Spontaneous Play in the 21st Century

Fergus P. Hughes

University of Wisconsin – Green Bay


Play is the most natural of childhood activities and one of the most frequently observed.  It is an activity that eludes simple definition, although the criteria used to define play typically include freedom of choice, personal enjoyment, and a focus on the activity as an end in itself rather than on its outcomes (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983).  Freedom of choice seems to be an essential component of a definition of play.  As Vandenberg (1998) expressed it, “The excitement of play results from the sheer exercise of freedom over necessity (p. 303)”. 

The major premises of this chapter are that (a) spontaneous child-initiated play facilitates child development; (b) play may be spontaneous in that it is generated by the player, but it occurs within a sociocultural context and is dependent on that context for support, and (c) the social and cultural conditions that support spontaneous play are less in evidence today than they were in the past, for a variety of reasons.  These reasons include increasing complexity and specialization in children’s play materials, increasing organization in children’s games, and a growing tendency to characterize rough and tumble play as symptomatic of pathology rather than as a natural activity of childhood.


Spontaneous Play and Development        

          Cognitive theorists have long supported the view that spontaneous imaginative play facilitates children’s intellectual development.  For example, Piaget (1962, 1969) maintained that “games of construction” often arise from symbolic play, and these games “are initially imbued with play symbolism, but tend later to constitute genuine adaptations (mechanical constructions, etc.), or solutions to problems and intelligent creations (1969, p. 59)”. Thus he argued that spontaneous play facilitates intellectual development in that it can lead to discoveries about the physical environment.  Vygotsky (1986) suggested that pretend play facilitates the mastery of symbolism, the understanding of a relationship between the signifier and the signified, which is one of the cognitive foundations of literacy.  Imaginative play frees behavior and thought from the domination of the immediate perceptual field, and represents a middle ground between the literalness of seeing meaning as inherent in objects themselves and a form of thinking that totally separated from real situations (Kozulin, 1996)

          Research on children’s intellectual development indicates that a number of cognitive skills, including measurement, equivalency, balance, spatial concepts, conservation, decentration, reversibility, and logical classification are enhanced during play, and particularly during the course of symbolic play (Copple, Cocking, & Matthews, 1984; Elder & Pederson, 1978; Jackowitz & Watson, 1980; Piaget, 1962; Rubin, 1980; Ungerer, Zelazo, Kearsley, & O'Leary, 1981).  In addition, symbolic play is thought to afford children the opportunity for creative expression, as well as to actually facilitate creative processes, including divergent thinking (Fein, 1987; Russ, 1993).

Group symbolic play, or sociodramatic play, allows children to create alternative worlds, encourages them to engage in subjunctive representation of reality.  It enhances the child’s need to organize a complex environment into meaningful scripts and schemas for possible action in the future, and encourages children to plan, to consider a variety of courses of action, and to communicate their plans and courses of action other people (Bretherton, 1998; Singer & Singer, 1998).  It stimulates the "what if" type of thinking that forms the basis for mature hypothetical reasoning and problem solving.  It stimulates children to think creatively, and has been found to predict later creativity (Dansky, 1980).  In addition, extensive involvement in sociodramatic play seems to improve children's memory, language development, and cognitive perspective-taking abilities (Burns & Brainerd, 1979; Dansky, 1980; Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977).

          Language and Literacy.  There is a growing body of evidence in support of a relationship between various forms of spontaneous play and linguistic development.  In fact, all of the four aspects of the human language system (the phonological, the syntactic, the semantic, and the pragmatic) are incorporated into young children’s play (Kuczaj, 1985).  Garvey (1984) suggested that there are four different types of language play, which roughly correspond to the different aspects of language (1) play with sounds and noises, (2) play with linguistic systems, such as those involving word meanings or grammatical constructions, (3) play with rhymes and words, and (4) play with the conventions of speech.  While the purpose of language play is not fully understood, it is noteworthy that language play involving sounds and sound structures has been observed in lower animal species as well as in human children, and is thought to serve important developmental functions; in human beings such play is thought to facilitate cognitive, social, and linguistic development (Kuczaj, 1998).

          As an example of play with sounds, the spontaneous babbling of the infant in the first year could easily fall within the definition of play since it is intrinsically-motivated, freely-chosen, devoid of external goals, and apparently pleasurable for children.  Such play can facilitate word usage because parents may unintentionally influence their children to make sounds appropriate to the language that they speak.  In that sense, the sound play of the infant may ultimately result in advances in sound production.  By the end of the first year, infants produce a variety of playful sounds with their mouths, and sound play occurs among older children as well.  Three- and four-year-old children become fascinated with songs, chants, and rhymes, and enjoy producing nonsensical rhyming patterns, and play of this type is related to language development in that the ability to rhyme is highly correlated with early reading achievement in children (Bergen & Mauer, 2000).

