It is with some degree of frustration that someone of a playworking disposition regularly hears the ‘frivolity, or incidental nature, of play’ rhetoric, inherent in various communication. It’s not only in conversation with others that this perception takes place, but it can — in part — be traced within the play literature too. More specifically, in this latter context, and although the current reading matter in question is pro-play (it’s conversant with the idea that more is going on than may meet the eye), play can still have the tendency to be written in terms of contrasting the opinion of play as ‘the not real’ with ‘the real world’. Although not lining up squarely with the idea of ‘the frivolous’, this unreal aspect can be seen as just as ‘throwaway’.
The starting point for this post’s writing (notwithstanding the general years-long ‘unreal/real’ contention having continued to be a background concern) is another of the regularly-cited offerings of play and playwork writers: Catherine Garvey’s simply titled Play (originally published 1977; second edition 1991). In this book, Garvey posits the oft-cited five characteristics of play, these being: its pleasurable nature; that it has no extrinsic goals; its spontaneity; an involvement of active engagement; its systematic relations to what is not play (Garvey, 1991: 4). It is not, however, these characteristics, directly, that I’m looking to draw attention to with this post: it is to the idea of ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ play that this post writing is concerned.
In a chapter entitled ‘Play with Social Materials’, Garvey (1991: 82) asks ‘What is make-believe?’ and she goes on to interchange this phrase with ‘pretending’, defining it as a ‘voluntary transformation’. Further in to this chapter, she writes:
‘. . . in the social conduct of pretending we can see the extent to which children conceive of the family as a system of relationships and as a complex of reciprocal actions and attitudes. Since make-believe enactments and themes reflect the child’s notions of his world (though they do not copy them exactly), this aspect of play can provide a rich field for students and observers of social development.’
— Garvey (1991: 99)
Though there is the hint, in this paragraph, towards something not altogether faithfully and accurately reproduced in the children’s play imitations of adults’ actions, there is still the dominant rhetoric of ‘play as practice’, as perceived, or ‘play as progress’. What if we were to take an entirely different angle? What if we were not to carry on referring to play as something ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’, unreal and essentially imitative? What if we stopped making such sharp contrasts between what we regularly suggest as ‘the real world’ and ‘the unreal world of play’? So then, what if we were to start seeing play as the real world, or a real world, in its own right? (By extension, and just as a thought exercise, which I won’t follow up here due to the scope of this writing, what if play were to be seen, routinely, as ‘the real’ and everything else — if we could make such a distinction — were a pale shadow?).
Before following the line of thought on ‘play as a real world in its own right’, a note of caution regarding culture as a perceived, and as a received, phenomenon: children are active participants and a part of any given culture and will assimilate the received dominant phrases and sometimes meanings of others, including adults, in their reflection of and addition to that culture — whether a child is using an adult concept in description of their own play, or whether it’s a phrase of the subculture of the child-world, it’s hard to say, but they can and do use words such as ‘pretend’ (where does a word or a meaning start?). To illustrate the point, I highlight here a study (Sandberg, 2002) referred to by Lester and Russell (2008: 215) ‘regarding teacher intervention in children’s play in Swedish preschool and after school settings’. Children’s opinions are sought and some are quoted as saying that teachers ‘cannot play pretend games’ (Lester and Russell, 2008: 216).
It is to the idea of culture-as-perceived, rather than to culture-as-received (notwithstanding the reality that culture is not a one-way street of adult to child), as is potentially the case with the Swedish study above, that the playworking attitude is drawn: play is a real world in its own right, though operating simultaneously and inextricably connected with other ‘real worlds’. It is perceived here, and experienced by children, as real not pretend (even if potentially received adult descriptive terminology leaks in). The Garvey position quoted above does have its antithesis in the play and playwork literature; however, first a small spread of more play versus ‘the real world’ positions.
Lester and Russell (2008: 41), referring to how ‘play provides children with a dimension that is unique and not replicable in other aspects of their lives’, cite Bailey (2002):
‘. . . play is a way of experimenting with possible feelings and possible identities without risking the real biological or social consequences. Cut! Time for tea, time to go home — and nothing in the real world has changed, except perhaps that the child is not quite the same person . . .’
(Bold text: my emphasis).
In referring to an experiment conducted by Sylva (1976) on play, object manipulation and problem solving, Garvey (1991: 51) writes that ‘. . . those children who displayed nonliteral [sic] or imaginative behaviour prior to the task were the best problem solvers.’
I read the ‘non-literal’ here as referring to play/the unreal, and ‘the task’ as referring to the perceived-as-real world. Garvey later continues, in terms of play with language:
‘[Children] use outrageous names, juxtapose improbable elements, invent unlikely events, retaining just enough sense of the real world to hold the fabrication together.’
