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40 MAY 2002
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Children at play

Dr Oelrich Nell

I had occasion recently to watch a nursery school group listening to a story. They were most interested and showed their happiness as they participated with the teacher in the presentation. The story ended and the announcement that it was playtime was made. There was noise, there was delight, the story was now forgotten or in the background, as the children rumbled over the floor to get to the playground. I do not have to tell you what happened when they got there. They ran, shouted, moved around, squirmed, wriggled, imitated each other, pretended, repeated movements over and over again, touched and handled objects. All these aspects have been delightfully described in literature. I do not want to dwell on what you know so well already, but rather bring you something new, for after all that is the aim of this excellent conference.

Much has been written about play. It was as early as 1898 that Groos in his book “The play of animals” suggested that animals do not play because they are young but rather because they have youth they play. S. Freud was writing about the play of children in 1905, and with Anna Freud and Melanie Klein had much to say about the emotional import of play. Piaget (1951) and Vygotsky (1966) and Werner (1948) emphasised the cognitive aspects of imaginative play. Other researchers abound but rather than skating around lightly over many, as was suggested yesterday let us dig deeper at a few issues.

Sapora and Mitchell (1961) summarise a number of definitions of play which capture the sense of the layman's definition. Play is activity which is itself free, aimless, amusing, and diverting; play is what we do because we want to do it; play is voluntary and self-sufficient behaviour. Let us then get to mentioning a few of the theories about play and see what we can learn from them, that is, what such theories might hold for us in the form of a practical message.

To start off, why bother at all about theory? Well, because as William James said very long ago, the big world is a big buzzing confusion of everything, and even as far as play is concerned there are so many aspects and events and activities that go under the name of play that it is very necessary to categorise and simplify them to a single occurrence of play. We are constantly trying to reduce the bewildering array of ideas about play events to a simpler, unified explanation, and this is what theory is all about. Let me add that theory does not mean big words. (Laurens van der Post had a beautiful but simple way of explaining.)

Classical theories of play were concerned in the first place with those elements in the nature of man that lead him to play, and also with the purposes of play. They are concerned, for instance, with the idea of energy expenditure of the person. When the child has met the demands of the environment and has done what in his small way he is compelled to do, (such as, for instance, putting his shoes away, tidying his room, etc.) the energy that has not yet been used up is now channelled into non.productive activity called play. I do not like the word “non-productive” and much of the talk which follows will show how out of place the word really is. Secondly classical theorists suggested that play was an instinct, that it was an inherent or pre-existent tendency to emit behaviour when none of the more powerful instincts were at work. Thirdly, it was seen as a series of instinctive responses which allowed the child to prepare for the most important state called adulthood. To other classical theorists play was instinctive recapitulation of the responses emitted during the development of the race. These were the responses which were useful for survival and were stamped in. It must be noted that all these classical theories were in the form of armchair philosophy and were not really supported by experimental investigation. Recent theories have moved away from trying to explain the phenomena called play as was the case with the classical theorists, and have attempted rather to examine the content of behaviour.

One of the most illustrious of modern theories is that proposed by Piaget. He sees play as part of the whole realm of developmental dynamics in a child. As he studies children, Piaget came to the conclusion that play is a stage in the child's thinking about reality. The child begins to play when he becomes somewhat familiar with the environment and play continues as behaviour which is directed to that which is already familiar. In other words each schema that is already formed becomes the launching pad for another more complex schema. One of the most primary schemata is the sucking movement. Initial sucking of a nipple is followed by sucking sometimes of the father’s finger which leads to the sucking of a piece of apple to the sucking of the teat of a bottle and so on, until all manner of complexities enter into what was a simple original schema. Piaget’s idea of play was that it had as its primary object to mould reality to the whim of the learner. As the child moves, comes into contact with, lifts, holds, sorts, and is engaged in other items of play he begins to note their similarities and differences, their dimensions and their characteristics. They form initial schemata into the developmental cognitive pattern of the child. Again these are launching pads, as they become functionally autonomous for other, more complex schemata.

