Perspectives concerning learning the “context of play”

The recurring wish of many parents and pedagogues is for evident “teaching in play”. Their wish is based on the results of functional research and on the positive effects of play where play in a disciplined, controlled form has been used in teaching and learning situations.

These so-called “play processes” contain simple directions, instructions, control and evaluation of the children’s “play” - which is critical and catastrophic seen from relativistic and ecological points of view.

Since many aspects of our lives, including education and development, are subject to prior planning and functional control, free play with spontaneous and creative processes is often regarded as misplaced behaviour which some groups of adults seek to stop as soon as it starts.

Curbing free play is the opposite of the meaning of and attitude expressed by the following statement:

Play as an original, unique and necessary part of children’s lives can only be expressed and effective if it is free and independent.

The statement presupposes that what children need is freedom to play - not a  teacher’s control over play. Let us then answer the following question which is a central tenet of the ecological approach to play:

Which internal dispositions and external opportunities are absolutely necessary for children’s play to develop freely on both inner and external levels?

I.e. the consequences of directed play as opposed to learning the “context of play”.

How do you teach a child that free play is an important part of life? - especially when many groups of adults find it difficult to see any value at all in free play?

Learning, experimenting, inventing, creating life’s contexts always represents a problem in relations between the child and his surroundings.

There is no sense in teachers’ paying special attention either to:

  • a child’s play-learningor
  • a child’s desire or ability to play.

Similarly, simply offering the child a stimulating environment, play areas and good toys is insufficient.

In connection with the rationale of a research project into “Quality in Children’s Lives”, Dencik (1988:27-46) states that there is:

  • A parallel tendency for the child to show great involvement as a person if his parents abstain from (over)nurturing.
  • Increasing professionalism of child care.

Dencik indicates that, where socialising children is concerned, the way parents bring up their children and the degree of professional involvement in child care together make rearing children more “a feat of engineering” (from the parental point of view) and less a question of passing on values and attitudes to life.

In practical terms, this means the tendency is for:

  • a pedagogical approach to children’s everyday lives and the environmentin which they are growing up. The activities the child takes part in are intended to be “stimulating”, “useful” or “developmental” - although no-one seems to know for what purpose.
  • a pathological approach to undesirable aspects of a child’s quite normal behaviour.”
    Dencik (1988:42)

“Normal” behaviour tends to be defined narrowly on the basis of “functional requirements” without taking the pedagogical aspects into account.

The consequences are that the undesirable aspects of children’s behaviour and actions at the level of play - which would otherwise have been healthy experiments and creative manipulations - are subjected to treatment and seen as something pathological. This also applies to children’s different experimental ways of manipulating (treating) objects (toys).

This statement helps to explain the eco-pedagogical movements’ pessimism where children’s play in the future is concerned.


Play between adaptation and resistance

Sutton-Smith (1991) does not share, however, the eco-pedagogical movements’ pessimism about children’s play in the future nor is he pessimistic about the future generally. He regards ecological theories and ideas about the significance of the environment as a vital summary of the mass of positive functional experiences and activities and as a victory for humanistic-existentialist thought and philosophy.

Children’s lives in modern society are affected by abstract time structures, the functional conditions of vastly different schools and institutions and “floating” social connections. This much is clear to all of us. However, throughout the history of human survival, children’s capacity to adapt has always been filled with human creativity, inquisitiveness and inventiveness and has furthermore developed to such an extent that it in fact exceeds what we normally imagine a child is and can do “by nature”.

Why not see these characteristics of children’s and their families’ lives in a positive light? Man in modern society is learning to understand and use modern implements of technology and communication - including new kinds of toys, games and activities.

Sutton-Smith points out that there is ongoing professional debate among psychologists and pedagogues concerning today’s children’s tendency to neglect solitary play vis-à-vis the exaggerated significance of social play.

Solitary play is just as important as social play because it incorporates a more immediate way of utilising toys while social play incorporates a more immediate way of utilising play and games.

In using the term “neglected solitary play”, Sutton-Smith does not mean that children play solitary play too infrequently. He refers to the qualitative opportunities which solitary play provides for the child to develop and adapt (and thus adopt new opportunities for behaviour and activity by means of good implements and good toys). Sutton-Smith’s (1991) definition (comprehensively revised by the present author in connection with the content of this book) is:

1. The ability to lower expectations re the value of interaction with others.

2. The ability to accept compensatory satisfaction from non-human things and beings (machines, e.g. PCs).

3. The ability in solitude to sustain engagement with toy or tools/implements.

4. The ability to master the characteristics and stimulating opportunities inherent in these implements.

5. The ability to resist hidden or slating anxieties from parents concerning a toy’s worthlessand yet fascinating characteristics.

6. The ability to use a toy flexibly - either by playing with it realistically or by using it as a realistic tool.

7. The ability to accept or respond to his friends’ sub-cultural understandingof what is “in” through recognition of the interests and values spread in and by the media.

8. The ability to accept the media in our society while maintaining a qualitative personal understandingof them and a critical response to them.

9. Most importantly - the ability to promote a humorous attitude to the media phenomena surrounding us and by participating or showing an interest in children’s sub-culture and developing intuition about the signalstransmitted by games through which the toys maintain their unproductive relationship to reality.

The incentives for play must then concentrate on:

  • openness in the relationship between the child and his environment
  • importance of an open and safe play environmentfor the child everywhere and all the time in his daily life
  • that the child’s surroundings encourage and permit him to play
  • that the child is permitted to play freely and constantly to create new patterns of relationships.

Learning the context of play involves developing, testing, practising and consolidating the child’s inner regulation strategies to ensure a balance between the different directions within habituation.

This is an absolutely indispensable precondition for the development of the child’s ability to apply himself and to cope with what his surroundings demand of him, e.g. problems in school. Modern society is changing so that the pressure on future generations’ ability to adapt and to learn will increase. These two functions of free play will therefore become more important to children.

In order to cope with the demands of the future, we have so far only tested the exclusive application of play to improve learning processes and make them more efficient.

In the future, we will have to be aware of the fact that, through their own free play, children will learn strategies for mastering, presentation and realisation of, knowledge of and insight into a new era with which even their parents will not always be familiar. With knowledge and insight, children will be able to cope with the new challenges and at the same time they will be able to preserve the human world.


Research perspectives

Which inner dispositions and external opportunities are absolutely indispensable for free development of children’s play on the inner and external levels?

Research into the entirely new complex of opportunities for learning new patterns of behaviour and activity by means of the latest electronic implements.

Research into the revised version of Sutton-Smith’s nine point list.



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