Play and childhood culture

The literature on childhood and children’s culture is comprehensive and can be split into two fields:

  1. The dilemma “adult play with children”: The dilemma and discussion of adults’ play with children is concerned with the question: How far does the adult intervene or supplement the child by playing with him, by acting as play manageror simply by trying to participate in the game?
  2. Studies and research into the optimum conditions for fulfilment of the basic needsof play and well-being for the individual child for the family and for society (called Environmental Research, Social Ecology and Eco-pedagogical Studies).

The dilemma and discussion about environmental conditions is concerned with maintaining conditions for well-being and conditions within human society and co-operation in relation to the natural conditions for this.

Opinions about both fields (and the many variations within them) can be identified by giving a brief description of the three historical directions within toy research as an example of the influence of parental attitudes in this sphere.

These historical directions are:

  1. functionalismand
  2. critique of functionalism
  3. play and childhood culture movement (including play and phases in children’s cultural development)

(1. and  2. will be described together)

Functionalism, critique and research

Functionalism indicates that it is important that adults play with the child for the benefit of the child’s development.

This belief is held by a number of representatives who view the problem from both cultural and ecological perspectives. The particular aims, outlook and philosophy of the individual researcher form the background for what he/she sees as the most important aspects of child development.

Representational ability, problem solving and cognitive style: Here represented by a variety of researchers including (among others) Berlyne, Piaget and Bruner, Christie & Johnsen. Environmental research literature and inspiration is represented by Lull (1980), Bonfadelli (1981), Pellegrini & Yawkey (1984), Gottfried (1984, 1985) and Fein (1981, 1985), etc. Ecological stimulation is covered particularly by Bronfenbrenner and the German school of thought: Spanhel, Retter and Zacharias, etc.

The critique of functionalism is in a way a part of functionalism. It refutes the idea that adults should become involved in children’s play. The critique is based on a wide variety of attitudes and pre-dispositions.

The idea is that the child’s world is unique and irrepressable. The critique is most clearly represented by Aries (1962) who takes the child out of society and describes the child’s special history within history. He describes how sport, play areas, toys and TV programmes have developed so that the adult is able to control and restrain the child’s play and target his activities to fit into modern society.

Foucault (1973) also criticises functionalism:

He describes functionalism as inhuman and positivistic (without ever really raising the question of how and why adults want to stimulate children through play!!)

A common trait in the research directions within critique of functionalism is an underlining of the importance of research into childhood generally, including research into children’s play and their development independent of adult influence.

Where Environment Research is concerned, the usual, general attitude is that play with things and objects is connected to the “play environment.

Environment Research claims that the eco-social and socio-cultural environment contains some specific limitations which together form a selection of images of events which can influence the child’s understanding of the meaning and content of these events. The claim rests on the assumption that when a child plays with a toy, the child is locked either into

  • the toy’s capacity to stimulate, or
  • previously gained experienceof the play environment

because the user - due to the limited function of the toy - is forced through discipline to accept the toy’s limiting message (which is often to treat the child as if he were an idiot).

Both the environment  and object world in everyday life are so familiar and so close to the child but the adults often neglect their importance, regard them as obvious or even accredit them with no importance or value at all.

For example, small corners in houses, parks, spaces, bags, cardboard boxes, paper, used packaging and many other things which may seem like totally worthless environments or objects become particularly useful and valuable when seen in relation to the many ways children can find to use them in play.

Children utilise these things by processing, experimenting, investigating and interpreting - which incidentally is how the human being has come to terms with his environment over thousands of years. Long ago the human being discovered how to find purpose and to interpret the oh-so-transient world of objects and nature.

Unfortunately, it is no longer true to state that we can do this for everything around us. Therefore, other situations, objects and fragments have to compensate for the loss!

An environment contains specific limitations which together form a selection of images of events which can influence the child’s understanding of the meaning and content of these events. In allowing a child to investigate his immediate surroundings, we give him a chance to form images of the world around him.

Play and the Child Culture Movement

This is a playful culture in an exchange between children and adults. This research direction rejects functionalism and its critique as one-sided!

According to Kelly-Burne (1989), what is important is not only giving the child competence through play and ensuring adult power and control over the child but also enabling children and adults together to change modern adult culture so that the mutual adaptation processes give both children and adult social competence.

Cross-cultural, and in particular social anthropological, studies and data are used to illustrate the cultural changes - especially in relation to the importance of play for and between adults and children.

For example, Huizinga states that culture is play. In many ways, “homo ludens” is the theoretical basis for this play-cultural research direction but the dilemmas between child and adult play are not resolved unless they are observed in a broader cultural perspective.

The question of whether there is a special or specific play culture which belongs exclusively to the child and in which adults are incapable of participating is one of the central problems in play research.

Mouritsen (1990) states that when attention is paid to culture for children, the interest focuses on:

  1. culture produced for children and
  2. culture produced with children and
  3. culture produced by children

Where c) is concerned, studies are insufficient and enjoy relative obscurity. Paradoxically they represent the most important work because children do produce and communication a comprehensive culture and a multitude of cultural expressions through play, narrative, nursery rhymes and verse, etc., which we may call “play culture”.

This culture is of course a central part of their lives. Culture produced by children communicates (in an oral network between children) and exists on the strength of active practise through which children inconspicuously attain qualifications which are the basis for many learning processes as well as social and cultural activities.

With reference to e.g. the literature on collection and registration of older play and games (Antiquarianism), the attention paid to children’s consciousness and their understanding of reality - and their open and closed communication of this - is increasing. There is some hope for a corresponding increase in respect for play culture and for integration of play culture into the greater cultural panorama.



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