          Solitary play with the syntactic and semantic elements of language appears in the second year.  Children repeat sentences, each time substituting a new word of the same grammatical category: a child might say "Daddy go out", "Mommy go out", "Baby go out" or "Doggie fall down", "Kitty fall down", "Baby fall down" .  They construct and deconstruct sentences (e.g., "Give it to me", Give the cup to me"), ask questions and provide their own answers themselves, recite lists of words, numbers, or letters, and engage themselves in conversation.

          Solitary experimental play with the rules of word order is thought to form the basis for the development of the grammatical structures of language (Garvey, 1984; Ratner & Bruner, 1978).  While the language of social interaction is goal-directed and devoid of the element of playfulness found in the solitary monologue, solitary language play gives children an opportunity to experiment with the elements of speech (Garvey, 1984).

Since language and symbolic play both depend on representational skills, it is not surprising that efforts have been made to relate play to linguistic development, and to literacy.  The connection has been clearly established, although the direction of influence is more difficult to ascertain.  Experimental research to demonstrate that symbolic play directly influences language comprehension has often taken the form of having one group of children listen to a story and then play out the scenes, while another group either engages in discussion of the story or engages in unrelated activities.  Later the children's memory for details of the story is tested.  The finding that emerges in studies of this type is that the play group displays the greatest understanding of, and memory for, the story's details (Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977; Williamson & Silvern, 1990).

The language-symbolic play connection is further supported by the results of correlational studies indicating a relationship between scores on standardized symbolic play inventories and language measures such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (Laasko, , Poikkeus, Eklund, & Lyytinen, 1999; Lim, 1998; Lyytinen, Laasko, Poikkeus, & Rita, 1999), and between parental reports of symbolic play and literacy tasks such as rhyming and segmenting sentences into word units (Bergen & Mauer, 2000).  Finally, there appears to be evidence of a circular relationship between pretend play and linguistic development:  Fein, Ardila-Rey, and Groth (2000) reported that the experience of acting out stories as they were read to them resulted in an increased interest in dramatic play in a group of five- and six-year-old children. 

          Convergent Problem Solving.  Single-solution problems require the ability to engage in convergent problem solving (Pepler & Ross, 1981), which is characterized by bringing a variety of isolated pieces of information together to arrive at one correct solution.  Illustrative of such problem solving is the task devised by Sylva, Bruner, and Genova (1976), and later replicated by Barnett (1985), who asked preschool children seated at a table to try to obtain an object beyond their reach without standing up or leaving their chairs.  Two sticks were provided, neither long enough to reach the desired object, but if the sticks were clamped together, the children could attain the goal.  One group played freely with the problem solving materials prior to engaging in the task, a second group watched as the experimenter solved the problem before they were asked to do it, and a third group was given neither the play experience nor the opportunity to observe the problem being solved.  The children who either played with the materials in advance or watched an adult solve the problem were the most successful problem-solvers.  In addition, the play group appeared to be more highly motivated to solve the problem, and worked at it more persistently than did the observation group, who either solved the problem immediately or simply gave up.  

          Divergent Thinking.   Divergent thinking, the ability to branch out from a starting point and consider a variety of possible solutions, involves fluidity of thinking, broad scanning ability, and free association.  It is thought to be a major cognitive process underlying creativity (Guilford, 1968; Russ & Kaugars, 2001). The connection between play and divergent thinking has been established in various lines of research.  First, a relationship has been found between divergent problem solving ability and the characteristics of children's play materials (Dansky & Silverman, 1973, 1975; Pepler & Ross, 1981).  For example, Pepler and Ross (1981) gave sixty-four preschool children the opportunity to play repeatedly with convergent (e.g., puzzles with one correct solution) or divergent (e.g., blocks, which can be assembled in a variety of ways) materials.  When the children were later asked to solve a variety of problems, those who had engaged in divergent object play were more flexible and more original in their problem solving approaches, and quicker than those in the convergent play group to abandon ineffective problem-solving approaches.  The researchers concluded that the experience of interacting with toys that suggest a single correct way to be played with may teach children that there are correct answers, and may encourage them to seek them out.  Playing with open-ended materials, on the other hand, may suggest that there are numerous approaches that can be taken to any problem.