I think of play that centres around art. Clay or plasticine, for instance, produces tactile sensations (primary schemata) where the child experiences and assimilates the texture, the mass, etc. He slowly begins to know that its pliability permits it to be shaped by him. He arranges relationships between sizes as he shapes various objects, for example a big daddy snake and a small baby snake, made out of a big and smaller length of clay. It is not so much the excellence of the model of the snakes but more the idea of relationships that is going to stand him in good stead in many of the schemata, learning or otherwise, that he forms later in his development. To Piaget, then, this play of the child is very quickly equipping him with many ready-made issues or facts for his life. You and I can calculate very rapidly the height of this wall “we do not really need rulers to give a quick and a fairly accurate estimate.

We pass on to some observations based on another theory of play. In 1955 Freud said that it is clear that in their play children repeat everything that has made a great impression on them in real life. In doing so, they act out the strength of the impression and slowly but surely make themselves master of the situation. However he adds it is obvious that the play of the child is always being influenced by a wish that dominates, namely, the wish to be grown up and do what grown people do. How often doesn’t the little girl come down the passage with mommy’s shoes, mommy’s dress – in fact as much of mommy’s that she can possibly muster? Let us play cowboys and crooks “I'll be John Wayne, who do you want to be?" Let’s play weddings, let’s play barbecues, let’s play racing drivers “I’m Jodie, you be Jackie". Even unpleasant experiences are used for the content of play. Let’s play doctors. I want to take your tonsils out. Its going to be sore but don’t worry because daddy will bring you a nice doll if you are good.

Freud also mentioned how seriously children take their play and how much emotion they spend on it. My two girls always played school-school. The younger always had to be the pupil whilst the older daughter was always the teacher. One evening the younger, Beverly, was in tears after the afternoon's play. I don’t always want to be the child; I want to be the teacher. Needless to say, Denise was compassionate and Beverly was promoted to be an assistant teacher, Denise became the principal and the dolls became the pupils. And needless to say Beverly still suffered under elder sister. Despite all the emotion with which the child plays, he or she is still able to distinguish the play from the reality. Very often the child links his imagined world of objects to the tangible and visible things of the real world. On the farm in the Eastern Cape, very near Grahamstown, Joy, my friend, and I were two soldiers who fought the enemy with spears made of long pieces of thick wire hammered to a point. The enemy – well they were the aloe trees that always bore the gashes of our savage attacks.

The care worker's role
A worker can quite easily handle and consider what she wants to offer the child in the realm of pictures, stories and impressions. However it is good to avoid the suppression of figures important to the self-expression of the child. The aloes near Grahamstown might still have gashes, well healed by now, but possibly I do not have so much aggression.

Where is the worker whilst all this is happening? Is it essential for workers to be with children when they do their fantasy or symbolic play? Should workers, or some of them whilst others drink their tea, be watching out only for accidents, rough play or bad language?

A child needs to be taken seriously in his play, and a worker should be a partner to him. The worker at this time as a partner is not only there to reward the child's efforts or to put it more scientifically, to reinforce his responses, but also to reward what is intrinsic in these responses or the attributes of his responses. I want to move away a little from the idea of play as learning or work according to the behaviour modification idea if you wish, and suggest a continuum of pure play to pure work. I think that when I am learning I am working – when my responses are rewarded I am receiving payoff – but when I am playing, the attributes of those responses – the intrinsic aspects – are rewarded and there is no payoff. The child needs a partner and sometimes loves a grown-up partner to share the unreality of his playworld – the non-rewarded playworld. He wants somebody with whom he can talk about his fantasy perceptions, about the mode of creativity; somebody who can show empathy with him just as he, in return, gives that somebody empathy. Alas, sometimes we can only show sympathy. Do you understand empathy? You know the experience of really feeling with somebody doing high jump? The craft of the worker lies in his ability to get along in the world of learning and in the world of make-believe. By participating in this way with the child he helps build a bridge with the child over which the realm of fantasy slowly proceeds to the realm of reality. “I want to fly to the moon in my little spacecraft “let’s do so“ but how “let’s build it “ but how “let’s make a round thing" “let’s make something where we can pull the string like a top" “let’s pull it until our spacecraft whizzes to the moon with you and me, Miss, inside.” I believe that the inventor of that glorious toy we used to play with might have gone through this process. It netted him several million dollars.

