Sunday, August 9, 2009


In Slate, Tom Vanderbilt writes about the 'playpen' and what became of them. This may be a cultural thing or just the circles he keeps but I didn't realise they had gone. I have been in many a house where a 'formal lounge room' has been transformed into the 'formal playroom' with the addition of a play pen where a coffee table might be. There, parents gather to talk -- literally over their children -- while their children sit in what would be considered the centre of attention.

What is interesting about the playpen is that after a century of product design, they couldn't improve upon the basic 'look and feel' of a jail. There are bars. The area is rectangular. And there is a single door with a lock that invites the would-be prisoner to try and break out; only being thwarted by a lack of coordination and strength. (During certain times there even is a potty!) It is the same principle when we confine our kids to cots. (Of course, my kids did manage an escape.) In many respects, this is surprising. You would think that toy manufacturers could design a confined space that looked -- to anyone other than children -- like something different.

In our house, we didn't go the playpen route but it wasn't out of any philosophical or parenting logic. We just didn't have a natural space of a rectangular contraption that we wouldn't be tripping over all of the time. After all, it is all about convenience. Instead, we attempted to gate off rooms and stairwells with a general strategy of containment. In terms of the potential for neglect, our solution was not that much different than the playpen.

In other houses, I have seen the playpen used in slightly different ways. For instance, there was one place where the television sat inside the playpen. The logic being that it was not about the children getting hurt but the TV and DVD player. I guess they wouldn't be going anywhere any time soon but then I am also sure they would still get plenty of attention.