Last week in New York, I stumbled upon a fantastic exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) called Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000. I definitely recommend visiting the exhibition’s interactive web page. It’s truly worth it, and you don’t even have to travel to NYC or pay admission to MoMA.

This is the first large-scale exhibition on the 20th-century modernist preoccupation with the design of objects and spaces created specifically for children. The seven sections of the exhibit present a number of themes, including school architecture, clothing, toys, children’s hospitals and safety equipment, political propaganda, therapeutic products, furniture and children’s books.

An interesting story I learned was that during the post-war period, educators, parents and researchers came to agree on the importance of play, and child development experts concluded that a space for play must be part of the day-to-day life of every child. This was the birth of the playroom that we see today in the basements of many American homes.

The exhibition was inspired by a book by the Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key, whose ideas gave rise to government support for the rights of children. Her book The Century of the Child, written in the year 1900, greatly influenced social legislation in many countries, and it envisioned the 20th century as a period of intense focus on the rights, development and welfare of children.

 As the MoMA exhibition shows us, architects and designers worked throughout the century with this approach, developing and adapting structures and objects that facilitate children’s cognitive and psychomotor development. Yet it’s the children from wealthy households who’ve generally had access to these beautiful and functional objects (see this previous post about the growing inequality of opportunities in the United States). However, what about the child in Nicaragua, Honduras or some other Central American country, who has neither a book nor a toy at home? Or the kids at public day care centers in Ecuador, where safe play areas are almost nonexistent?

Looking back on the 20th century, 112 years after the predictions of Ellen Key, I wonder: Where did these utopian dreams of the “citizens of the future” go? Why haven’t the most basic rights ensuring children’s safety and welfare taken shape? How do we explain the dark realities of child exploitation, poverty and malnutrition? If Ms. Key were still alive, I think she’d be tempted to write a few more books on the subject.


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  • Andres Valencia

    What an interesting article!!!

    I would like to say that utopia comes from the Greek word “u” which means “no” and “topos” which means place. In other words utopia means no place. By using Etymology we are searching for an ideal that we can’t never attained, in this case is that no child would be “left behind”.

    However I prefer another definition of utopia I read a long time ago (I can’t remember where). Utopia is like trying to catch a person. I move one step forward and Utopia makes two steps. Then I move three steps forward and Utopia makes six steps forward. Thus I run at full speed trying to catch Utopia but Utopia just outrun me. I would never catch Utopia; however I advanced at the right direction.

    In more than 100 years we have pursue child’s welfare, but we have advanced in the right direction. Our objective is still to develop a society where no child is too far from optimal but we are moving forward and maybe someday…

    • Florencia Lopez Boo

      Thanks so much for your comment and for such a wonderful definition of Utopia (I loved it!). I like your nice and positive prospect on child development also.

      I have to admitt that I wanted to be a bit provocative with the gloomy outlook, but I still think that our Governments need to put more effort and political will for most children not to be ‘left behind’
      Thanks for reading us.

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