The best partners, then, for the child with his intrinsic spontaneous non-learning type of play are those workers who are most creative; someone who in his own creativity will recognise the creativity of the child. Do not go and play with the child with a literal or figurative stick or with an authoritarian attitude. To go to control children when they play is to indulge in a negative pedagogical approach. Let us rather co-operate, for by using our spontaneity, creativity and empathy we fortify, supplement and preserve the play of the child. Play implies freedom, and the freedom to play means that consideration is given by the worker to arranging for the child the prerequisites and the consequences of free play. Do not let the look on your face suggest to the child that getting down to some real play is impossible. The worker has to give the child a basic feeling of security such as heretofore has only been provided by the mother. The worker has to help the child to overcome fears and inhibitions, otherwise there is no play situation. Ludwig Binswanger has told us that the freedom in play arises out of love rather than a confrontation with anxiety. Clinical studies (Gilmore 1966; Erikson 1950) indicate to us that strong anxiety will paralyse the play habits of the child. In psychotherapy the psychologist confronts massive anxiety which imprisons a patient, and the patient finds his liberation through the love of a therapist who communicates his presence and makes the patient feel at home in his world. Freedom to indulge in creative play means that the child can trust himself by virtue of being trusted. Please do not try to create a play world where you, as the partner, are sitting loaded with anxiety.

What about your home as a playworld? Do you shudder if a child touches a TV knob or some precious antique? Which of these is the answer: Play elsewhere; put them out of reach; or build a home where you can share the things with your children? I think you know the answer. Let’s get back to being a partner. Can you relax, or are the administrative burdens or any other worry too heavy on your own shoulders so that you take them with you into your play with the child? You want the child to play many roles, you want him to be flexible and non-anxious enough to be now postman, now racing driver, now pilot. What about you as a partner? Do you become Big Jim Tate and fight with Gerrie with a big grin on your face and with half-clenched fists and weakly made muscles that don’t look half like Shanana? The child is going to put you right if you don’t get into the role: “Not like that, Daddy. When Jim Tate punches he is serious; he’s got big muscles and when he hits Gerrie the teddie is going to hurt!”

Play and the group
Lets move to the social aspect of play despite the fact that indirectly we have been speaking about it for a long time. When we introduce little Willie into the group for a game, we are mistaken if we think that all of his problems of social integration will fall away. The participants in a game find support from each other through the pleasure in play and the interest inherent in the activity. For the worker there remains, however, a delicate responsibility. The worker has to work through the social patterns of the child, which he has learned at home and which are the patterns which will determine his thinking and behaviour, so as to accommodate them to the child's new social group. We cannot accept the supposition that the children come equipped with an original or inbuilt ability to regulate satisfactorily to the group by themselves. They come with already-acquired social learning. They bring with them all manner of traits – aggression, submission, anxiety and confidence. They have to find a new orientation in the social group. To offer them help and at the same time maintain an open social system is a dual challenge that is most demanding for the worker.

One child must not always assume the exclusive power position in the social group. Hundertermarck (1969) says that the unlimited leader in the play must be changed into the follower at times. His role must change. As roles are changed and reversed the child has a new experience – he sees life from the other side of the fence – he makes discoveries about the other person, small as he is, and often he begins to appreciate the position of the other person, small as he is.

