On Play: Children’s Voices Matter

My recent research interests, while still as varied as always, have shifted to including a focus on play.

For most of us, defining play and then talking about it in any number of contexts, seems relatively straightforward. Recently, I have found that what I am learning about play is that even defining it is anything but straightforward.


One obstacle I have encountered is that play, as defined by children, or from the perspective of childhood, is limited. In other words, there are all kinds of adult experts on play, but in too many instances, their research lacks the critical component, of children’s voices. Observing children at play is one thing, but having children define it, is another thing altogether.

As an historian of childhood, the discounting of young people’s voices is a theme as old as the historiography. In this respect, it has deep ties to the social history that emerged in the late sixties and early seventies. Debate about the veracity, reliability and just plain usefulness of children as sources of knowledge is age old.

This is particularly problematic when it comes to play. A major trend since the early 20th Century in North America has been the increase in organized, managed and directed play. Children’s free play continues to be eroded as adults have wanted to imbue purpose, meaning and goals (almost always exclusively adult-driven) into children’s activities. One of the most important points that has been missed in all of this is that all children need and desire self-directed free play.

Are there times when it should be guided? Absolutely. Does children’s play, at times, benefit from adult intervention? Of course. But when are most, if not all children the most content and happy? When they are playing on their own in a small group of peers.

How do I know this? Well, much of the research supports this, even when it lacks the perspective of children themselves. Yet too many adults, and especially parents, continue to ignore what many of us know to be so.

Some of my future research will look at recovering play histories both from children themselves and from the perspective of childhood, from older people. There is so very much to learn here – for children and for the child in all of us.

In an upcoming post I will explore what free play looks like and why it is so important.

Time For a Change

I haven’t written anything on this site, other than small updates, for more than a year. That has bothered me for quite some time. Quite simply, it’s time for a change on.

A lot has changed over that time. I’m now a Dr. as I completed my PhD just over 16 months ago now. I’m immersed in trying to secure full-time employment in academia. So while I continue to read literature and discuss it with others, quite simply, I don’t have time to focus on it exclusively.

I plan to write about the areas that have become my main areas of academic specialization. Childhood, in historical context and in the here and now, politics, and Canadian history are the areas where I spend the bulk of my time reading, researching, writing, and lecturing.

I’ll use the site as an outlet and hopefully a resource for others that are interested in elements related to these large, and at least to my mind, extremely important topics. I am also in the process of expanding my interests in running, fitness and coaching. In the coming months I am planning an additional site and build, at least modestly, a space dedicated solely to those passions.

I hope you’ll join me as I begin this new journey and continue to pursue that elusive full-time teaching position in academia. Thanks for coming this far!

Q/A with Award-Winning Canadian Author Dave Margoshes

Author Dave Margoshes was kind enough to respond to some questions about writing, reading and his future work. I hope you enjoy his responses as much as I have.

JO: Dave, to my mind, many of these wonderful stories would be best read aloud. Why do you think that is?

DM: Ha ha, that’s a good question. I’m stumped. Best I can thing of is that there’s a sort of warm, familial tone to them, a sort of family-stories-told-around-the-fireplace tone I worked hard at.

JO: Did your feelings about your father change after you wrote about him so intimately?

DM: I don’t know. All of the stories were written after his death. This isn’t why I wrote them, of course, but they did serve to keep me in touch with his memory. And so much of the stories is fiction, I’m a little fuzzy myself about some aspects of the story – did that really happen or did I make it up? I think it’s safe to say, accurate to say, that the character of my father in the stories is a construct, not a depiction of the real man that a biographer or memoirist might conjure up. I like that character, that construct, a hell of a lot, but he’s a more perfect character than my actual father was.

JO: You work in several different genres. What is it about writing short stories that you like the most?

DM: The short story is the perfect literary form, in my view. It’s the sort of Reuben sandwich of the writer’s art. It’s got everything. Novels, on the other hand, are like a seven course meal, soup to nuts, sometimes leading to indigestion; poems are potato chips.

JO: Not many writers attempt the number of genres you do Dave. Why do you think you have done this throughout your career?

DM: Well, it’s not really that much. Fiction (long and short) and poetry. Lots of writers do that. A bit of nonfiction, but that’s an extension of my journalism practice, the way I made my living for years. Doesn’t really count.

JO: What are some of the issues with writing about your extended family and in particular, your father?

DM: I don’t think I had any issues. As I said above, the “my father” in those stories is a fictional construct. So are the character of “my mother” and the sisters. When you think of them that way, they’re no different really than any other fictional characters.

