read adult material.

As the Industrial Revolution later unfolded, common folk fathers left the immediate household in order to find work and families relocated to urban areas where there was less child-care support from extended families.[11] At this time folklore (simple and unpretentious conversations of common people) was relegated and domesticated into literature for women and children’s literature. Girls were consequently allowed to become literate enough to take on the role of motherhood and were expected to guide and discipline children on a daily basis. Women’s literature in the mid-nineteenth century increasingly prescribed child-rearing advice to women utilizing contemporary media that separated women from folkways.

The Electronic Age, heralded by Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph that led to the telephone, the cell phone, television, internet, and so on, brought about an era of instant communication and an eventual return to an environment with simultaneous sounds and touch.[12] Having the ability to be in constant contact with the world has created what McLuhan termed, a “global village.”[13] The invention of the telegraph coincided with the work of German educator, Frederick Froebel (1782-1852), who revolutionized early education when he demonstrated that young children were capable of rapid skill acquisition when they were allowed to use play media that exploited their affinity towards active play.

Play, for Froebel was the highest expression of human development in childhood that allowed for the free expression of the child’s soul.[14] Although Froebel focused on specific games and activities using balls and shapes, he felt that all toys should be suited to the particular intellectual demands of children at specific ages; the sophistication of the toy or doll was designed to match that of the child.[15]

In 1896 pioneering American psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924) and Caswell Ellis (1871-1948) published a survey focused on how children played and interacted psychologically with dolls. The Ellis and Hall found that doll passion was strongest for children between the seven and ten years of age, reaching its climax between eight and nine. Ellis and Hall asserted: “Whispered confidences with the doll are often more intimate and sacred than with any human being. The doll is taught those things learned best or in which the child has most interest.”[16] During doll play, girls make and control the rules for play, and in turn the dolls provided girls with freedom for self-expression.

In Conclusion

In the twenty-first century we may well ask, are childhood and the child’s landscape, as we have known them at risk? Postman asserted in the late-twentieth century that, “… children themselves, are a force in preserving childhood.”[17] However, interactive media for child’s play and entertainment media devices (like dolls or balls) have become an extension of the child’s arm and hand. When mass-produced toys create total-entertainment-experiences, society can loose ecosystems where holistic inner-imaginary landscapes flourish. Although folklorists will adapt to this technologist for studying First World childhood, we may need to head for the Cloud[s] to find our fodder for studying. Media ecology surfaces roles that media compel us to play. Media ecology will continue to spotlight how emerging media structures the semantics of what we see and how media informs how we feel and act as we approach the gateway to the future with our eyes, ears, and hands wide open.


Sources used:

Barius, Annie Howes. 1895. “The History of a Child’s Passion.” The Woman’s Anthropological Society Bulletin, online: https://archive.org/details/101161943.nlm.nih.gov

Deutscher, Guy. 2010. Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in other Languages. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company.

Ellis, A. Caswell, and G. Stanley Hall. “A Study of Dolls.” Pedagogical Seminary. Vol. 1:2 (December 1896): 129-175.

Froebel, Friedrich, translated by Josephine Jarvis. 1896. Pedagogies of the Kindergarten, or, His Ideas Concerning Play and Playthings of the Child. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Gopnik, Alison. 2016. The Gardner and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hanscom, Angela J. 2016. Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. Oakland, CA.: New Harbinger Publications.

Johnson, Samuel. 1785. A Dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. To which are prefixed, a history of the language, and an English grammar. In two volumes. London: J. F. and C. Rivington.

McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. 1967. The medium is the massage. New York: Bantam Books.

Ong, Walter J. 2002. Orality and literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. London: Psychology Press.

Postman, Neil. 1982. Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

Thornton, Dora. 1997. The Scholar in his study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy. New Haven: Yale University Press.


[1] The common definition of childhood is “the time and condition of being a child.” This paper is informed by a conversation of childhood among three media ecologists: Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), Rev. Walther J. Ong (1912-2003), and Neil Postman (1931-2003). Neil Postman, Neil, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), xi.

[2] Child culture has to some extent always been an adult societal construct since children are dependent upon adults as this stage. This paper asserts a difference between virtual and imaginary in connection to childhood: virtual means existing in effect or for practical reasons though not in real fact or form and imaginary refers to mental pictures or imagery derived from an ability of the human mind to conceive ideas or to form images of something not actually present; the power of mental conception.

[3] The concept of “conversation,” as the action of living or dwelling, associating or having dealings with others, or conduct and behavior, has evolved.

[4] Postman, 1982, 85.

[5] A medium or technology can shape the form and semantics of a culture’s politics, social organization, and common ways of thinking, and the interaction between human beings and media gives meaning and symbolic balance to that culture.

[6] Guy Deutcher asserts, “a nation’s language, so we are often told, reflects its culture, psyche, and modes of thought,” in his Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in other Languages (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2010), 1. Scholars have come to believe that color perception is evolving and that perhaps, the world saw in black and white until a human consciousness reached for the perception of additional colors over many generations as pigments began to be manufactured; that our ancestors could see first black and white, followed by red, yellow, green and then blue. Ibid., 58-63.

