Commentary

The Domestication of Early Childhood Play

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At a recent conference of the International Council of Children's Play in Suhl, East Germany, the host country's Minister of Culture informed the assembly that 95 percent of the children in East Germany attend all-day preschools from ages 3 to 6. He also lauded children's play both as the chief means to the growth of creativity in children and, when guided by the schools, as a major factor in the development of the ''socialist personality."

After a lifetime of dealing with the supposed triviality of children's play, I was at first startled and confused by this political idealization of play. The Minister also spoke fondly of Froebelian toys; when we visited a kindergarten near the childhood home of Friedrich Froebel, the 19th-century educator and founder of the kindergarten system, I realized he was talking about the kind of wooden materials one typically finds in preschool settings in the United States, most of which have a dominantly Playskool or Creative Playthings flavor. The children were pursuing activities similar to those one finds in any good preschool in this country.

At first I put down the Minister's novel advocacy of play and toys to the important part that the toy industry (particularly the wooden-toy industry) plays in this Thuringen forest region of East Germany, and also to the fact that the iccp conference was being sponsored by the local toy factories, whose entrepreneurial impulses for exporting their toys to the West were quite noticeable.

But on second thought, I decided that the use of toys for developing the socialist personality, absurd as it first sounded, was no less absurd than our own efforts to generate toys for the development of the achieving personality. Much of the $12 billion we spend each year on toys is, after all, accompanied by an ideology which suggests that buying these toys will help our children's learning and development.

Toy makers in this country have avidly adopted the rhetoric provided them by Piagetians and others, which suggests that the sensory-motor activities promoted by these toys are the high road to abstract thought. We can observe the remarkable phenomenon that toys recommended in the 19th century because they represented important objects in the workaday world (vehicles and tools, for example) are advocated in the United States today because they physically suggest the processes postulated from Jean Piaget's theory of mental progress.

Modern toys for infants, in particular, have remarkable Bauhaus shapes, looking largely like pieces of plumbing, and are said to promote "primary circular reactions," "tertiary circular reactions," "object constancy," or other phases in Piaget's theory. Given the paucity of research, there is no less mysticism here than in the East German use of toys to develop the socialist personality.

At this point it occurred to me that what the two countries really have in common is the development of universal preschool education. It had happened by fiat in East Germany, and is occurring in a topsy-turvy fashion here. With most women in both countries working, some such solution was inevitable. In the 19th century we had made universal elementary education compulsory, and in the first half of this century we made high-school education compulsory. Now we are proceeding in haste to universal preschool education, though whether it will include universal infant schooling remains unclear.

In coming to this realization, I felt a certain disquiet. The history of play in Western society during the past 1,000 years has been one of increasing containment and domestication. The play of the Middle Ages was Rabelaisian, full of festivals of ordeals, tests, risks, brutality, lust, and pain. The serfs seem to have enjoyed witnessing, inflicting, and even experiencing pain. The subsequent centuries of puritanism, evolutionism, organized sports, and, paradoxically, television have contributed massively to the extermination of such violence from play, and undoubtedly the present campaign against war toys and playfighting will carry that domestication even further.

Indeed, children's play nowadays is commonly thought to be an exemplar of intrinsic motivation, freedom, and fun. This definition, now taken seriously within psychology, is a response to a play context in which children live their contemporary lives, contained and supervised both at home and in school.

The advocacy of the use of idealized play in schools means that curriculum play, guided play, or educational play is increasingly coming to be recognized as "good" play. At the same time, the other kinds of more vigorous and assertive play occurring in the playgrounds, streets, and woods are coming to be seen as "bad" play, or as Kant would have it, "mere" play. Whether on behalf of childhood achievement or the socialist personality, the making of play so central to the preschool curricula of the future results in the dominance of guided play in education and the elimination of unguided or truly free play.

After all, free play produces many of the accidents that children endure. It is noisy. And to adults it seems incoherent as, in its own way, it recaptures some of the rambunctious spirit of the medieval festivals.

The movement to eliminate recess has been under way now for several decades. It has already disappeared in most high schools, the time supposedly being taken by physical education and sports. The same kind of guided playtime predominates in the elementary schools of some states. Many preschools no longer provide free playtime but keep children busy with lessons or guided play.

The luckiest children attend schools where coffee-drinking teachers pretty much neglect them during recess. In preschools, the fortunate children arrive at seven in the morning, before the teachers are ready to take them in their curricular grip, and in consequence gain two hours of wonderful preschool play with their buddies.

Children's free play is increasingly being terminated on behalf of this or that socialist or capitalist or cognitive personality. The views on children's play of such remarkable thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Susan Isaacs, Margaret Lowenfeld, Erik Erikson, and David Winnicott are being forgotten. The primeval childhoods that they envisaged are going the way of the Middle Ages as we produce an increasingly polite and apparently obedient generation of literate preschool children, for whom the more civilized cognitive concepts of Piaget, Jerome Bruner, L.S. Vygotsky, and Daniel Berlyne hold sway.

With all due respect to these latter gentlemen and their unwittingly genteel contributions to cognitive theory, I wish to make a case for continuing regular recess periods during preschool and childhood age levels. We have enough knowledge not only of the dynamic importance of such play to child development (from play therapy), but also of the political education of children in the playground (from children's folklore), not to let it fade lightly away.

Indeed, I would like to make a children's-rights, First Amendment case that freedom of play in childhood is the same as freedom of speech in adulthood. I fear that with the advent of universal preschool education, the recreation we have given children in the past, largely through neglect, we will now deny them through our vigilant and bowdlerizing attention.

Vol. 7, Issue 14, Page 28

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