Unruly Studios: The History of Play

Unruly
October 24, 2018

The incomparable Mr. Rogers once said: “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”

At Unruly Studios, we think that Mr. Rogers was absolutely right about this crucial link between play and learning in kids. This is why our mission at Unruly focuses on empowering children to learn critical STEM skills through active, social play.

Throughout human history, active play has been recognized as integral to learning in kids.  This was true even in some of the world’s earliest known societies. In a 2012 report entitled “The Importance Of Play”, Dr. David Whitebread of the University of Cambridge outlined the history of play as it relates to children’s learning.  The report notes that children’s play, including active play, is a universal constant in all cultures across the world and through history, manifesting differently in each depending on available technology.

children playing

Going back to the very beginning of human history, the archeological evidence shows children playing with various forms of material made of stones, sticks and bones from the Palaeolithic Era. The classical societies of ancient Greece and Rome also valued children’s play. Dr. Whitebread’s report points to Plato’s advocacy of free-play, gymnastics and other activities as “means for developing skills for adult life” and notes that Aristotle also emphasized the importance of play and physical activities in the development of the child.

In more recent history, active play has also been a strong part of our national tradition here in America.  The game of tag, for example, was popular with children in Colonial America as it is today, as were jump rope, leap frog, and hide and seek.  Two other popular active games played by children in Colonial times, making use of the wooden and metal hoops that were widely available to them, were hoops and graces. Hoops involved children racing metal or wooden hoops along the ground with sticks or their bare hands.  In the game of graces, players threw small hoops to each other, catching them on a pair wands.  The game of graces was traditionally played by girls in Colonial America and the game was said to teach the young girls who played it how to move more gracefully.

In the nineteenth century and the Civil War era, another popular active game among American children played was an outdoor game called “Annie Over.”  As described here, Annie Over bore some similarities to the modern game “Red Rover”:

A game of Annie Over needed two teams, a ball, and some kind of barrier, like a log or a table, or possibly low wall. Teams stood on either side of the barrier. The team with the ball was "it." They yelled "Annie!" and throw the ball to a member of the opposing team. If the child didn't catch the ball, then that team was "it." If he or she catches the ball, the teams have to change sides fast. While the teams are running to change sides, the one who caught the ball tries to hit an opponent with the ball. If he or she succeeds, the child who was hit changes teams. The goal is to eliminate the other team.

Moving into the twentieth century, the turn of the twentieth century saw a change in where children played with the unprecedented construction of parks and playgrounds throughout the United States.  The introduction of now-classic toys such as the Lionel Train (1901), Crayola Crayons (1903), and Lincoln Logs (1916) also afforded children new outlets for creative and imaginative play.  Open-ended games, such as hide-and-seek, tag and Simon Says were also popular, free and could be played anywhere by anyone.  Other popular active games such as capture the flag and the playground game four square, although their origins are unclear and subject to debate, clearly emerged as popular among American children in the mid twentieth century.  

STEM learning for kids


Looking back, Dr. Whitebread was correct in observing that the way play, including active play, manifests in a culture or society has historically been limited by the technology available.  Although active play has unquestionably evolved, what is all the more striking is how little has changed through time.  Tag remains tag, hide and seek, Simon Says and variations on Annie Over have changed little in their essential elements.  New technologies, specifically, newly available rubbers and other materials for balls and other implements have allowed some innovation to occur in the last century, but active play has remained otherwise remarkably static over time.

In today’s world however, technology no longer needs to be a limiting factor, but can instead be a springboard from which active play can launch to higher levels of fun, creativity and educational value.  At Unruly Studios, we are focused on leveraging technology to deliver unique products that stimulate active, creative play – that encourage kids to break new ground, invent new games, create new rules of their own.  Let’s get creative, let’s get messy, let’s get unruly, lets break out of the same old box and create something new, exciting and fun.


Unruly Studios is dedicated to creating children’s toys that promote active education and STEM learning. Unruly Splats are programmable floor tiles that pair with a tablet preloaded with tons of recess-style play games. Kids first play the preloaded games then they change the code, ultimately learning how to code on their own through active, recess-style play.

Learn more about Unruly Splats: https://www.unrulysplats.com/
Follow us on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/unruly_studios/
Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/playunrulystudios/