JO: You’ve written an excellent biography of Tommy Douglas. What were some of the biggest challenges writing about one of more influential politicians in Canadian history?

DM: OK, the Tommy book is the one example of nonfiction I do lay claim to. (I’ve written a couple other nonfiction books, commissioned, that I don’t put on my CV.) I’m not a biographer, really, and not a historian (though that is what I got my B.A. in). I approached that book as a journalist, following the story. Every action in that book happened, all the quotes mined from actual sources. The “challenge,” as in any piece of extended journalism, is in finding the story and sustaining the interest level.

JO: What authors have had the greatest influence on your work?

DM: I grew up in the States, so my earliest influences were mostly American writers: Faulkner, Hemingway, Saroyan. Later John O’Hara, the master of the short story. Poets Whitman, Frost, Williams. And later, too many to mention.

JO: What are you working on currently, Dave?

DM: I’m working on a new novel, but also tidying up a novel that’s been in the works for quite a while and will be published next year.

JO: Finally, what will you be reading over the summer?

DM: Right now, I’m reading Cynthia Flood’s new collection of stories, Red Girl, Rat Boy – not actually out till fall. She is amazing, one of my favourite Canadian writers. I’ve also just started David McFadden’s What’s the Score, which won the Griffin poetry prize last month. I’ve always liked McFadden, and he’s long overdue for some national recognition. Beyond that, who knows?

Margoshes’s A Book of Great Worth is an Excellent Read

A Book of Great Worth

By Dave Margoshes

Coteau Books April 2012, 250 pp. $18.95 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

Dave Margoshes’s collection of short stories is a wonderful blend of family history, story-telling, and urban myth focusing on New York City. Woven throughout this collection is humour mixed with poignancy that gives the collection a general feeling of genuineness and warmth.

Margoshes has an impressive publishing record as he has written and published several books of prose, volumes of poetry and non-fiction texts. He has also done work for CBC and has read from his work extensively. In addition to all of this, he’s been a journalist for numerous newspapers and taught journalism. He has lived in several cities and currently calls Saskatoon home.

The author takes us on journey through the early part of the twentieth century in the Big Apple’s Lower East side. We meet numerous characters that come in and out of his father’s life. There is a profound exploration of humanity including our strengths, individual warts and collective failings. Many of the stories leave you wanting to continue on the characters’ journeys and following them down their meandering paths.

In the following excerpt, Margoshes’s father is speaking with some children whom he was hired to teach Yiddish to as a young man:

“Yes,” said my father, “and that’s why it’s so important that you should meet your grandparents now, while you have the chance. They’re old.”

“And is it true that Mommy hasn’t seen her Mommy and Daddy for years and years?”

“That’s right, Estella.” My father took the little girl in his arms. “Do you ever get mad at Mommy? Or at Daddy?”


My father smiled. “And you, Benjy?”


“And do you sometimes get so mad you think, ‘I wish they were dead,’ or think about running away and never coming home, just to show them, to make them feel bad/”

The children pouted. Esther sucked her thumb. My father gently tugged at her hand until it came away. “Tell the truth now.”

“Sometimes,” Benjy said.

 “times,” Esther echoed.

“You have to be careful what you wish for,” my father said. “Sometimes wishes come true and you can’t take them back.”

“Is that what Mommy did?” Esther asked.

“What do you think?” my father asked.

Margoshes’s writing is revealing and filled with great care. He is a born teacher but his writing never falls into being preachy. With a less skilled writer, it would feel like pontificating but that feeling of being spoken to is never an issue. The author invites us to participate in these wondrous tales and we are left to wonder where truths meet realities and vice versa. He has a wonderful ear that is demonstrated time and time again with his exquisite dialogue.

There was not much to quibble with here. Because it is such an eclectic mix of stories, some readers may find it disconcerting, at times, to be reading consecutive stories that bear little relationship to each other. One specific story that painted a richer picture of New York City in this period would have provided some additional context for those readers that may have not read much if anything about this period. Margoshes may be giving his readers too much latitude at times in assuming there is a shared knowledge of landscape and time.

These are trifling in the entire assessment. This collection of stories is filled with love, wisdom and beauty. While not all of the stories are uplifting, their rawness, at times, is what keeps the reader engaged for the entire collection. Readers will not be disappointed with this fine book.

*A copy of A Book of Great Worth was sent to me to read and review. It was not purchased.