plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? I’ve been reading a research article on PlosOne, When the Transmission of Culture Is Child’s Play (2012). The question that this research asks is: How does culture get transmitted between children? The answer is obvious to playworkers: it’s through play, of course. The paper’s author, Mark Nielsen (of the School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane), defines culture by writing:

. . . in order for any behaviour to be considered ‘cultural’ it must propagate in a social group.

In other words, a spread of habits and traditions in that group. It’s no great surprise to me, reading the research, that children’s playing will develop those children’s culture: the culture of stories and habits, traditions and obsessions, will ripen and grow in the unfolding playing of the children. Nielsen himself writes:

[Children] entering into playful games with peers is much more about engaging with others than it is about acquiring object-related skills.

So, it’s more interesting when reading this paper, I think, to ask the question: What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? I ask this because Nielsen’s research is based on a simple task demonstrated by an adult. He and his colleagues conducted experiments with two groups of pre-schoolers: one group in Australia and one in Sri Lanka. They got an adult to demonstrate to one child how to open a box. The Australian and Sri Lankan children were split into different groups and then, individually, shown how to open the box by the adult in two different ways: for children in the first group, Nielsen calls the method ‘Functional’; the second way is called ‘Playful’. In the Functional way, the adult makes use of a key or a stick to show how to open the box. In the Playful way, the adult uses a toy car or a toy cow. In both the Functional and Playful ways, the demonstrating adult deliberately uses the object (key, stick, car, or cow) with some actions that are irrelevant to how the box can be opened. So, for example, the object is scraped along the box’s lid or round and round the ground next to the box. The box can only be opened by either pushing or sliding the opening mechanism. In the Functional way, the key or stick actions are reinforced with functional words. In the Playful way, the car or cow actions are reinforced with sounds like ‘vroom, vroom’ or ‘moo, moo’. The final piece of the experiment here is the ‘control’ children: these individuals aren’t shown how to open the box by the adult and are given the opportunity to poke around with the box and find out for themselves.

So, that’s the set-up of the science bit. What the researchers were looking at was, when the first child in each of the Functional, Playful and Control groups was then asked to show a second child what they could do with the box (i.e. open it) – and then the second child did the same for a third child, and so on down a chain – how many of the irrelevant actions, like scraping the object along the top of the box, demonstrated by the adult would be copied and kept going by the children down the chain.

The researchers found that the children down the Playful chain (i.e. the ones who started off with the adult using ‘moo, moo’ or ‘vroom, vroom’ sounds with cow/car) kept a lot more of the irrelevant actions going (even though ‘child three’ in the chain was copying from ‘child two’ and not from the initial adult).

In the Functional chain (basically where the adult was teaching in a rational ‘this is how to do it’ adult sort of way), the children quickly lost a lot of the irrelevant actions, i.e. the actions that didn’t help them open the box, like scraping a stick in the dirt around the outside of the box.

Not surprisingly perhaps, to the playworker, the Control children chain (who had no initial demonstration by the adult and were given the opportunity to work it out themselves), didn’t really copy the irrelevant actions of the other children. The adult was still present and encouraging the child though.

Nielsen writes:

We reasoned that the . . . lack of children’s over-imitation of other children might be attributable to the nature of the initial adult demonstration. That is, when an adult seeds the target action in the first child it is typically done in a serious, pedagogical manner. This might facilitate adult-child transmission but not subsequent child-child transmission; especially if children have little or no reason to view their peer model as an expert.

So, in other words, this research is saying that an adult who playfully shows a child how to do something, will be faithfully copied (over-imitation) by the children more than the adult who functionally teaches a child how to do something. The play in the action is the attractor. The functionally taught child will work out how to perform the action from the adult, but won’t pass on all the adults’ irrelevant actions to other children.

Nielsen goes on: 

In contrast, when playing, children will unhesitatingly adopt the non-functional, arbitrary actions and behaviours of their playmates.

So, playing children tend to copy other children’s irrelevant actions and arbitrary ‘make it up as you go along’-ness. This, then, is the children’s culture.

. . . in contrast to adult-child transmission, the reproduction of redundant actions [should] diminish or disappear in child-child transmission. This is precisely what happens.

In other words, because the child doesn’t see another child as an expert in what they’re doing, unlike the way they might see a functional adult, Nielsen reasons, redundant and irrelevant actions passed from functional adult to child, tend not to then be passed from child to child. However, children’s culture is such that that redundancy of action is passed on when no adult initiates things. This is how I understand this research.

Where does this leave us with my initial question? What is the effect of playful adults on children’s culture? Could it be that the playful adult is acting in the same cultural landscape as the adult-less child-child culture? That is, despite received wisdom in some of the playwork literature (that is, in effect, the adult must not pollute the children’s play by their actions), the playful adult may become ‘absorbed’, by the playing child, into their cultural landscape: aiding and abetting that culture’s formation and evolution – its ripening. The playful adult, according to this research, is more faithfully imitated (believed?), than the functional adult.

This may come as no surprise to some playworkers; it may be heresy to others.


Comments on: "The speculative effect of playful adults on children’s culture" (4)

  1. hi Joel


    fascinating, deep stuff.

    very favourable comments have been emailed to you – not ready to publish them here, to interesting and important – will blog it soon I promise/

    “Welcome to PLOS
    We are a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization. Our mission is to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication. Everything that we publish is open-access – freely available online for anyone to use. Sharing research encourages progress, from protecting the biodiversity of our planet to finding more effective treatments for diseases such as cancer.”

    I had heard of these ‘let’s get round the rippoff journal publishers’ endeavours, but not actually checked them out. PLOS is one of several which deserve our support and encouragement.


    • Thanks, Arthur. I look forward to your words, in all their forms.

      Re: PLoS One, I’ve been aware of the writings collected there for a while, but delving in is entering a whole different plane!

  2. playeverything said:

    This is genuinely fascinating stuff – and not just because it finally gives me a great response to any questions about when I’ll become “a functional adult”. Never, I say. Never!

    • I’m glad this source paper and my thoughts on it have rippled a few chords. It was a difficult one to get into perspective – but I never let a paper get the better of me if I think there might be something in it! I’m not absolutely convinced I have all the finer nuances of it pinned down – any others’ reading and further feedback and thoughts would be appreciated.

      Now, the functional adult – perhaps we flip it around: the functional (as in ‘of use’) ones are the playful ones?

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