Finally, a last dig into theory. I have two little dogs. Each morning I say to them: Let’s go for a walk. There follows an enormous arousal for stimulus seeking. They jump around, they bite each other playfully, they go and fetch their leads. Stimulus seeking has been raised to its optimum. A stack of novel, challenging and interesting experiences awaits them – experiences which they have never had before. The doggie is not thinking in terms of learning anything; he does not want any reward for going on the walk. It is just the possibility of what exists in the field of stimuli that matters. I want to come back to dogs, but let me get to the child. The child hears the bell ring. It is playtime. His soul surges with the possibility of new stimuli. The increase in general activation and arousal, as I said right at the beginning of the paper, results in an increase of performance that requires no reward. The child remains at a high arousal level until the experience becomes old hat to him. This theory of arousal level has some obvious lessons for us. How interesting is our play area? Is there anything novel? Anything exciting? Or is it the same jungle jim in the same place and the same seesaw in the same place, with one moving from the one to the other in monotonous succession? Stereotypy, the constraints of a limited environment which offers few opportunities for an optimum level of arousal, can be soul-destroying. Hediger (1950) says that stereotyped behaviour presents a major problem in the management of animals emitting the stereotyped response since the responses are repeated so often that the animals become damaged through emotional wear and tear. The deprived animal shows restlessness, agitation and disorganisation. Could a child in a stereotyped play situation be a deprived child? Could parents or a worker who is so intent on certain “correct” responses being stamped in (one writer, for instance, has spoken of status variables that have to be stamped in during play) create a situation such that the work becomes boring and stereotyped for the child? Jogging around a field is not as easy as jogging along a highway: the same blades of grass, the same bumps, the same holes, the same shrubs, the same wire fence, the same surroundings. It is hard work. We are working indeed, working to get rid of excess flesh or to build up extra muscle to receive our reward in the social or health scene. When we are finished working in this deprived area we are tired. We have decreased our level of stimulation and the work is done. This is what we do in our offices, too. Play is different from work. Play means an increase in the level of stimulation and arousal.

Neuman (1971) gives us some clues and questions that we should ask ourselves in connection with play as work or play as an intrinsic, spontaneous activity. In other words, he gives us a set of criteria which should distinguish play from non-play.

1. Is the child undertaking the behaviour in order to achieve payoff? Is he behaving only for the experiential rewards associated with the process? Note the teams, colour blazers, etc., “only if I am selected.”

2. Is the behaviour controlled by someone other than the child or is the child himself in full control of his behaviour? Note again the analogy to professional sport.

3. Is the child forced by circumstances to recognise all the constraints of reality, or is it possible for the child to bend some aspects of the real situation by suspending temporarily associations between events in favour of an imagined image?

4. Does the setting include adults who require given behaviours that prevent the child's concern for the process of his behaviour, or does the setting provide for interactions that are freed from an externally applied final consequence?

In conclusion, let me say that much time has been given to a consideration of aspects of spontaneous play done for its intrinsic value to the person rather than play which is a learning or work-like situation which has payoff or extrinsic value attached to it. It is the intrinsic play that liberates the creativity of the child, that gives him freedom in his process of discovery and newer expression. If we have worked contrary to this spontaneous creativity and emphasised a type of pressurised learning during play, we need to think again. Sadler (1966) says that in our modern era we still suffer from a hangover of a wrong type of Puritan suspicion that someone somewhere might be having a good time when he should be manfully employed every golden minute. Let me close by quoting from the story of Martha (the conscientious worker) and Mary (the dreamer) where Jesus said to Martha: Martha, thou art troubled and careful about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 11, 41–42)


Erikson E.H., Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1950

Freud, A. The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence. London : Hogarth 1937

Freud, S. (1905) Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Standard Ed. 8, London: Hogarth Press, 1955

Gilmore, J.B., The Role of Anxiety and Cognitive Factors in Children's Play Behaviour. Child Development. 1966, 37, 397-416

Groos K, The Play of Animals (trans. EL. Baldwin) New York: Appleton, 1898

Hediger H, Wild Animals in Captivity. London: Butterworths, 1950

Klein M, The Psychoanalysis of Children. New York: Grove Press 1960

Neuman E.A, The Elements of Play. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Illinois 1971

Piaget J,Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. In J.S. Bruner, J. Alison and K. Sylva (eds.) Play: Its role in development and evolution. Harmonclsworth: Penguin Books, 1976

Sadler W.A., Play a Basic Human Structure. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry Vol. 6 No 3 1966

Sapora A.V. and Mitchell ED., The Theory of Play and Recreation (3rd Edition) New York: Ronald Press, 1961

Vygotsky L.S, see J.S. BrunerJ. Alison and K. Sylva (eds.)

Werner H, Comparative Psychology of Mental Development. New York: Science Editions, 1948

This feature: Nell, O. (1980) Children at Play. The Community's Children in Care. Cape Town: NACCW

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