          While object play has clearly been related to divergent problem solving ability in young children, so too has make-believe, or fantasy, play.  For example, Dansky (1980) observed ninety-six preschool children in a free-play situation, and categorized them as high or low in their pretend play ability.  He then assigned them to one of three conditions: (1) free play, (2) imitative play, and (3) a problem-solving task.  Dansky (1980) found that the children in the free-play situation performed the best on the divergent problem solving task, but only if they were spontaneously high in their level of make-believe play.  He concluded that it is not play in itself that predicts problem solving skill, but the extent to which children become involved in make-believe when they are playing. 

          It has been suggested that the link between fantasy play and divergent thinking can be found in the concept of decentration (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983), which involves the ability to attend simultaneously to many features of the environment and to transform objects and situations while at the same time understanding their original identities and states, to imagine things as they are and as they were at one and the same time.  A child engaged in make-believe knows that the object he is sitting in really is a cardboard box, but pretends it is a car; in a sense, it is both a box and a car at once, and perhaps it was a submarine ten minutes earlier.  Make-believe play, therefore, provides evidence of a considerable amount of intellectual flexibility in the child, and flexibility is a key ingredient in the creative process.

          An alternative explanation of the play-divergent thinking connection was suggested by Russ (1993; 1999; Russ & Kaugars, 2001), who maintained that affect-laden fantasy underlies both symbolic play and creative expression.  Thoughts, ideas, or fantasies that contain affective themes such as aggression or anxiety are illustrations of affect-laden fantasy, and such fantasy has been related empirically to creative problem solving (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987; Russ & Grossman-McKee, 1990).  Symbolic play is characterized by both fantasy and a high degree of affect, and so one might expect to find a relationship between pretend play and creativity.  In fact, such a relationship has been found repeatedly in the research literature (Russ & Grossman-McKee, 1990; Russ & Kaugars, 2001; Russ, Robbins, & Christiano, 1999). 

          As is true of the research on language and literacy, the direction of influence between play and divergent problem solving is neither simple nor direct.  Instead, the relationship is both complex and reciprocal: pretend play may enhance divergent problem solving skills, but the acquisition of problem solving skills also enhances the quality of pretend play (Wyver & Spence, 1999).

          Play and Socialization.    A variety of play forms have been found to facilitate aspects of social development in children.  For example, physical play between parent and child is thought to have important socializing functions (Carson, Burks, & Parke, 1993; MacDonald & Parke, 1986), and a relationship has been found between the amount of physical play in the home and children's competence with peers: children rated as popular by their teachers are the most likely to have parents, and particularly fathers, who engage in a good deal of physical play with them (Carson, Burks, & Parke, 1993).  The rough and tumble play with peers that occurs throughout childhood but peaks during the elementary school years (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998), is thought to enhance children’s abilities to encode and decode social signals, and thus may enhance social cognition (Bjorklund & Brown, 1998). 

Involvement in sociodramatic play seems to improve children's ability to cooperate in group settings, to participate in social activities, and to understand human relationships (Smith & Sydall, 1978; Smith, Dalgleish, & Herzmark, 1981).  Role-taking skills can be enhanced by gently supervised forms of social fantasy play (Burns & Brainerd, 1979; Golumb & Cornelius, 1977; Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977).  While most of the research in this area points to the necessity of an adult "social director" to stimulate children to play in a way that enriches perspective-taking ability, some psychologists (e.g., Rubin & Maioni, 1975) suggest that role-taking ability may be enhanced by social play that is totally spontaneous and not at all influenced by adults. 

The value of spontaneity in child-generated pretense as a facilitator of social development can be seen in an examination of the consequence of using adult-assigned roles in socio-dramatic play as opposed to allowing children to choose roles for themselves.  If an adult assigns the roles, the child’s freedom to self-regulate is diminished, and the child is less likely to define the activity as play.  However, if the adult allows children to choose their own roles, they begin to explore issues of "control and compromise" (Howes, Unger, & Matheson, 1992).  They engage in a complicated and delicate process of negotiation while they assign roles to themselves and to their peers.  Indeed they often bargain about play roles (E.g., Shelley: "I want to be the airplane pilot.  I never get to be the pilot."  Scott: "Yes you do.  You were the pilot yesterday.  Now it’s my turn.") and themes (E.g., Jean: "We're a family going to the beach."  Joan: "I don't want to go to the beach.  That isn't any fun.  I want to be a firefighter."  Jean: "O.K. You could put out a fire at the beach.").  Negotiations of this sort can encourage children to communicate more effectively with peers, and to resolve some of the inevitable conflicts that arise in the interaction of preschoolers (Howes, Unger, & Matheson, 1992).


