Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paradoxes of Play

Penrose LEGO by Erik Johansson

When something seems familiar we often assume we already know just about everything about it. We don’t bother looking hard or thoughtfully to reacquaint ourselves with it. Instead we gloss over gaps in our understanding and the hidden complexity. We are inclined to keep things simple.

Play is like that. We think we know what it is. Play is fun, what kids do, a child’s work.

As pervasive as play may be, understanding it is not easy. On the one hand, children everywhere and all ages seem to know how to play and what it means to play. On the other, adults struggle to relate it to work, pleasure, learning, or ritual to understand it. We contrast it to work and learning in its apparent lack of structure, material consequences, and productivity.

Play is variously viewed as the release of tensions, mastery over anxieties and conflicts, preparation for life, consolidating learning already acquired. It integrates several dimensions, each with potentially significant implications for development, learning, and wellbeing. Play seems simple, but is complex. That’s just one paradox of play.

More than merely difficult to define or categorize, play is full of paradoxes inhabiting its very core. They are not just variations among how experts and theorists define or explain play and they are not oversights of the considerable benefits of seemingly inconsequential play. More than interesting inconsistencies, they are aspects of play that are actively at variance with itself.

I am not the first to be struck by the disjunctions that characterize play. Brian Sutton-Smith explored this in The Ambiguity of Play in which he suggests that there is both a push towards and a resistance to orderliness in play. An interview with Thomas Henricks in the American Journal of Play highlights several examples of paradoxes in play as he explores how play helps cultivate who we are. In “The Paradox of Play” Ann Hulbert suggests that with the recent campaign to restore play in the lives of children, we run the risk of decreasing the very playfulness we are eager to increase.

But there are more. Below are 6 paradoxes of play that draw on the work of  theorists and researchers concerned with play: Doris Bergen, Stuart L. Brown, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, George Forman, Thomas Henricks, Johan Huizinga, and Anthony Pelligrini.

Rules, Risk, and the Roots of Later Experience
Play is order making and order breaking. It both honors rules and encourages breaking them in order to advance play. In play we land on an idea and develop it, try out suggestions, and transform it along the way. We work with our imaginations before acting on ideas, but in following suggestions, play is likely to change. A scene may change from a distant planet to a jungle, to inside of a cave. We develop rules for tossing a ball back-and-forth and change them to make the game more interesting or challenging. Play at building structures can become play at knocking buildings down–with equal delight. These transgressive acts extend and enrich play.

In play we take risks without being excessively risky. Whether building a block tower, zooming down a zip-line, or climbing a tree, play allows us the freedom to spontaneously explore, to push limits, build confidence, and feel mastery over few real-world realities. Even in rough-and-tumble play that looks violent, children are testing physical competence, interacting cooperatively, and engaging in social problem solving. George Forman describes play as problem solving without risk. By being able to assess risks and take risks, we learn to manage risk.

Play seems carefree, but it also helps us confront and manage unpleasant experiences and related emotions. In play we can change our relationship to what we have experienced. Imagination, creativity, and humor may help in working through and dealing with fears, frustration, and feelings of being left out, scared, or uncertain. A change in the story line, charging like T Rex, or invoking super powers may allow us to practice positive feelings and transform negative feelings.  

The learning benefit of play is not because it is a way of teaching specific skill sets, but as a medium for development and learning. Less concerned with what we are learning, play is about how we learn. Play is a search for knowledge, a form of agency, a vehicle for constructing meaning, a means for understanding physical and social relationships, and a way of conveying ideas. For young children, play is the primary medium for learning, but it is also a learning medium for future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Play nurtures skills that can only be acquired early in life, but that we need later in life. Life-long dispositions and skills are deeply rooted in early experience, including play. Play demands focus, collaboration, negotiation, and preparing for the unexpected. Without play, we have difficulty regulating appropriate emotions, interacting socially, and responding to the unexpected. In play, we improvise in response to changing conditions, discover our strengths, find choices, and respond to the world’s responses in creative ways.

In play, we both lose ourselves and find ourselves. Frequently we become so deeply involved in play that we reach a level of experience called flow and lose track of everyday concerns such as time and place. This happens when the player’s skills engage perfectly with the situations in which they find themselves. Sometimes at play, we are intensely in the moment and, at the same time, transported to another time or place.

The Promise of Paradox
Play is easily minimized because it falls so visibly in the world of young children. Furthermore its self-rewarding nature and apparently purposeless engagement is an anomaly in a world that values goals and impact. It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss it so readily. Play is not just for the early years, but is pervasive throughout life and extremely important to human functioning.

Play is filled with paradoxes at its core. While not a new idea, these paradoxes are often overlooked or ignored. Certainly they make understanding play elusive. They interfere with defining it neatly; unpacking it in simple, convenient units; and measuring their value. Regardless of how we characterize these paradoxes, they matter. Separately and collectively, they hint at play’s richness, potential, and enduring value. They hold a key to understanding play as a powerful force in children’s development and clues to unleashing it.

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