Playing with Vision: Children’s Media Culture before Screen Time

By Dr. Sarah Anne Carter, CDMC Visiting Executive Director

Carter reflects on the work of Childhood Studies scholar Meredith A. Bak and invites everyone to attend Professor Bak’s conversation with Heather Kirkorian, Faculty Director of SoHE’s Child Development Lab…while having some optical fun.

hand holding a homemade phanakitoscope disk
Using found materials for optical toys! Phenakistoscope held together with a wine cork and gummy vitamin. Image: Sarah Anne Carter.

In the moments before Dr. Meredith A. Bak visited my course “The Material Culture of Childhood,” all of my energy was focused on spinning a stiff, circular paper disk as fast as I could. I was attempting to catch a bird in a cage—watching an image of a caged bird appear as my fingers twisted and released a disk with a bird on one side and an empty cage on the other. My homemade thaumatrope may appear to be a simple optical toy, with an image on each side that may be combined—like a flipbook—to create a stable image. But, as Bak argues, it is also an object with the power to script behavior, to train—and destabilize—one’s vision, and, along with an array of other optical toys, comprised an early media culture that shaped the lives and possibilities of nineteenth-century children.

Black and white Thaumatrope template of bird and cage illusion.
Thaumatrope template courtesy of the National Park Service (Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site).

Bak is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. There, she researches historical and contemporary children’s media, toys, and popular conceptions about technology and play. Her recent book Playful Visions: Optical Toys and the Emergence of Children’s Media Culture explores nineteenth-century optical toys and illusions—kids’ media before screen time. Through Bak’s analysis, we learn that ideas about vision changed over the nineteenth century, as one’s ability to perceive, became inflected with new ideas about interpretation and discernment. Children learned how to see in new ways and those ways of seeing both allayed and produced new anxieties about children’s needs and vulnerabilities.

Template for a paper zoetrope featuring an image of a person jumping over another person's back.
Zoetrope template, supplement to Los Angeles Sunday Examiner, 1905. From the John B. Goodman papers at the Margaret Herrick Library.

On Friday, March 12th, Bak will join us in the Center for Design and Material Culture in conversation with SoHE Associate Professor Dr. Heather Kirkorian, Laura M. Secord Chair in Early Childhood Development, Faculty Director of the Child Development Lab, and Director of the Cognitive Development and Media Lab, to discuss how early optical toys set the stage for the aspirations and anxieties we associate with children’s media today. Consider experimenting with your own optical toys prior to the workshop. While there are instructions at this link, you will need to bring your own curious and playful way of looking to your creations. We hope you will join us and join me in learning through hands-on engagement with these fascinating historical toys!

Watch past CDMC Conversations and plan for our other upcoming events.