Interview with Jane Addams, January 30, 1911


Give Children a Chance to Play, Jane Addams Says, and They Will Not Fill Reformatories

Old Puritanical Notion That Pleasure Is to Be Distrusted Is Responsible for Boys and Girls Becoming Criminals or Dullards.

"Foremost Woman of America" Would Have Cities, Start Model Dance Halls and Institute a "Department of Recreation."


"If we would not see our children become criminals or dullards we must give them a chance to play. Nor must such a vitally important duty be left any longer to individual initiative. The state, the municipality must make it their business to give the young the joy that youth demands."

It is Miss Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, who is speaking. Really she needs no other introduction, this "foremost woman of America," as a London writer recently termed her. For twenty years, in the heart of Chicago's submerged tenth, she has been the recognized leader of American social settlement work, as she was its pioneer.

Last June she received an honorary degree from Yale, the first that institution ever conferred upon a woman. She was also the first of her sex to preach a baccalaureate sermon at the University of Chicago. Yet these honors are but straws on the mighty current of popular admiration and reverence for the woman and her work.

Study of Miss Addams.

She is a most satisfying person, even in appearance. She has a wonderfully strong face, square as a man's, and her hair, parted simply and combed back into a low knot, does not conceal a line of the finely modelled head. Her eyes, gray and set wide apart, meet one with an impassive directness even when her straight, firm lips are smiling. Her mouth belongs to a compassionate woman, her eyes to one who is not readily deceived. As for her chin, it is [chiseled] determination.

"What is the greatest problem to be solved for the modern child?" I asked Miss Addams first, because she had come to town to lecture for the Child Welfare Exhibit.

"I couldn't pick out any special problem and assume it to be the greatest," she replied, frankly. "I don't believe in argumentative generalities. It seems to me that we have not one problem, but many, all important. We have to consider the health of the child, his education, his moral welfare, his capacity for enjoyment, and many other things. When we accomplish most we simply do our best with each phase of the question that confronts us."

And probably because the particular phase with which she was most closely confronted just then was a certain speech she was to deliver in a few hours on "The Spirit of Youth in the City Streets," the remainder of Miss Addams's remarks were concerned with the topic of children's play.

Must Have Recreation.

"To give the right quantity and quality of recreation to our young people is one of our most pressing duties toward them," she affirmed, earnestly. "More and more our reformatories are filled, not with criminals, but with the boys who have in them the basis of play unsatisfied, the basis of art unfulfilled, even those beginnings of variation from types which are so precious, which we call genius, which are responsible for the greatest things ever accomplished in the world.

"It is these children, our brightest and best, whom we are spoiling and maiming by giving them no proper chance for development.

"What do we do for the boy and girl who differ from their fellows, who are kindled by the glorious desire for adventure? The city offers the adventurous children nothing to satisfy their desire for pleasure, nothing which will allow them to cherish and feed their ardent determination to conquer the world and make it a better one.

"So these children go out and get into trouble, or else they stay in their poor houses and factories and turn into stupid dullards, all initiative, all ambition stamped out of them.

"We have the leader of the juvenile gang, or the poor plodder in the shop, when, with a better conception of our civic duty, we should have a happy, healthy boy or girl, destined to become a worth-while citizen."

Victim of Present System.

"Just a little while ago I read a letter which a boy of eighteen had written to his mother, one of the saddest letters I think I ever saw. He was in a reformatory, serving a twenty-year sentence. In a fit of boyish excitement he had run away from home three years before. A year later -- when he was only sixteen -- he was half starving and broke into a country store to get food. He was shot in the shoulder and haled to court as a professional burglar -- this child! Worst of all, after he was sent to the reformatory, he was put to work in one of the shops before he had recovered complete use of the arm that was shot, and when he had not been there a week a machine cut his right hand off at the wrist. He wrote to his mother: 'Never mind, mother, it is only eighteen and one-half years before I come home -- but I do feel awful bad about my hand.' That is the way we treat our adventurous children!"

"How would you suggest treating them?" I inquired.

"Give them a chance to exercise their imaginations freely and healthily and joyously. Give them a place where they can play, other than the street corner, which, indeed, is legally barred against them.

"I think every large city should have its department of recreation, to serve the desire of the young to live their own lives in power and joy. The wisest and ablest people in the community should be in charge of such a department."

Is Concern of Public.

"Have we not obviously discovered that we can best pave our cities through municipal action, and light them through pooling our desires? Why should we not unite to conquer in the battle for the young life growing up around us?

"We may not return to the old Puritan notion that pleasure is ever to be distrusted. We know that our factory boys and girls, for example, naturally and rightly demand an enjoyment which will call into action all the emotions, all the muscles, all the group instincts which have been suppressed during the long day of monotonous work. Yet what do we offer them save the cheap dance halls, pleasure parks, moving picture shows, with their accompaniments of rowdyism and worse?

"We should have model dance halls, under municipal control. We should have more parks, properly policed. We should have good and cheap [theaters], where the best in dramatic literature could be seen at prices within the reach of everyone. We should make our finest pictures and music accessible to all, instead of virtually shutting them away, as we so often do, in the tacit assumption that only the few can appreciate them.

"Play is such a finely democratic thing," concluded Miss Addams. "If there were fine and beautiful public places of amusement, all types and classes would be brought together in a quite new and wonderful fashion. That in itself would be one of the best results of such play."


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