D. W. Winnicott, whose work I will profile in this blog, theorized that play, which exists in a transitional space between reality and fantasy, promotes growth and facilitates creativity, making it fundamental to the development of human culture. A psychoanalyst and pediatrician, Winnicott wrote about the development of identity in the context of relationships and stressed the importance of a facilitating environment for the growth of a healthy child. Part of such a facilitating environment is its capacity to support the role of play in the development of psychic structure. Similarly, phenomenological philosophers and modern intersubjective and relational psychoanalysts maintain that, as human beings, our identities are predicated on relationships with others, that identity emerges and is sustained in an intersubjective field that includes not only self and other but the larger cultural context as well. What is the role of play in the development of identity and intersubjectivity, specifically, and culture, more broadly? Moreover, if play is, in fact, an instrument of change, does that make it fundamentally transgressive? If so, perhaps that is why we have so much anxiety about play.
In recent years, I have read articles in the popular media that betray such anxiety. They decry the fact that children no longer engage in free, imaginative play, that they are instead spending hours of time in front of screens watching or playing video games. This new kind of playing, they suggest, cannot be healthy. Writers, psychologists, social workers, teachers, and even politicians speculate on the possible ill effects of this putative change in children’s behavior. In modern culture, we maintain clear boundaries between work and play, with work being serious business and play being frivolous diversion, harmless activity for children, at best, but wasteful activity for adult slackers, at worst. At the same time, modern companies, such as Google, are increasingly offering opportunities for play in the workplace, suggesting a growing awareness that play is perhaps a necessary precursor of creative inspiration. Psychoanalysts are still writing about the importance of play in the formation of identity and human development. And scholars, such as psychologist Susan Linn, are writing about the importance of make believe. Culturally, we have all sorts of conflicting ideas about what constitutes healthy and unhealthy play and what makes play important.
But what types of play might be important in such a study? I offer the following laundry list, more or less in chronological order, certainly not exhaustive, to spark your imagination as you think with me about the role that play might play in developing and healing identity. Childhood games such as peek-a-boo, rhyming, made up songs, building blocks, dress up, cars and trucks, puppets, sandbox, dolls, house. Imaginative games that involve role play. Board games and card games based solely on luck, such as War, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, and those based on skill, such as checkers, chess, mancala, connect four. Board games for adults, such as Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride, Incognito and many others. Competitive sports, both team and individual. Cooperative games, including board games and group activity challenges. Playground games such as tetherball and four square. Competitive sports, both individual and team. And, of course, video games. Play can be very serious business, but I also want to stress that the capacity to be playful, to engage in pretense for enjoyment and exploration, is also part of what is conjured up for me when I think of play.
In his book The Ambiguity of Play, play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) outlines what he calls the rhetorics of play. Essentially, these rhetorics describe the underlying values and assumptions on which scholars from varying disciplines (sociology, anthropology, psychology, play theory) base their understanding of play. Sutton-Smith unpacks each of the rhetorics he identifies to reveal both the possibilities and the limitations they offer for understanding the nature of play. His rhetorics of progress and self are most closely aligned with the psychoanalytic understanding of play in that they focus on how play facilitates development (rhetoric of progress) and, more particularly, the development of an autonomous self or individuality (rhetoric of self). Interestingly, his rhetoric of identity is not so much about individual identity in the way that I am using the word here but rather about the development of cultural identity. Festivals and parades, which solidify a communal identity, fall under Sutton-Smith’s rhetoric of identity. However, since my assumption is that the intersubjective field in which identity is forged includes culture, then perhaps the rhetoric of identity overlaps in some ways with the rhetorics of progress and self.
Sutton-Smith also identifies a rhetoric of power in which he argues that “play at both adult and child levels gives expression to concerns over power and identity.” Although he separates this rhetoric of power from those of progress and identity, I think they also overlap, as our notions of ourselves as more or less powerful beings in relation to others are parts of our identities. Competitive game playing is obviously a play arena in which power dynamics are explored and power relations defined and solidified. In my work with children, however, I have noticed that even in cooperative games, issues of power inevitably emerge. A group of third graders playing a game they call Family (basically a role playing game in which each child plays the role of a member of the family or a pet) develop hierarchies not only by who gets to play what role but even more importantly (and subtly) by who gets to make the rules of the game. Indeed, in much of child’s play, power is exercised during the process of rule-making. So how do the rhetorics of self and progress (that are concerned with identity development) converge with the rhetorics of power and identity (that are concerned with culture and how the relationships between individuals in society are defined) to offer an understanding of intersubjectively formed identities?
It starts, of course, in infancy. One game that most human infants and mothers play is Peek-a-Boo, a game that helps a baby to consolidate her sense of self and other, to form a symbolic representation of the other in her mind, an image that remains, even when the real other is hidden. A baby’s participation in Peek-a-Boo marks the earliest moments of an inkling of separate identity and relationship with others, and it happens in the context of a playful interaction with another. So what is the relationship between play and the ongoing, perhaps lifelong, development of identity?
