Play v. Learning: Are they really so separate?

In my last blog post, I noted that we seem to have conflicted ideas about what constitutes good and bad sorts of play and also what the importance of play really is. Some concern about play seems to revolve around an assumption that playing takes time away from work and learning; if we allow children too much time for play, therefore, their learning will be compromised. On the other hand, some play researchers argue that learning is actually enhanced by play, both directly and indirectly. Even this perspective, however, seems to ignore (or lack understanding of) the critical role psychoanalysts believe play has in the very formation of identity.

In the psychoanalytic tradition, beginning with Freud and elaborated by Winnicott, play is considered crucially important to the development of mental life, indeed of the very reality of consciousness and a sense of self. It seems that such psychoanalytic wisdom has not completely made it into the our contemporary  cultural consciousness in the United States where conflicted feelings about play persist, where parents worry that their children will not be prepared for the demands of the “real” world if they do not work hard enough in school, where unstructured playtime has been largely replaced by organized sports and adult-determined play dates, and where opportunities for creative play, in which children make up their own games and determine the rules, are increasingly eclipsed by video-gaming, in which the game designer sets the parameters for play.

Prompted by his clinical experience, Winnicott theorized that play exists in the transitional space between inner reality (our subjective experience) and outer reality (the world of objects, objectively perceived) and makes possible our ability to negotiate and navigate between inner and outer, between me and not me. In other words, play is where inner, psychic reality and the outer world of objects meet. Winnicott and later Fonagy et al theorize that the very development of consciousness and thought and the awareness that we have separate identities but live in relation to others is dependent upon the ability to play. Play allows for the generation of symbolic thought, which is integral to subjectivity and to communication. (1)

In 2009, writing in The New York Times, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and founder  of the National Institute for Play  Stuart Brown argues for a reconsideration of play time. In his words, “we need a change in public consciousness about play — to show that it is not trivial or elective.” He points to the relationship between deficits in play and mental health problems such as ADHD, childhood depression, and violence and notes that play “can provide intense skill learning” and can actually enhance academic performance.

Just a year earlier, in her second book, The Case for Make Believe Susan Linn notes that play is a component of work, that it promotes mastery and allows for growth. Following Melanie Klein (one of the first child psychoanalysts), Linn argues that play is a medium for the communication of inner experience and a means for children to express and work through trauma. Drawing on Winnicott’s concept of transitional objects and transitional space, she laments the fact that at earlier and earlier ages, children are focused on screens and less apt to invest objects with characteristics that they create from their imaginations. This shift in the quality of play, she maintains, is stunting the development of creativity.

At the same time, fears about possible child molesters and abductions, intensified by situations such as one in Maryland, in which parents were investigated for allowing their kids to walk home from a park alone leave many parents too anxious to allow children time and space for free play. Moreover, colleagues who are teachers tell me that parents are really much more concerned about their children’s academic performance than about allowing them time for recess or play.  Indeed, some teachers report that they have resorted to renaming playtime to appease parents who believe that school should be all about learning and work. Peter Gray would say that these parents have fallen victim to a false dichotomy between learning and play. In his blog, The Play Deficit, he notes that “policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.” Gray argues that quite the contrary, “At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school.” Good play, he says, offers opportunities for practicing skills most necessary in adult life, including negotiation, compromise, and empathy.

In my clinical practice, I have observed that parents of children of all ages betray confusion about their own feelings about the importance of play and are frequently stuck in thinking that maintains the dichotomy between learning and play. On one hand, they are aware of the academic stress that their children are experiencing from the demands of school and schoolwork. Indeed, they seek psychotherapy for their children because such stress has resulted in panic attacks, self-injury, eating disorders, and attention problems. And yet these same parents are very quick to call me with concerns when their children slack off in school or come home with a poor report card, and they are often ready to punish or restrict playful activities in order to force their children to get their work done.

It is understandable that parents would be slow to recognize the significance of play. The psychoanalytic literature is not readily accessible to a non-psychoanalytic audience. Philosophical and theoretical arguments about the development of consciousness are not easy reading. Parenting literature, which is much more accessible, often gives short shrift to the importance of play. For example, in The 7 Secrets of Successful Parents, Marianne Neifert, MD offers some very reasonable advice to parents. For example, she stresses the importance of unconditional love in the development of a child’s sense of self-worth; she points to the significance of structure, routine, and consistency in discipline in creating a safe environment; she encourages parents to work as a team, either with their spouses or with other loving adults, as parenting is no easy task. However, not one of her seven secrets involves playing with children or even allowing them time for play. In an article of 1786 words, the word “play” appears only 3 times. One way to offer unconditional love, she says, is to give time to a child, by reading, playing or talking. In order to teach responsibility, she suggests role-playing and having a child ask someone else to play. At no time does she stress the importance of play in identity development, mental health, learning or even skill building.

With Stuart Brown, I believe that we need a reconsideration of play. It is important to teach parents why play is essential to the healthy development of their children. And while one outcome of play is learning, I believe that even more important is the development of a healthy sense of self and a readiness to enter into balanced relationships with others.

In my next post, I will explore the relationship between play and mental health and the significant cost to the self when we are deprived of opportunities to play.

^1. As Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, and Target note in their book, Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self, theories of psychic development beginning with Freud rely on the understanding that play is essential to our emerging subjectivity. Grounding their ideas Freud’s “original proposals about the nature of psychic reality,” they theorize that the acquisition of the ability to mentalize (ie be aware of one’s own and others’ subjective experience)”is a function of the quality of early attachment experiences…[and] occurs principally in the course of repeated experiences of interactions with a playful carefigiver who reflects the child’s feelings and thoughts…”

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