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date: 24 January 2020


Abstract and Keywords

The contributors to this Handbook have shown that play is an important aspect of human and nonhuman development such that it not only enables individuals to adapt to their immediate ecology but it also may enable individuals to adjust the course of their evolution. With this sort of claim, it is not hard to understand why scholars from a variety of disciplines have suggested that play is indispensible to the healthy development of children; thus play has assumed an important place in public policy relevant to children.

Keywords: Keywords, play, immediate and deferred benefits, development, educational policy

As the varied contributions to this volume have illustrated, the study of play has been an integral part of the study of human and nonhuman animals well over a century (e.g., Bateson, 1981; 2005; Groos, 1898; 1901; Pellegrini & Smith, 2005). For example, Groos’ two volumes on the play of nonhuman (Groos, 1898) and human animals (Groos, 1901) suggested that play during animals’ juvenile period, or period of immaturity, was “critical” in shaping later development. This notion of the deferred importance of juvenile play for subsequent development was later incorporated into Piaget’s (1962) and Vygotsky’s (1967) theories of play in human development, as argued by Goncu and Gaskins in this volume. Robert Fagen (1981), like Groos, concluded that the importance of play, as a quintessential juvenile behavior, stems, in part, from the notion that an organism’s early experiences are critical to subsequent development and functioning.

More recently, Burghardt (2005; this volume) examined the place of animal play in the phylogenetic order in light of his Surplus Resource Theory. For Burghardt, the extended juvenile period is crucial to the role of play in developing the complex set of skills necessary for survival and reproduction especially true for animals whose ecology is varied or unstable. From this position, individuals’ behaviors are not triggered by an anticipated set of contingencies. Instead, juveniles use the resources afforded them (safety and provisioning by a parent) during this period to explore their environment and experiment with a variety of strategies that may be effective in that niche. These environmental and behavioral factors, in turn, should indirectly affect subsequent gene expression, frequency, and evolution.

In Burghardt’s chapter, play behavior of nonhuman animals was of central concern, though he did speculate about the role of play in the human condition. Arguably, the study of play in humans from a broad phylogenetic and ontogenetic perspective has been less systematic. Rubin, Fein, and Vandenberg (1983) provided a thorough psychological overview in their chapter in volume four of the Manual of Child Psychology, and Smith’s 1982 article and 1984 book compared nonhuman animal and human play. With the exception of this Handbook, this has not been taken up to any great extent in the subsequent 20 years, though recent work by Power (2000), (p. 364) Pellegrini and Smith (1998; 2005), Pellegrini (2009) and Sutton-Smith (1997) have included discussions of both human and nonhuman play. This is a puzzling state of affairs because, from our view, play represents a paradigm example of the place of a behavior in both ontogenetic and phylogenetic development.

During ontogeny, play is observed primarily during the juvenile period in forms that are qualitatively different from seemingly similar adult behaviors. For example, children often playfully enact adult roles and behaviors they have observed. These play behaviors, relative to more serious and functional adult variants, are typically exaggerated (Pellegrini, this volume) and have hypothesized importance for subsequent development (Fagen, this volume; Smith, 1982).

The more complex and flexible the organism, the longer the period of immaturity (Bjorklund, 2006; Bjorklund & Rosenberg, 2005). Humans have an extended period of immaturity, relative to other mammals including primates (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2002; Herman et al., this volume; Kaplan, Lancaster, Hill & Hurtado, 2000; Paligio, this volume) and rodents (Pellis & Pellis, this volume). Lancaster and Lancaster (1987) have argued that the long period of immaturity in humans (until sexual maturity) was adaptive for an environment in which extensive parental investment could pay off in terms of skill acquisition by offspring, in a situation in which immediate productive activity by children might be difficult due to hazards (e.g., hunting) or difficulty of extracting resources (e.g., foraging). Although in contemporary environments children learn mostly through formal teaching, in traditional human environments this was not the case (Roopnarine, this volume; Tudge et al, this volume). Learning mostly occurs through observation, exploration and play (Lancy, 1996).

In modern society, formal schooling was created to educate children as an extension of the rationalizing associated with industrialization (e.g., social engineering, specialization, and efficiency) (Chadacoff, this volume; Glickman, 1981; Golinkoff et al., this volume). In pre-industrial times (Thomas, 1964), and currently in pastoral and foraging societies, learning is more integrated into the fabric of a child’s daily life—not set off into a separate institution (Bock, 2005; Rogoff, 1995; Tudge et al., this volume). For example, contemporary Botswana girls learn to process grain through a seamless process whereby they first play at pounding grain, where pounding with sticks and reeds is typically embedded in a fantasy theme. As girls become proficient in this activity in play, they move into “work”-related grain pounding with mortar and pestles (Bock, 2005). From this position, one of the primary purposes of the extended period of immaturity is for organisms to sample their environment so as to development behaviors and strategies that are adaptive.