As a psychoanalyst, I use play in my work with children and have long assumed that play is, in fact, the work of children. But what does that work accomplish? And moreover, what if we begin to see play as the work of adults? What work is accomplished when adults play? What benefits accrue when work is experienced as playful? I have learned in my therapeutic work with adult patients that play and playfulness in the therapeutic hour are instrumental in the process of change. I am interested in learning more about the role of play in the process of change and will be exploring that question in future posts. Most psychotherapists would agree that a child’s inability to play or to engage only in rigid or stereotyped play is an indicator of psychopathology. But how does play in child therapy really work? Is the play in play therapy the totality of the work or must we interpret or make some symbolic understanding of the play in order for a child to heal? In adolescent and adult therapy, how is play associated with transformation and healing of the self?
While I want to ground my work in the scholarship of psychoanalysts, sociologists, and anthropologists who study play, I am also interested in exploring ideas about play that children, parents, teachers and therapists have. To that end, look for a podcast in the coming months in which I interview players about their experiences with play. I would like to discover what they are thinking about what’s happening in play. What do children say they enjoy about play? Is it different from what adults say? What do they imagine life would be like without play? What do parents think about their children’s play? Do they play with their children? What do they feel about it? Finally, are therapists worried about what is happening to play in contemporary culture? What do they think is the role of play in psychotherapy with children? With adults? My hope is that this podcast will situate the scholarship in the context of popular ideas about play.
As my site develops, you will see videos and photographs of children and adults playing to illustrate and bring to life the more abstract concepts about the nature and purpose of play. Music is another way of being playful. The first song I have identified: Girls Just Want To Have Fun. I am sure that there are many more!
I am a neophyte when it comes to multimedia skills. This is my first blog. I have never made a video. The only audio recordings I have made were made when I was a child, with a reel-to-reel tape recorder that I was given when I was about 12. My brother and I would make up stories and record them. Sometimes, we would do our own renditions of television shows we liked. It was child’s play. Or was it? My photo editing skills are also limited to cropping and printing family photos for a frame or scrapbook. Despite my lack of experience or perhaps because of it, I am looking forward to playing with the as yet unknown. If Winnicott was right about play and creativity, and I suspect he was, the unknown spaces into which I venture will provide me a playground in which my own creative insights can emerge.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The Ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
In this book, Sutton-Smith, a play theorist, explores the rhetorics we use to talk about, study, and understand the nature of play. In deconstructing these rhetorics, he forces the reader to examine how our very construction of notions about play delimit what we see and observe about what’s so important about play. His chapters on the play rhetoric of progress challenge us to think about how modern ideas (stemming from the enlightenment) that focus on identity and romantic notions of humanity give rise to notions that play is instrumental in the forward progress of human development, both individual and species-wide.
Linn, S. (2008). The case for make believe: Saving play in a commercialized world. New York: The New Press.
While I have not yet read this book, I know that Linn is a psychologist who is worried about the impact of the waning of play in a commercialized world. I suspect that she will argue for the importance of play in human development and the maintenance of mental health.
Winnicott, D. W. (2005). Playing and reality. New York: Routledge.
In this late book, Winnicott, a brilliant psychoanalyst and pediatrician, ties together much of what he had written earlier about the importance of play. Like Linn, he argues that play is critical for development and for human culture.
Phillips, A. (1988). Winnicott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Phillips does a brilliant reading of the work of D. W. Winnicott.
Fonagy, P., Gergley, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2004). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.
I put this book on the list because these psychoanalysts offer an intersubjective theory of development that studies how healthy development proceeds and also how it can go off track, particularly in the context of trauma. Several chapters address the role of play in the development of the self and the ability to regulate affect. One theory that I would like to explore is that play contributes to the maintenance of positive emotional states.
I have located the following Videos through Ted and Youtube. I expect that I will use them in part as theory and in part as subjects for close reading. I am also aware that there are videos out there with Winnicott, and I hope to be able to locate some to use here. I know also that there are many videos out there on therapy and child therapy, and I imagine using some as illustrations of the transformative role of play in therapy.
Antonio Damasio: The Quest to Understand Consciousness
Damasio is someone I rely on for understanding of identity development.
Gabe Zichermann: How Games Make Kids Smarter
This is possibly a rebuttal to the videogame naysayers.
Brenda Laurel: Why not make video games for girls?
This may also be a rebuttal to the videogame naysayers.
Ze Frank: My web playroom
For understanding the relationship between play and work and also for looking at modern (web-based) forms of play.
Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make the world better
This may be a defense of video gaming, but perhaps gaming in general.
Kary Mullis: Play! Experiment! Discover!
This is a talk about the relationship between play and discovery or creativity.
Steve Keil: A manifesto for play, for Bulgaria and beyond
This is an argument in favor of not being too serious to “revitalize the economy, education, and society.”
Gever Tulley: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do
This talk may be a bit far from my central topic, but perhaps I would like to make a link between risk, even danger, and play. This may fit in with some ideas about play being transgressive.
Isabel Behncke: Evolution’s gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans
This title suggests a rhetoric of progress, that play is necessary for evolution.
Tim Brown: Tales of creativity and play
As the title suggests, this is about creativity and play.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow the secret to happiness
I am wondering if there is a relationship between Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about flow and play. If he doesn’t make the case, can I?
Benefits of Outdoor Play Dirt is Good
A very short video by Dr. Stuart Brown on the health importance of outdoor play.
Play Theory—ASU Preschool
This is a short video from a school that promotes the importance of play in learning.
Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Just for fun!
Paul Simon, Mother and Child Reunion
What does it say about connection and separation and the role of play?