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The Nature of Play

Henricks, T. (2008). The nature of play: An overview. American Journal of Play, 1(2),157- 180

In this literature review of play studies, Henricks draws on a range of ideological approaches to the nature of play, and renders a range of discipline discourses to understand play as both action and interaction.

The review situates itself in the Humanities and Cultural Studies, drawing heavily on Huzinga and Sutton-Smith but also urges the reader to understand that the ideological dispositions of the researcher inform the frame of analysis and the outcomes of each particular study. The overview touches on child psychology, history, cultural studies, educational theory and developmental psychology to build a rounded literature review. Towards the end of the study Henricks is explicit about his own ideological frames for play and positions himself as a researcher within the discourses. These closing sections help to shed light on the potential biases at play in the review, but also add additional dialogue to ways to explore, and indeed experience play.

Useful Quotes

“most theories of human play associate play with the freedom of human
beings to express themselves openly and to render creatively the conditions of their lives”. (p. 159)

“people at play are said to have broken free to conjure new possibilities of being and, even more importantly, to test the implications of those possibilities in protected forms of behavior. To play is to create and then to inhabit a distinctive world of one’s own making” (p. 159)

” First, play is a relatively free or voluntary activity in which people set the terms and timing of their own involvement. Second, play is distinguished from routine affairs by its absence of material consequences. Third, play is separated from other activities by its use of exotic rules, playing spaces, ideas of time, costumes, and equipment. Fourth, play is marked by the way in which it both honors rules and yet encourages transgression and disorder. And fifth, play promotes the banding together of participants in “secret” or otherwise outlandish societies.” (p. 159)

“play proves often a subtle, elusive phenomenon that seems to appear without notice and then disappear just as quickly.” (p. 160)

“Huizinga was uncertain whether to see play as a quality of “action” (that is, some pattern of individual behavior) or instead as an “activity”
or “interaction” (that is, as some more general pattern that takes into account all the different players and even the objects with which they are playing).” (p. 161)

“For Piaget (1962), play is a form of “assimilation,” when people try to impose their own personal ideas and behavioral strategies on the world.” (p. 161)

“When people play, they try out their own schemes on objects of every description and derive the satisfaction of seeing the effectiveness of those schemes.” (p. 161)

“Erik Erikson (1950) use play as a window that makes visible what people are thinking and feeling. In that light, play is sometimes seen as an attempt at ego mastery, that is, as a project in which people create a largely artificial world so that they can experience and manage different kinds of feelings.” (p. 161)

“play of all types seems to feature what the anthropologist Helen Schwartzman (1978) termed “transformative” orientations. Players try to form, de-form, and re-form circumstances in accordance with their own fascinations.” (p. 162)

” However, play can also be seen as an “activity” or “interaction,” that is, as a wider pattern of relationship or interaction between all the elements that are “in play” at any one time. To think of play in this way is to suggest that play may also be seen as a social or cultural “form.”” (p.162)

“scholars such as Brian Sutton-Smith (1978) and Mikhail Bakhtin
(1981) have seen play as a dialectical or dialogical activity, that is, as a kind of interactive process between a person (or persons) and the elements of the world. That interaction is filled with various kinds of improbability, excitement, and challenge, for no participant can predict precisely just where the play event will lead or what meanings will be discovered along the way. So understood, play is a dynamic, ever-changing process that is filled with ambiguity and surprise.” (p. 163)

“Brian Sutton-Smith and Diana Kelly-Byrne (1984) call these moralistic
tendencies the “idealization” of play. Those who thus idealize play emphasize that contemporary play scholars and play advocates place their subject matter within a broader vision of how humans should conduct themselves and indeed will conduct themselves if left to their own devices.” (p. 165)

“Play pursues neither truth nor justice but is instead a fundamentally aesthetic endeavor, a set of practices that explore the meanings of experience in a wide range of scenes and settings.” (p. 165)

“at the individual level, play is often said to give children (and the rest of us) a chance to develop socially useful ideas, values, skills, and relationships. In play, people grow emotionally, morally, and intellectually.” (p. 166)

“touting the functionality of play is an empty exercise unless you compare the consequences of play to the kinds of effects produced by participation in rival forms of activity such as work or ritual.” (p. 167)

“Play is, as many writers have put it, a laboratory of the possible,
and that laboratory is surely helpful to the development of both children and adults. Still, what people do in that laboratory can be morally, intellectually, and emotionally problematic.” (p. 168)

“play is commonly cut off from the customary interferences of society. Players feel themselves at ease and are able to focus on certain matters that are placed before them—often, existential dilemmas that have been “miniaturized” or otherwise ridded of their dangers.” (p. 169)

“In play we can “be ourselves” in imaginative and expansive ways” (p. 169)

“we should see play instead as what social scientists term an “ideal type,” that is, as a distinctive form or model for behavior that can be used to judge the character of real-life events.” (p. 170)

“In play, we explore possible pathways into the future.” (p. 174)

“To play is to see the world hypothetically—to dream and fantasize about what could be” (p. 175)

“play can be understood most productively as either a pattern of individual action or, somewhat more broadly, as a pattern of real-time interaction that involves both players and their objects.” (p. 176)

“transformation, a style of relating in which people identify, confront, and then manipulate the elements of the world along lines of their own choosing. Play is a project in which the players form, de-form, and re-form their own circumstances. These objects and contexts can include other people, physical objects, elements of nature, cultural forms and patterns, and even the players’ own bodies and psychological proclivities.” (p. 176-177)

“consummation, the idea that play is “completed” in the moments of its making. Unlike work, play is marked by a sense
of limitation or “eventfulness.”” (p.177)

“Players may approach the world in distinctive ways, but they quickly find

“themselves involved in situations or events that are not entirely under their control. These events commonly have a character or “logic” of their own, which the participants must figure out and then use as the framework for their actions.” (p. 178)

Further Reading

The paper offers an overview and refresher on key texts, but there are some additional lines of inquiry from the bibliographic sources.

Lieberman, J (1977) Playfulness: Its relationship to imagination and creativity

Sutton-Smith, B. (1978.)The dialectics of play. In Physical activity and human wellbeing = L’activité physique et le bien être de l’homme, ed. Fernand Landry and William A. R. Orban, 759–67.

Sutton-Smith, B., and Kelly-Byrne, D., (1984) The idealization of play. In Play in animals and humans, ed. Peter K. Smith, 305–21

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