How the playpen fell out of favor.

Snapshots of life at home.
Aug. 7 2009 11:20 AM

What Ever Happened to the Playpen?

How the kiddie enclosures fell out of favor.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

I can't honestly say I remember physically being in a playpen as a child—though I was—but I remember them as a fact of 1970s child life, a rubber-and-mesh piece of living room furniture as ubiquitous as mahogany-cabinet-enclosed Magnavox televisions (with family photos crowded out by a giant Betamax on top). But as the clock ticked toward my recent entry into fatherhood and I trawled various hip and modern baby-product sites, mentally equipping our nursery-to-be, I noticed that among all the titanium-framed Norwegian strollers and German educational toys (or was it vice-versa?), I didn't seem to see any playpens —whether rendered in sustainably sourced wenge wood or not. The word didn't really seem to surface very much among all the proper parenting discourse on the chat sites either. Which left me wondering: Do parents still use playpens? Or are they some relic of me-decade indulgence forsaken in an era of more enlightened child-rearing?

Now, a simple visit to a site like Babies 'R' Us will confirm that, yes, playpens do still exist. But they seem to have been rebranded, for these devices are no longer called playpens. Instead, searching for the term on Babies 'R' Us will yield a range of "Pack n' Plays" (a trademark of the kid-product manufacturer Graco, and which purists insist is less a playpen in the traditional sense than a traveling crib), and various takes on the "playard" (a word that seems vaguely French but is actually a contraction of "Play Yard"). Rather tellingly, a Google search for playpen seems to yield as many entries for contraptions to corral  pets as children.

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I do not know exactly when the word began to fall from favor, nor the precise circumstances of its emergence. The Oxford English Dictionary cites as its earliest usage a Washington Post article from 1902: "In the play-room are to be found the latest chairs, which aid in teaching children to walk, play pens, where the younger ones are confined."

The word, on the face of it, is rather contradictory, combining play—a word with inherent jouissance—with a suffix that suggests confinement. Given that even pens for livestock have fallen under scrutiny—battery cages for chickens, for example, are critiqued because in them, hens "endure high levels of stress and frustration"—it's not surprising to find parental discomfort with a product that seems so, well, penitential. Of course, the word yard itself has prison overtones, and when examining a product like the "North States Superyard XT Gate Play Yard" it's not hard to get some serious Gitmo vibes. (Such misgivings about the playpen are exemplified in sculptor Robert Gober's X Playpen, a bifurcated enclosure that, as one critic put it, "emphasizes this domestic space's claustrotraumatic quality.")

Whatever its name, the concept of the playpen reveals yet another fault line in the politics of anxious parenting, as I found via a simple inquiry—whether the playpen was in or out of vogue—at Urbanbaby.com, a site that combines the neurotic firepower of Woody Allen's 1970s oeuvre with the conviviality-tinged-with-hostility of the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars. Reading through the various replies (including a few from parents-to-be who shared my curiosity), the opinions seemed to fall roughly into two camps: Against were those who said playpens are overly confining, that it is better to child-proof one's home instead, that playpens are "the first compromise to good parenting" (inevitably followed by television, etc.); on the other side were those who averred that playpens are safe and necessary spaces to park toddlers while getting things done, that it is folly to suggest that one's parental eyes can always be trained on the child, that far from restricting creativity playpens enhance a sense of independence, etc.

Even those who embraced the playpen, however, did so somewhat reluctantly ("a necessary evil," ran one headline), and when I reached for the parenting bookshelf, it seemed the anti-playpen voices began to dominate. In Your Baby and Child by Penelope Leach, I was told that "babies who spend hours confined in cribs or playpens, with few toys and minimal adult attention, are very slow in learning to reach out and get hold of things and that means they are also slow in discovering what can be done with things." In a book called Smart-Wiring Your Baby's Brain, we are advised to "minimize the time she is confined to a crib or a playpen during waking hours." Mavis Klein, in The Psychodynamic Counseling Primer, writes that "it has actually been shown that children of about seven or eight years of age who were, as infants, regularly confined in playpens, are less competent at reading and writing than those who were not so imprisoned"; while John Rosemond's New Parent Power! warns that "there is evidence suggesting that children who spend lots of time confined in cribs or playpens suffered delayed speed and are less coordinated."

