The child at play; play is becoming steadily less physical, more computerized and, most of all, more isolated

Brian Sutton-Smith

American children’s freewheeling play once took place in rural fields and city streets, using equipment largely of their own making. Today, play is increasingly confined to backyards, basements, playrooms and bedrooms, and derives much of its content from video games, television dramas and Saturday morning cartoons.

Modern children spend an incareasingly large part of their lives alone with their toys, a situation inconceivable several centuries ago. Childhood was once part of a collective village life. Children didn’t play separately but joined youths and adults in seasonal festivals that intruded upon the work world with considerable regularity and with great boisterousness.

A 1560 painting by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel is the first European painting entirely devoted to Children’s Games. It contains more than 200 participants and about 80 activities, including play with dolls, jacks, masks, swings and marbles, and activities such as king-of-the-mountain, mumblety-peg and leapfrog–all of which, in due course, appeared in America.

The Industrial Revolution, by forcing fathers and mothers into distant employment during the late 18th and 19th centuries, slowly took the economic life away from home and village. Children were often left to run wild in streets or hills and carry on the play that had been part of the earlier communal festivals. As early as the late 18th century, many clothes, books and toys were beginning to be made specifically for children.

In the 19th century, the roaming urchins and vagabond children who were not employed in factories were brought under control by compulsory school attendance. In the 20the century, this control over play has been increased still further, first by playgrounds and gymnasiums, and more recently through organized activities (swimming, tennis, dancing, sports), consumer entertainments (movies and shows) and, finally, through that most controlling of all instruments, television.

The shift in play has been steady: a taming of most violence; mechanization of toys, increasingly electronic in character; symbolization in games of language, information and strategy, which have largely replaced rough physical play; decreasing differentiation between the play of boys and girls; increasing remoteness from direct experience through fantasy; and, most significantly, isolation.

As we try to understand children and adults at play–why they play, what play means to them–we must start with the realization that animals also play. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and monkeys, play tag, peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, follow-the-leader and tug-of-war. Play is a primitive activity through which animals and humans cooperate and communicate their desire to deal with such potentially dangerous behavior as chasing and escaping, attacking and defending. In play they can express these desires safely, because they give each other signals showing that they do not really mean what they are doing. Monkeys use a play face, dogs wag their tails and children say, “I’m just pretending.”

Historically, however, the predominant attitude toward play was negative almost until the 19th century. The first romantic, modern tradition of play was expressed by German poet Friedrich Schiller in 1795:

“Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing.”

It was the age of the American and French revolutions and also a time when industrial civilization seemed to be encroaching on traditional ways of life. For Schiller, play and playful imagination were manifestations of human freedom, the basis for both fine art and for the higher morality. Many modern scholars see play in much the same romantic way as a special kind of freedom and intrisically motivated behavior.

As the 19th century progressed, however, observers came to connect children’s play increasingly with human or cultural evolution. The folklorists pictured it largely as a reminiscence of earlier historical conditions. Children carried on, in games such as “Ring Around the Rosey” and “Farmer in the Dell,” what had been the festival activities for adults in medieval times.

Biologically oriented thinkers, on the other hand, saw play as preparation for life. Well into the 20th century, much of the apparatus placed in playgrounds was designed to help children recapitulate their primitive animal impulses for swinging and climbing, and thus free them to practice the many physical and intellectual skills they would need as adults.

In universities and school, meanwhile, Sigmund Freud’s theories about the purpose and value of play became popular. For Freud, play was an especially useful form of human adjustment, bringing the child mastery over anxieties and conflicts. Even today, many people justify their play and sports by saying that these activities “release their tensions,” words of Freud that have passed into everyday language.

In the past 30 years, a number of other theories have vied for recognition, all of them making positive statements about play. Psychologist Jean Pieget has argued that play contributes to thought by consolidating the learning already acquired by the child. Psychologist Daniel Berlyne has said that play is a form of exploration in which a child learns by responding to novel objects and stimulation. Anthropologist John Roberts has contended that children’s games are models of power through which children learn the strategies of human interaction. Philosopher Hans-George Gadamer sees play as a higher form of truth and human freedom. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, on the other hand, looks on it as a special kind of communication, evidence of the child’s ability to invent human society.

None of these theorists doubt that play is functional in some way and contributes value to human life. They all, however, overlook the fact that in some other cultures, as well as in our own past, play has often been regarded with suspicion. They neglect to mention that play is often dangerous and cruel, as many historical animal and anthropological examples can attest. They forget that serious questions have been raised about the artificiality and isolation of much modern play.

Some researchers argue that the constant distractibility provided by toys, game simulations and television programs acts as an opiate for child consumers, who learn to move incessantly from one activity to the next without real thought or questioning. Boredom is assuaged by a hyperkinetic interest pattern within which nothing endures for long.

Others dispute this view and believe that the young child’s access to multiple modes of information leads to enormous personal development. They see the personal computer as offering a defense against intrusive external agencies. They see the great array of toys as providing models that solitary children can assimilate in their own ways in their own sanctuaries, the modern suburban bedroom. Out of thse sanctuaries, they argue, will come our future geniuses.

Despite all the questions that have been raised about play today, most adults still cling to the assumption that it is always functional and worthwhile. At the same time, many are so afraid of unstructured play that unless the activity is called “game simulation,” “adjustment,” “cognition” or “problem solving,” they would rather have nothing to do with it. By calling all of a child’s intelligent activities, “play,” modern educators and psychologists manage to suppress play in the interest of education and supervision.

If present trends continue, there will be more such usurpation of play’s potential to go wherever the players want to take it–often to their own risk and to the discomfort of those who care for them. On the other hand, perhaps we will see less moralizing about play and more recognition that we all, children included, have a right to play in our own way, in our own time and in our own space, as long as no one gets maimed or killed.

The truth, I believe, is that play itself is neither good nor bad. Like language or music, it is a form of expression and communication. What makes it good or bad is what we do with it. We can choose to acknowledge that those who play are usually more excited and exuberant then than anytime else, and make allowance for excesses in this way of “sharing” with others. Or we can try to civilize play completely and make the world a less zestful place than it would otherwise be.

COPYRIGHT 1985 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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