Play theoretical perspectives 

Play is an action in which participants communicate honestly and legitimately and refer to the various expressions, contents and co-ordinating case relations for the toy(s) and play. In play, systematically connected communication is converted into relevant messages and therefore creates contact, is honest and interesting for the persons-at-play.

Play and communication, which are dependent on life, are characterised by existential and pragmatic dialogics. They can be attributed both individual and cultural life forms of which transitions and schisms are characteristic.

When something plays with the person-at-play, that “something” can be other persons-at-play, a toy or the environment. Play occurs as interplay between hegemony and emotion. Two of play’s elementary forces are competition and demonstration and both are present at all levels in life, either visibly or invisibly. Play is therefore often ambiguous, totally contradictory and full of conflict.

Play contains energies which the person-at-play tries to master by means of disciplined experimentation with the norms and rules of the environment and by planning accurately where, how and for how long play will occur.

The basic form of play is determined by six different opportunities for development: free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, regulated and fictive.

Play always takes place somewhere between two opposing poles: tumult and concentration. It contains dynamic aspects which are competition, chance, imitation and euphoria with which the person-at-play experiments in order either to gain mastery or to submit. Play also contains three types of qualities: cultural, institutional and corrupt.

The person-at-play plays one or more of the six possible roles during the play process. In the play process itself, there are always reversible/irreversible processes and periodic/non-periodic processes.

As stated, Caillois (1958) was the first researcher to cast doubt on the concept of quality seen from a relativistic point of view. Just as play ought to be seen from a relativistic point of view, so too should the quality of play. The three different types of quality - cultural, institutional and corrupt - must, therefore, be regarded as unambiguous and specific and yet integrated.

According to Caillois, “corruption” must be seen as a quality of play. Both the toy and play deceive because they pretend to be a real instrument in a real situation which is far from true.

Both toys and play are fictive instruments in a fictive sphere, meaning that play invites legitimate deception, cheating and corruption under conditions to which the persons-at-play mutually agree and confirm between themselves. If they did not do this, then play would no longer be play.

One of the types of quality in play is object transformation. Einsiedler (1986) points out that play is dependent on the level of metacommunication between the persons-at-play because it is metacommunication which maintains, develops and ensures order and system in play and adjusts the persons-at-play’s roles in relation to one other.

Furthermore, toys’ significance for play depends on their design. In well designed toys, the degree of reality and complexity are self-evident. Such toys create a metacommunication which determines the intensity of play and of the dialogues between the participants. Einsiedler calls this process object transformation.

Object transformation can of course be either positive or negative depending on the genre, relationships and play themes, the age and development of the persons-at-play, the design of the toy(s) and the way it/they are used in play. It is important to note that very few toys point “forwards“ (are futuristic). The vast majority of toys point “back” to something which exists or existed in the past. For this reason, toys and play will also be determined by each other because toys and play text one another (on the foundation of the child’s gender, age and experience).


Reality, fiction and complexity

In the author’s experience, a child does not have the ability to differentiate between the fictive world (fiction) and the real world (reality) before the age of three. For this reason, all the young child’s descriptions of events and episodes which he has not experienced at first hand in the first 3-4 years of his life must be fiction (untrue stories or plain and simple lies!).

Before the age of 4-5 years, explanations even from the child’s closest friends, siblings and parents have to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is not until the age of 4-5 years old that child is capable of abstract thought (metacommunication) and object transformation - based on experimentation and fantasy - in relation to his own experiences of mastering situations and objects. Only then is the child able to connect his own experiences to informative messages.

By about the age of six, a child can differentiate between fantasy and reality but he is not capable of making a clear distinction between the world of fiction and the world of reality until he is 10 - and in some cases 12 - years old. From the very beginning, fiction is, therefore, the child’s primary medium for formulating his own experiences of his environment and of play. Information from reality is therefore most definitely secondary and begins only later to gain significance.

A child’s methods of communication are, however, not only determined by his individual development but also dependent on other factors, including context, culture, etc. This means that it is up to the observer to interpret/translate the child-at-play’s many metaphorical, fictive expressions as they appear in play, in dialogues, in narratives and stories - because, until the age of 12, the child-at play’s way of expressing play is fictive, not informative. And because adults formulate their experiences by means of a general, informative, descriptive and conceptual use of language, they find it difficult to understand and translate children’s fiction-based modes of expression.

The various types of metaphors and fictions in children’s play cannot, however, be interpreted without taking into account the way these are produced or how they are presented and communicated. Interpretation or translation of the text of play is therefore both a relative and a complex matter.

This is most clearly demonstrated in adults’ focus on children’s aggressive play, e.g. boys’ war play filled with killing and “murderous shrieking and wailing”.

These metaphors and fictions within play are all about something completely different, i.e. through play with experiments, scenarios, manipulation and parodies, children achieve and experience their way to a knowledge of justice and morality, life and death and the limits for aggressive patterns of behaviour - the very opposite of aggression, war and violence.

It is very often impossible to interpret or translate all the complex meanings in play. Besides, to a very great extent, the meanings vary according to tradition, the knowledge of the participants, their personality, experience, age, etc. and the context of play.


Development categories

Despite the fact that this book clearly illustrates how play and toys have each developed, the observer will still find it difficult to interpret/translate the significance of the immaterial categories for play and the material categories’ significance for toys. I believe that children make sense of the world using concepts, expectations and a comprehension of their own.

They not only see the world as it is but also as they are at a particular time. There is no “1:1 ratio” between the world and the child’s impression of it.

A child’s fictive picture of the world will, therefore, always be decisive for what becomes fact. For children, there is no external data they can pick up which leads to a theoretical picture of the world or a theory about life and living. Experience alone is no guarantee for adaptation and comprehension. Man has collected experience over thousands of years of daily contact with the physical world around him without having concluded anything about its simplest statutes. Previous knowledge and experience are important factors which ensure that conversations and dialogues are as alert and relevant as possible so that the relationship between “partners in dialogue” or participants in play can create a basis for experience, learning and understanding.

It was Peirce who formulated the fundamental categories within pragmatic maxims by creating a triad system for a variety of spheres of research and investigation - which I have taken the liberty of equating with play!

Peirce’s terms firstness, secondness and thirdness are a realistic outline of a development process through which a person, by means of his recognition of the circumstances in his milieu, uses these logical phenomena to make sense of necessity, existence and environment.

It was Jaynes who described the development of the origins of consciousness and the “I” through three stages - and who also stated that for a human being to function, consciousness is not necessary and that consciousness is a relatively recent invention, dependent on history. And it was Buber who stated that the foundation of values for dialogics only exists on the strength of the will of “I” and “Thou” to act on a common desire for immediacy, mutuality and intimacy.

By comparing these outlines of developmental processes, it is my intention to show that alternative knowledge about developmental categories related to sensing and experience of real situations and fictive spheres may help to interpret what children play, do and say in their socio-cultural network and interactions.

What is still missing are interpretations and translations to tell us what children play, do and say really means!


Research perspectives

Caillois research: What kinds of toys appear to be real instruments in real situations but are not?

Einsiedler research: Studies in object transformation with reference to different types of toys and degrees of complexity.

Research into the ability of children at different ages to differentiate between different metaphors and fictive forms of expression in play and play with toys.

Research into different methods of interpreting and translating metaphors and fictive expressions in children’s play and in play with toys.

Child development processes seen from the perspective of cultural transition.



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