Spontaneous Play in the Sociocultural Context

          Imaginative play cannot and should not be considered without reference to the social context in which it occurs.  The freedom to play, and to play as one chooses, can vary from one cultural milieu to another, depending on the amount of play space and free time that is available, and on parental and general societal attitudes about the relative importance of play and work in children’s lives (Roopnarine, Lasker, Sacks, & Stores, 1998).  It has been suggested (Roopnarine, Shin, Donovan, & Suppal, 2000) that despite an impressive research base detailing the developmental progression of pretend play and its various benefits, there remains a major gap in our understanding of the intersection between pretend play and the sociocultural system in which it occurs. 

The necessity of considering the social context of pretend play is underscored by research on the characteristics of representational activity in the one-year-old child.  While Piaget (1962) characterized the initial signs of representational ability as solitary in nature, and implied they occur naturally without adult intervention, pretend play is from the outset an intensely social activity between parents and children (Haight & Miller, 1992; Haight, Parke, & Black, 1997).  Not only does pretend play usually occur in a social context, but social pretend play in the second year has been found to be more sustained, complex, and diverse than is solitary make-believe ( Haight & Miller, 1992).  Mothers typically encourage their children to engage in acts of make-believe, particularly when, at the beginning of the second year, the child is less likely to pretend spontaneously ( Tamis-LeMonda & Damast, 1993; Tamis-LeMonda & Bornstein, 1991).  They demonstrate an activity, such as pretending to talk on a toy telephone, and then offer it to the child with encouragement to do the same thing.  As the child matures, mother-generated acts of make-believe decrease and are replaced by spontaneous child-generated pretense; sensitive mothers match their play to the child's level of sophistication and are the most effective at enhancing children’s play (Tamis-LeMonda & Bornstein, 1991; Tamis-LeMonda & Damast, 1993).

Research on cultural variations in the group symbolic play of older preschool children reinforces the view that the sociocultural context has a significant impact on play.  Imaginative pretend play has been observed most often in cultures that expose children to a greater amount of stimulation and a greater amount of novelty, and/or those in which children have opportunities to make choices about their play activities and companions without adult supervision or interference (Edwards, 2000). 

In reaction to the observed cultural differences, some scholars warn of the danger of simply attempting to document whether or not pretend play can be found in a given society, particularly if cross-cultural variations are described as deficiencies.  Instead they suggest that we ask how children use pretend play differently in the different contexts in which they develop (Roopnarine, Shin, Donovan, & Suppal, 2000).  In some cultures play themes resemble the domestic scenes and work roles of adults, and may allow children to practice adult roles; in others the roles and scripts are far removed from reality (Edwards, 2000).

Even within a particular culture, variations in spontaneous imaginative play can be observed, a point that is illustrated by Farver’s research on the contrasts between the play of Anglo-American and Korean –American children in Los Angeles nursery schools (Farver & Lee-Shin, 2000; Farver, Kim, & Lee, 1995; Farver, Kim, & Lee-Shin, 2000; Farver & Shin, 1997).  Korean pre-school teachers, even if educated in the United States, saw the primary value of early childhood education as teaching academic skills and good work habits.  Their classrooms were highly structured and contained few materials that might foster creative play.  In fact, play of any sort was a rare occurrence in the Korean-American pre-school.  Anglo-American teachers were more likely to encourage independence of thought, they provided a substantial amount of material (e.g., props, miniature life toys) designed to encourage the use of imagination, and spontaneous play was much more in evidence in their classrooms.

The variables that predict the occurrence of spontaneous pretend play seem to transcend culture.  When Farver & Lee-Shin (2000) examined the degree to which Korean-immigrant mothers living in the United States had been assimilated into American culture, they found that those mothers who were “separated” or “marginal” in their acculturation styles were less accepting and encouraging of their children’s play, and less likely to actually play with their children than were those who were more “integrated” or “assimilated”.  Similarly, Farver, Kim, & Lee-Shin (2000) reported that children’s individual characteristics are better predictors of pretend play than are ethnicity and culture in themselves.  Regardless of ethnicity, children’s style of interaction with peers, the degree to which they were successful in their interactions, and their scores on a test of creativity were significantly related to their level of make-believe play.


The Future of Spontaneous Play     

American children entering the 21st century seem to be less likely to determine when and where they will play because of a number of restrictions in the physical environment, including increasing urbanization, a decreasing sense of community, fear for personal safety, and difficulty in obtaining access to natural play spaces (Dargan & Zeitlin, 2000; Frost & Jacobs, 1995; Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2001).  Beyond the physical restrictions, there are other indicators of change in sociocultural support for spontaneous play, and these include the increasing prominence of play materials with highly specialized functions, the replacement of invented games by organized sports supervised and directed by adults, and a tendency to view rough and tumble play as indicative of pathology.