[7] In southern Oregon, during the Rogue River Indian War (1855-1856), vigilantes and army troops attacked Tututni villages employing a military tactic to undermine tribal stability by destroying all baskets and their contents that were use in every aspect of life, because without baskets, the tribes were unable to survive. Stephen Dow Beckham, Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 27.

[8] Walter J. Ong, Orality and literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Psychology Press, 2002), 85.

[9] Alison Gopnik, The Gardner and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 221.

[10] Pietro Aretino (1492 -1556) was an Italian author, playwright, poet, satirist and blackmailer who wielded immense influence on contemporary art and politics and invented modern pornographic literature. The ideal of childhood emerged out of the Renaissance (Postman, 1994, xi). During the Renaissance, childhood coincided with the emergence of the scholar’s study as a distinct architectural component of the household as an office or writing room where the adult head of household (usually a man) could retreat/retire from the rest of the household for private reflection and solitude. Dora Thornton the space known as “the study” as not only a distinct architectural innovation, but as a medium with its own instruments and a “virtuous space of unique moral and aesthetic worth in her book, The Scholar in his Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 176.

[11] Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, or, The Little Female Academy was published in 1749. This is the first novel written for adolescent girls, and Fielding modeled it after John Locke’s work and it contained fable and fairy tales that taught moral lessons. In the midst of the European Industrial Revolution, lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) defined childhood to be, “1. The state of children; or, the time in which we are children: it includes infancy, but is continued to puberty; 2. The time of life between infancy and puberty; 3. The properties of a child.” Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. To which are prefixed, a history of the language, and an English grammar. In two volumes (London: J. F. and C. Rivington, 1785), 1: CHI.

[12] Childhood, according to Postman, emerged in the United States in about 1832, Postman, 1982, xi.

[13] Marshall McLuhan “The youth of today are not permitted to approach the traditional heritage of mankind through the door of technological awareness. This only possible door for them is slammed in their faces by a rear-view-mirror society.” From McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. 1967. The Medium is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), 100. Eric McLuhan (1996). “The source of the term ‘global village'”. McLuhan Studies (issue 2). Retrieved 2016-9-3.

[14] “For we see the whole inner spiritual life of the child manifest the threefold phenomenon, spontaneous activity, habit, and imitation, as a triune phenomenon.” Froebel is translated by Josephine Jarvis. 1896. Pedagogies of the Kindergarten, or, His Ideas Concerning Play and Playthings of the Child (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 28.

[15] Froebel’s pedagogy for young children was based upon the sensibility that child is a spiritual being. “These aims are, to keep itself such as it feels and finds itself – a being which is independent and yet supported by the whole; to strengthen, exercise, and develop its limbs and senses, and to make them free, thus within itself and by its own efforts to attain more and more independence and personality, and to reveal to itself in its personality; finally to obtain knowledge of the independence and personality – that is of independent existence – of that which surrounds it, and to convince itself of that existence.“ Froebel, 1896, 28-29. Occupational therapist Angela J. Hanscom has observed in her practice that children (including toddlers) are requiring occupational therapy services to deal with challenges of balance, motor skills, and other attention and emotional challenges; she asserts that with unrestricted play, “Children will naturally create their own rules and set their own boundaries,” and “Kids determine when to stop on their own – when they feel done.” Hanscom, Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. Oakland, CA.: New Harbinger Publications, 2016), 71-22.

[16] A. Caswell Ellis and G. Stanley Hall conducted a survey of based upon informal examination of children from many different ages that was circulated as a questionnaire among eight hundred teachers and parents. The survey focused on the types of dolls that children preferred, how they played and interacted psychologically with dolls, and doll/child rituals such as naming, feeding, discipline, sleep, hygiene, sickness and death and the doll’s social life. The results were published in “A Study of Dolls.” Pedagogical Seminary. Vol. 1:2 (December 1896): 129-175. They continue this theme: “The little mother’s real ideas of morality are best seen in her punishments and rewards of her doll. Her favorite foods are those of her doll. The features of funerals, weddings, schools, and parties, which are re-enacted with the doll, are those, which have most deeply impressed the child. The child’s moods, ideals of life, dress, etc., come to utterance in free and spontaneous doll play (Ellis and Hall, 1896, 162-3)”. Froebel asserts: “The outermost point and innermost ground of all phenomena of the earliest life and activity of the child is this: the child must bring into exercise the dim anticipation of conscious life in itself as well as of life around it; the consequently must exercise power, test and thus compare power, exercise independence, and test and thus compare the degree of independence (Froebel, 1896, 31)”.

[17] Postman, 1994, viii. “Many of our institutions suppress all the natural direct experience of youth, who respond with untaught delight to the poetry and the beauty of the new technological environment, the environment of popular culture McLuhan, 1967, 100.” However, since that time fundamental changes in children’s play spaces have occurred. Children have less unrestricted play in the 21st century, and playground equipment have become less physically challenging and has been move indoors, according to Hanscom, 2016, 133-151. Hanscom observes, “…by constantly rushing children, restricting their movement, and diminishing their time to play, we are causing them more harm than good (Ibid., 60).”