— Garvey (1991: 71)
What is this ‘real world’ that these writers keep referring to? There is a connect in how people talk about play too: still there seems to be a preoccupation with play-as-practice, play-as-unreal, play in terms of developmental progress towards being able to perform tasks in ‘the real world’; there is a distinction between ‘this is time to play’ and ‘this is time to learn, do chores, engage in any other real-world situation’. There is, however, an antithesis to the unreal/real rhetoric buried within the literature.
Sutton-Smith (1997) writes on ‘child phantasmagoria’ — which he later elucidates by way of ‘I use it [the phrase] to imply a bunch of incredible rubbish such as a wild mixture of irrealities, etc.’ (Sutton-Smith, 2008) — and, notwithstanding the use of the word ‘irreality’ (with its ‘illusory’ context, though it is a step up on ‘unreal’), he states that:
‘Children’s play fantasies are not meant only to replicate the world, nor to be only its therapy; they are meant to fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’
— Sutton-Smith (1997: 158)
Play is another world: it isn’t an ‘unreal’ world (though, Sutton-Smith contends that it is an ‘irreal’ world), it is another whole world that sits along with the mundane world. I would go further and say that play is a world that is inextricable from the mundane. Within the scope of this post though, play is a real world in its own right.
Sutton-Smith (1997: 166) goes on to suggest that ‘children’s own play society, because it is about their feelings about reality and not about direct representation of reality as such, is a deconstruction of that realistic society.’
Whilst this ‘deconstruction’ perspective is a welcome relief from the ‘reconstruction’ rhetoric that tends to dominate, it still doesn’t totally tally with the culture-as-perceived, as I see it. To this end, we need to steer towards another stalwart of play and playwork literature: Johan Huizinga. To reach him, however, a quick detour back to Garvey (1991: 56), who writes that ‘play generally reflects a willing suspension of disbelief’ (original emphasis). I read this as the idea that there is a knowledge in the child of what is happening in the play (the ‘unreal’ in adult-speak), which can’t possibly happen ‘for real’/in ‘the real world’.
Is this the case? Is it true that there’s such a stark differentiation between ‘what is play’ and ‘what is not’ (what is ‘unreal’ and what is ‘real’) in the playing child’s thinking? Yes, cultural appropriation of words such as ‘pretend’ filter through child-culture, but if you’ve ever seen a child talking in what adults think of as gibberish with another child then you might appreciate the sophistication of mutual understanding which is both ‘pretend’ and ‘not pretend’. (I once spent a good part of an afternoon with a group of younger primary school children at play, communicating only in the language of ‘monkey’, and we all seemed to understand each other perfectly well enough).
So to Huizinga, whose writing on play and being I come back to time and again. Notwithstanding the use of the outdated word ‘savage’, Huizinga (1955: 25) writes: ‘In his magic dance the savage is a kangaroo’.
It is in the area of religion and belief that Huizinga writes here. If faith is real to the believer, it’s not too far a leap to see that play is real to the player. Huizinga goes on to state that: ‘We express the relationship between him [the savage] and the animal he ‘identifies’ himself with as a ‘being’ for him but a ‘playing’ for us. He has taken on the ‘essence’ of the kangaroo, say we. The savage, however, knows nothing of the conceptual distinctions between ‘being’ and ‘playing’; he knows nothing of ‘identity’, ‘image’ or ‘symbol’.’ (ibid).
He is the kangaroo. It’s real: or, at least, in this perception as I describe it, it’s real. It is, therefore, to this idea of perceiving what children do, perceiving them at play, in terms of perceiving not an ‘unreal world’ or a frivolous act, but a very real world, ‘another world’, a possible phantasmagoria in its own right, that I draw attention. Children might well attach adult-appropriated words in describing acts of their own devising, but ‘pretend’ is also real. It just takes a shift in stance to see it.
Bailey, R. (2002), Playing social chess: children’s play and social intelligence. Early Years, 22(2): 163-173. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.
Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.
Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston, MA: The Beacon Press.
Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.
Sandberg, A. (2002), Children’s concepts of teachers’ ways of relating to play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 27(4): 18-23. Cited in Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008), Play for a change — play, policy and practice: a review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England/National Children’s Bureau.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sutton-Smith, B. (2008), Communication with Fraser Brown in UKplayworkers (chatroom): the virtual community for playworkers. Digest Number 2562 2a [online]. Defunct.
Sylva, K. (1976), Play and learning in Tizard, B. and Harvey, D. (Eds.), The biology of play. London: Heinemann. Cited in Garvey, C. (1991), Play. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Press.