earlier theories of play

Again, still working with some historic publications… Brian Sutton-Smith once gave an overview of the history of play theories. To quote some of the bits I found interesting, he wrote:

“The earlier nineteenth-century theories of play – those of surplus energy and relaxation-appear to have been, in part, a product of underlying semi-scientific notions about mechanics and the organization of energy. Similarly, the preparatory and recapitulation theories of the nineteenth century were a direct outcome of evolutionary theory. To deal with these theories only in terms of these underlying “scientific” metaphors, however, is to miss their social context and perhaps the very reasons why they were invented in the first place.
During the nineteenth century the western World was in the throes of its centuries-long transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Masses of people had been cut loose from the tribal and parochial ties that had previously ordered their lives (Katz, 1975). The growing cities of the world were afloat with immigrants from farms or from foreign places. The shift from a family-based to a factory-based economy took the father out of the home and placed the childrearing burden even more fully on the mother. The first major response to the organization of these children was education….” (p.1)

“If we are to believe Aries (1962), in earlier centuries children had faded anonymously into the village crowd as early as seven years of age. In the nineteenth century, both children and adolescents were increasingly segregated from adult life and their activities and proper tutoring demanded explanation. Parents, in particular mothers, were told what to do with this novel reality. Psychologists expressed their own particular child-rearing biases, offering as guidance theories of recapitulation (Hall) or imitation (Baldwin) or reward (Thorndike) or habit (James), or activity (Dewey). But in general, and harking back to the theory of evolution, the theorists stressed that it was through selected kinds of physical actions that the child would receive his proper education. Control the child‘s muscles and you could control his mind and ethics (though Baldwin demurred).” (p.2)

“The third response to the problem of organizing activities for children was the advocacy of special pfay spaces for them. Between 1890 and 1920, one hundred million dollars was spent on playgrounds in America. Where none had been contrived before, now they were regarded as essential. There was an immediate and dramatic drop in the crime rate, although Cavallo (in press) suggests that what actually occurred was a drop in the arrest rate. Immigrant children loose on the streets were constantly being arrested for various activities, including their own folk games. When these took place in the allotted spaces, however, the children were no longer arrested. As the playground organizers of the day explained it, on the playgrounds the children were safe from the immorality of the streets.” (p.2)

“Not everyone agreed with this rather negative view of the state of childhood. The folklorists, where they made their views known, generally opposed the organization of children’s play.” (p.3)

“Dann (1978) has written both of the liberating effects of urban street life of many New York children who had come from the ghettoes of Europe, as well as about the vigor of their street folk games. Still the leaders of the playground movement were appalled by the behavior of these immigrant children whom they quickly denounced as “depraved” (Mergen, 1977).” (p.3)

“It was argued that the immigrant child, if kept away from his corrupting parents on the “sylvan sanctuaries” [sic] of the playground, could then be entrusted to the forces of peer pressure under the guidance of the wise organizer so that he would learn the virtues of cooperation and teamsmanship as well as the mainstream ethics of American fair play.” (p.3)

“…two evolutionary theories of play made their important contributions. Groos, in his two works, The Play of Animals (1898) and The Play of Man (1901), argued that children’s play has an instinctive basis and prepares the child for adult life. His notion that play socializes and is, therefore, of serious import, was itself a contradiction to earlier puritanic points of view. In time it became the central thesis about play in the twentieth century. Its essential message was that you can control the future of children if you look to their play.” (p.3)

As a society, we still do this, don’t we?

“There is an older tradition in play theory which precedes this collective one and still dominates most contemporary textbooks written about play. Play theory for the upper class status is orthodox play theory, and what it all has in common, from Schiller in 1800 to Csikszentmihayli in 1977, is that play is defined as a voluntary and solitary activity of the individual as a result of which he increases his mastery or his creativity.” (p.4)

Sutton-Smith refers to “two major paradigms which have long dominated play theory. The primary paradigm views play as an activity taken up voluntarily, usually in solitude and often with objects under control of the player. Resulting from such activity or fantasy are gains in cognitive or creative organization. While the primary paradigm appears to dominate the philosophical and psychological literature concerning play, the secondary paradigm is most likely found in anthropology, folklore, and sociolinguistics. The latter approach views play as a way of organizing collective behavior, as a form of human communication that reflects the enculturative processes of the larger society….” (p.6)

“Among those who may be considered primary paradigm researchers are psychologists who study solitary play and play with objects, and who espouse “arousal” theories of play (Berlyne, 1960). These researchers are “very much interested in the intrinsic motor within the solitary player which determines why he plays with this object rather than that object, and much concerned also with what it is about the stimulus character of the objects that affects his play. While they differ somewhat in whether they characterize these internal motors in metabolic, neurological, physiological, or informational terms, this group is similar in placing their major focus on intrapsychic characteristics of the human organism or the stimulus characteristics of the objects with which it plays” […] A second subgroup of primary paradigm researchers is concerned with play as a cognitive process. The emphasis is upon various forms of concept or symbol formation.” (p.6)

“If the varieties outlined above are not sufficient, consider the following quotation taken from the folklorist Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s views of psychology’s progress in studying play. She said (as cited in Sutton-Smith, 1979a, pp. 220-222):
One thing we have not been very interested in is cultural definitions of play that are ethnographically derived. We have not asked what constitutes play in a given community. In fact, we have been somewhat ethnocentric – either academic-centric or American-centric. For the most part we have been studying play in our own culture and therefore have not been forced to question our own cultural notions of play. In contrast the definition of play becomes very problematic in the anthropological literature when nonwestern societies are compared with western ones and when generalizations are made about the absence or presence of play behavior.”” (p.7)

“In summary, not only are there scholarly differences regarding the study of play across disciplines, but there are also differences concerning the definitional characteristics of the phenomenon.” (p.7)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Brian Sutton-Smith (1980) ‘Children’s Play: Some sources of play theorizing.’ New Directions for Child Development 9, pp.1-16

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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