As these books tend to be short on footnotes, I couldn't actually track down any such study. And what a study it would have to be: large-scale, "longitudinal," intensely observational, randomized. Otherwise, how would we really know how much time children had spent in playpens (self-reports tend to be biased), what sort of households the children lived in, not to mention what might have occurred in the years between the time spent in playpens and the time of the reading and writing tests at age 7 or 8? Which left me wondering: Is the fear of playpens all hype? Just a hysterical outcropping of our anxious style of modern parenting?

Truth is, the parenting culture has had mixed feelings about the playpen seemingly since it was invented. An ad in a 1925 newspaper, for example, for a device called the "Kiddie Koop" (reputedly designed by Buckminster Fuller), encapsulated the tension: "There is no thrill like that of holding and caring for a baby in your arms," it began. "Yet the modern mother with her manifold duties must—simply MUST—forego such maternal joys at times, or the 'regulation of household affairs' will suffer." Playpens would continue to be debated, not in the pages of scientific journals but in the mothering advice columns of newspapers. In a 1943 edition of the Spokane Daily Herald, Myrtle Meyer Eldred touted the benefits of playpens: "Not only is the child free of possible physical injury but his behavior is not subjected to constant punishment, since what he does in his guarded play-place does not annoy the parent." In a 1957 article in the Chicago Tribune, the writer, after first asking the reader to remember "the great hue and cry raised against the play pen a few years back," then goes on to cite a report by Dr. E. Robbins Kimball noting various advantages of the playpen (including the fact that it "gives nervous mothers relief.") In 1966, a columnist was asked in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if mothers used playpens "as a lazy excuse to keep their babies out of the way"; while in an article in that same paper a decade later, a reader of the "Parents Ask" column wondered about "some psychologists who are against playpens." The column's author, Louis B. Ames, noted the reader was probably referring to Burton White's The First Three Years of Life ("there is no way of keeping most children from being bored in a playpen for longer than a very brief period of time"), and then went on to advise that "the ordinarily lively and intelligent baby does not have be entertained by others during all his waking hours."

As Ann Hulbert documents in Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, this sort of confused and conflicted debate has long been a touchstone of the parental advice genre. In Anxious Parents, Peter Stearns notes that where parents once put children in playpens to safeguard them from dangerous household equipment, as that household equipment was made more accident-proof, the playpen itself soon began to be seen as the source of danger—both literally, as in a series of high-profile recalls of poorly designed playpens and playards, and figuratively, as a symbol of damaging neglect.

The debate over the playpen, in the end, seems less about the thing itself than one of the eternal conditions of parental pathos: the fact that children demand so much of our attention and that we cannot always give it to the extent we (and they) would wish. As I've been writing this I—a modern father with "manifold duties"—have had to occasionally give time to the nearby girl I've stashed in the Fisher-Price "Cradle 'n' Swing" (some bylaw must require that children's product names use 'n' in place of and), which for all I know may simply be the infant forerunner to the playpen. (My friends nervously and jokingly call it the "Neglect-o-Meter.") Yes, my lack of attention may be stunting her development—shaving a notch off that IQ—but my failure to write portends more sweeping consequences, like the lack of a roof over our heads.

So, playpen, childproof room, fully free range, or something else? Are playpens cages of disregard or safe, useful accoutrements? How much time is too much time? Will a playpen keep my daughter out of the Ivy League? When I asked Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at University of California-Berkeley and author of the just-released book The Philosophical Baby, about any work on the negative consequences of playpens, her answer was instructive: "I don't know of any systematic research on this," she noted, adding, "Ironically these small kinds of parenting differences, which are just the things parents care about most, are just the areas where scientists wouldn't expect to see many differences."

She continued: "It's as if you asked a climate-change scientist whether the fact that you bought a Prius would make a hurricane less likely in New Orleans this summer. Carbon makes a big difference and so does care-giving, but not at that scale. Of course if you kept a baby confined in a playpen and never took him out that would probably make a difference, but nobody actually would do that." While science does suggest crawling strongly influences the way babies think and learn, she points out "babies in playpens are crawling and exploring too, of course." Her last bit of advice? "Parents should try to think not 'How will this affect my baby in the long run?'—who knows?—but 'Is this helping my baby and me to thrive right now?' " That, she says, depends on what you and your situation are like—and only you know that.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.