Play is a central component of the immature child. Indeed, an extended period of immaturity is typical when play is observed in most species. This correspondence between play and an extended period of immaturity is not trivial. Following Bateson (2005, this volume), it may be that play during the extended period of immaturity is an important strategy used to develop behaviors that are adaptive to the niches that young children and adults inhabit. Children may sample their environment and through play learn and practice behaviors adaptive to that environment. Bateson (2005, this volume) speculates that play behaviors in ontogeny may be in the forefront of ways in which phenotypes affect subsequent evolutionary processes. This position turns Hall’s characterization that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny on its head by suggesting that ontogeny affects phylogeny.

In short, this volume has shown that play is an important aspect of human development such that it not only enables individuals to adapt to their immediate ecology but it also may enable individuals to adjust the course of their phylogenetic development.

Play and Education Policy

So what are the educational policy implications of the contributions to this volume? First, and perhaps most importantly, educators should label as play only behavior that fits explicated definitions of the construct—this is the only way that we can carry out construct—and content-valid assessments of the educational benefits of play-oriented curricula. From the definitions of play proffered here (Bateson, this volume; Burghardt, this volume), not everything that children do is play and play is multi-dimensional—not a unitary construct (Bateson, this volume), even though educators may label it as such. For example, it is not play when teachers or researchers tell children to ‘‘play’’ a phonemic awareness game or require them to sing a scripted letter-sound correspondence song. Correspondingly, different forms of play in school can be maximized by giving children opportunities for interaction with familiar peers, with minimal adult intervention. (p. 365) The notion of “guided play,” in Fisher and colleagues’ chapter, is an important step in the sort of careful word usage necessary if both science and policy are to advance.

During preschool ‘‘free play periods,’’ for example, children expend moderate levels of resources in object play (Bjorklund & Gardiner, this volume; Pellegrini & Gustafson, 2005), pretend play (Kavanaugh, this volume; Lillard, this volume; Rubin et al., 1983), social play (Howes, this volume; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998), and locomotor play (Pellegrini, this volume; Pellegrini et al., 1998), and there have been correlated benefits associated with each form of play. Research on play after the preschool period is very limited (Fagen, this volume; Harris, 2007; Sutton-Smith, this volume), but extant data do suggest that play decreases with age, and so too should benefits. For example, the pretend dimension of social pretend play becomes less important than other forms of peer interaction in facilitating literacy as children move across the primary school grades (Kavanaugh, this volume; Pellegrini & Galda, 1993).

Benefits associated with locomotor play, on the other hand, may be immediate and observed across the lifespan (Bateson, this volume; Pellegrini, this volume). They are also relatively easily to facilitate in schools. For example, increased opportunity, in the form of recess (see Baines & Blatchford, this volume), for outdoor, large motor exercise play and games is related to children’s and early adolescents’ modest caloric expenditure (Pellegrini et al., 1998), and this exercise may have immediate benefits for cardiovascular functioning and motor skills (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Stamps, 1995). Experimental evidence also demonstrates that recess breaks during the school day both maximize students’ attention to subsequent class work and facilitate children’s peer relationships as they make the transition into primary school (Pellegrini, 2005). However, we do not know the optimal form or duration that these breaks should take in various ecologies. Research in the tradition of massed versus distributed practice suggests that frequent, short breaks would be more effective than fewer and longer breaks in maximizing cognitive performance (e.g., Ebinghaus, 1885⁄1964). The cognitive immaturity hypothesis (Bjorklund & Green, 1992), on the other hand, suggests that breaks for preschool children should be more ‘‘play oriented’’ and those for older youngsters might involve just taking a break from traditional preschool work, such as listening to music.

In the final analysis, theory and data should guide policy governing the place of play in schools. Resources are too limited to do otherwise. Although there is a real danger that opportunities for children’s play will be minimized, there is also a corresponding danger that advocates of play for children are overzealous in attributing benefits of play. This is understandable in the current educational environment, but such a position also jeopardizes the possibility of future inclusion of play in educational programs because policymakers and parents will equate play with overblown claims.


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