Perspectives concerned with the ecological approach to play

Ecology is generally a term used to describe studies in mutual adaptation between Man and his immediate environment which is constantly changing.

Whether future or present ecological development is seen in a positive or a negative light depends on the observer. Authors such as Berg-Laase (1987), Winn (1984), Postmann (1983), Zacharias (1987) and especially Spanhel (1991) take a critical and partly pessimistic view of the future.

Their critical attitude has inspired new avenues of thought in the European ecology movements. The new ideas also include the conditions for children and for play and creative activities now and in the future.

The starting point is that modern society today unfortunately presents children with fewer and fewer opportunities for play and less and less space for play. Several tendencies indicate that this is so:

Man in modern society lives in a symbolic milieu. Parents, pedagogues, teachers - the entire adult world gives everything an immutable meaning. Children are forced to learn these meanings and to act in accordance with them.

Furthermore, adults often demonstrate limited understanding and patience when faced with the fact that children must find meanings of their own and form opinions of their own through the world of play and they must learn to see things from several different angles and create fictive images of the world with which they can experiment.

Consequentially, everyday life (the world in which the children are living) is not structured to meet children’s real needs or to accommodate learning. Rational and functional principles and adult interests and opinions are given higher priority than the factors which are important and indispensable for children’s development, i.e. play environments in which children can develop freely, satisfy their elementary needs and stabilise their egos.

By way of contrast, consistent commercialisation of children’s needs, interests and desires is based on psychological knowledge. The toy industry, the media, organised leisure activities/systems - and consumerism - confront children with tempting supplies of games “disguised” as new types of activity. Furthermore, commercialisation seeks to encourage children to acclimatise to certain social norms and certain socially acceptable patterns of action and behaviour from an early age.

Under these circumstances, opportunities for play are therefore limited. At first and as long as they are very young, children cannot see through these “disguises” and cannot be expected to resist the temptations. Where children at risk are concerned, the burden of expectations from the outside world which is closely connected with patterns of action can cause an imbalance in structural understanding and damage the psyche.


The ecology of play

The following descriptions suggest how we can view and analyse play from an ecological perspective. These points are based on:

  • practical research and observations which are part of the book’s project description.
  • bibliographical references to ecological analyses of children’s play, especially Einsiedler(1990) and Spanhel (1991).

Play must be seen as a context, not only as “a specific form of action”.

As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs of Part VII, teaching in the form of control over children’s play is not desirable because children need opportunities to be free to play. Freedom is a visible and optimum context consisting of the environment, the circumstances, everything inside the external borders of the eco-social environment.

The environment also includes the cultural patterns of which the children are part, also the relationships and contacts of which the children are part (as soon as they come into contact with other adults and children or with new, different and interesting objects) - trust, hatred, fear, dependence, anger, etc.

The circumstances present another problem in describing the context, although the circumstances are part of the environment. What the circumstances are is a question of delimitation and they also present problems in defining reality.

What this means is that play must be regarded as an activity at some level other than the level of ordinary, realistic and typical actions.

Play occurs in a special environment and is subject to special circumstances.

(The  environment and circumstances do not have to be anything “special” as such but the children must be able to attribute them “imaginative and special significance”.) Play is a superior form of communication which neither defines nor limits patterns of action but rather suggests or outlines them.

Play tends to suggest or outline certain circumstances for patterns of action in which some actions are more significant or influential than they would be in everyday life or living.

This explains the specific way in which children move around in play within the completely natural, social and cultural environment. By organising actions in a special form within the context of play (play creates its own circumstances and environment), children create a special form of reality which is entirely their own.

In each individual game, activity or action, children establish new models for relationships with new data and information about what is happening in the environment within the circumstances of play.

The creation of play is therefore a unique event - and play is only played on the merits of its content of exciting, creative and unexpected elements.

Openness is a fundamental characteristic of the relationship between children-at-play and the data and information about the circumstances and the objects/toys they are playing with.

As quoted, Piaget calls the fundamental implements a child uses for sensing his environment “assimilating schemes”. These schemes are the child’s thoughts, emotions, will, imagination, evaluation and patterns of action which he uses freely and unreflectively in relation to his environment. The schemes are really self-motivating but the child has to learn to tolerate and adapt to them.

This means that data and information from and about the external environment, objects and toys within the context of “play” are only used as a kind of “fodder” for the self-motivating, free and enjoyable use of the assimilation schemes. The assimilation schemes are used on all things and objects within the child’s reach. Certain special schemes are used on certain, selected objects.

The child does not concern himself with the question of whether objects and toys are attributed certain values or meanings or whether these things demand or need something of the child. The child adapts the environment and the objects to his own abilities and ideas, needs and desires, emotions and rules, dependent only on any decisions he may have made with the other participants in play.

The context “play” as a closed system of actions always presents special opportunities for learning.

Earlier chapters of this book have mentioned that in play the person-at-play can “enter a different world”, that a person-at-play can play “deep play”, “the total meditation of play”, euphoria, etc.

In this connection, Goffman (1973) indicates that play has “closed features” which have nothing to do with the person-at-play’s mental situation during play. The closed features are what happens within the “context of play” (play’s self-created circumstances).

He describes play as a “located activity system”. Play is thus removed from other external life contexts and gains a large number of potential meanings, actions and interpretations. Figuratively speaking, play takes place in a “crystal box”.

Specific opportunities for learning are to be found precisely under these circumstances. Due to their open relationships to other persons-at-play, objects and toys, children develop new patterns of interaction all the time. All of them become more and more integrated and continuous as play progresses.

Bateson (1972) calls this learning from the context of “deutero-learning”:

During these learning processes the inner system of the game receives no new information from the external surroundings. The children receive no messages or commands from outside, no fragments of information about some toy or other, no references to what they must do or how they should play. The children achieve new patterns of relationships and integration for themselves, other persons-at-play , the toys and the text of play.

Learning from the context of play is therefore something very different from traditional school learning systems and other methods of learning. It is based on comprehending experiences with relationships which simultaneously include physical, sensory, emotional, motivating, evaluating, symbolic and cognitive factors.

This form of learning is not only self-motivating but also self-determining and it is based on self-confirmation.

“Self-education” and self-realisation are possible within the “play context”.

The “play context” makes specific changes to the internal metacontext. For example, the play context can alter the overall structures of how the child organises his thoughts, emotions, will and actions.

According to Bateson, these contexts are not at the same level because there are not only contexts but there is also the metacontext which is about the context and then there is the metametacontext, etc. This is demonstrated by the following example:

1. In play, the child is first led by his unconscious instincts and needs, emotions, desires and dreams. The comprehensive experiments which the child practises in interactive processes with his environmentwhen he plays are primarily his own experiences through which he achieves self-awareness.

2. Playmates’ reactions to the play of the individual child’s play activity and behaviour demand reflection. And through reflection, the child can create an imageof himself on which he can then expand.

In creating individual play and play habits which vary from one age group to another, children develop strategies which are models for their self-realisation. They invent play suitable for satisfying specific needs and which gives them emotional experiences which enable them to tackle inner conflicts, desires and needs.

Children use play as an unrivalled symbolic means of expression for telling others about their needs, anxieties and joys. Through play with other children they learn how to adapt their own needs relative to the other participants in play, to agreements and rules. Play guides children towards development of permanent patterns of interaction.

The correct play environments offer the opportunity to integrate play in the metacontexts of everyday life.

From the ecological perspective and from the perspective of this book’s background research, by “good play environments” we mean surroundings which offer children opportunities (commensurate with their abilities, needs, desires and interests) for organising their everyday lives in a variety of open combinations in play and other contexts.

Even the youngest children organise their own activities spontaneously in a variety of contexts so that “play” itself teaches the child from an early age how to differentiate between playing and not playing.

Finding out whether an action within a certain sphere is to be called “play” or “not play” entails giving a general message regarding the classification of messages, e.g. what is the value of certain actions with certain meanings in play and in other contexts?

Children’s capacity to communicate on a metaplan is most clearly demonstrated when children leave the context (i.e. let play “rest”) while they discuss the further development of the game in order to reach agreement on the rules or to adjust the existing rules.

At the same time, children learn that it is not always possible for them to play (together). Children also learn this from parents, pedagogues and teachers (their social surroundings in everyday life) who allow them to play.

Children learn how to organise different aspects of their everyday life, daily routines, homework and leisure time. They learn from their social surroundings which contexts they may use in order to form metacontexts in their daily routines and how and for how long the context “play” can be incorporated into interaction.


Research perspectives

Can play’s self-created circumstances be optimised and what are the communicative consequences for the persons-at-play?

Openness is a fundamental characteristic of the relationship between a child-at-play and the respective data and information about the child’s surroundings, objects and toys he is playing with. What kinds of play and toys restrict opportunities for openness?

Goffman et al (1959,1967,1973) call what goes on within the “context of play” (play’s own self-created sphere) the “closed characteristics of play”. Which “closed characteristics” of which games create specific opportunities for learning?

The context “play” alters the inner metacontext in a specific way. I would welcome examples of the general structures in the ways in which the child organises his way of thinking, his emotions, his will and his actions.

Everything points to the need for us to be aware of what’s going on in children’s play environments in the future. I would like to see accurate descriptions of children’s play environments!



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