Specialized Play Materials.  As far as can be determined, toys have always been a part of the play experience for children.  In wall paintings dating from ancient Egyptian civilization children are depicted as playing with dolls and balls, and jumping rope.  The toy manufacturing industry is thought to date back to southern Germany during the Renaissance (1300-1600), when, in addition to homemade toys such as tops and kites that were available during the Middle Ages, there were elaborate wooden dolls, lead soldiers, and little glass animals (Somerville, 1982). 

Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, new varieties of toys were slow to emerge, and there was little change from one generation to the next.  Recent years, however, have seen the appearance of a variety of new forms of play materials that are highly structured, highly complicated, and technologically advanced.  They include television, videos, computer games and programs, CD’s and DVD’s, and interactive toys that contain computer chips.  Such toys appear to encourage activity that might be more accurately referred to as “entertainment” than as spontaneous play, and they often substitute the imagination of their creators for those of the children who interact with them.  The nature of spontaneous play may change as a result of the “robot revolution”, and the outcomes for children could be negative in terms of restriction of the imagination, a sedentary lifestyle, and decreased interaction with parents and peers (Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2001; Oravec, 2001; Saffo & Simon, 1998; Sardar, 1998).  Little is known about the long-range outcomes of play with electronic toys since the children who use them have yet to reach adulthood, and since today’s adults find themselves providing children with toys that they themselves had never even conceived of when they were young.

          An illustration of toy of recent vintage that could constitute an impediment to spontaneous play in childhood is the “interactive toy”.  Interactive toys first appeared in the 1960’s, when the pull of a string would result in a recorded statement.  Today, however, interactive toys are more sophisticated, typically containing microchips and having the capacity to store information and to respond to input from the environment (Oravec, 2001).   An example is “Amazing Ally” doll that sings songs, tells jokes, and orders a pizza on her cell phone. 

          Interactive toys may encourage children to ask the wrong question when playing with them.  Instead of asking, “What can I do with this toy?” the child may ask, “What does this toy do?”  In addition, these toys have been criticized because they provide inadequate feedback to the child who plays with them.  The toy may ask a question, and if the child does not provide a correct response, the toy simply continues to repeat the question, leaving a young child confused.  However, one of the most often expressed concerns about interactive toys is that, if the play material defines the parameters of an interaction, children do not have the opportunity to create and define the interaction themselves  (Oravec, 2001).   

          Even traditional toys such as building blocks have changed considerably since they first appeared in terms of complexity and reliance on technology.  As an example, the 1958 version of the LEGO block with the patented stud-and-tube coupling system was sold in sets consisted only of standard rectangular bricks and sloping roof tile bricks.  By the late 1960’s, model sets appeared, complete with building instructions, and there were 57 sets and 25 vehicles available, many of them motorized.  Parents today can purchase the “Super Car”, introduced in 1994, which contains 13,000 elements.

One wonders if the nature of play with LEGO blocks has changed as the simple “binding brick” gradually evolved into a complex puzzle with 13,000 pieces.  There is no correct way to construct with simple blocks, but there is a correct way of assembling a pirate ship or an antique car, and so the complicated block-building materials available today are similar to puzzles and may require a degree of convergent problem solving (Pepler & Ross, 1981), while the simpler open-ended blocks of the past stimulated children to engage in divergent problem solving.  Imaginative play may occur with the finished construction in the modern block-building set, since highly structured materials can facilitate sociodramatic play, particularly in a child who is low in fantasy predisposition (Frost, Shin, & Jacobs, 1998; McLoyd, 1983).  In fact, young children have been found to play longer with highly realistic toys, although they play more creatively with less realistic ones (McGhee, Ethridge, & Benz, 1984).  Regardless of what happens after the building project is completed, however, a lesser degree of imagination, flexibility, and spontaneity is required in the building process itself if the materials are complex and a correct solution is required. 

If allowed to do so and provided with interesting materials, children will play freely, spontaneously, and imaginatively.  A toy with a specialized function, however, or one so sophisticated that it performs a variety of activities that once were performed only in the mind of the player (e.g., a doll calls out for pizza on her cell phone), then the toy becomes a source of entertainment rather than a plaything.  As children come to expect their toys to dazzle and entertain them, they may contribute less of themselves to the play experience.  The result is that spontaneous play will be diminished. 

An intriguing observation about the changing nature of manufactured toys was made by Roopnarine (Roopnarine, Lasker, Sacks, & Stores, 1998): as American toys reach a larger market throughout the world, children in other cultures are given play materials that have little cultural significance to them.  A Barbie Doll or a G.I. Joe may bear little relationship to the world of a child from a radically different cultural milieu.  If children’s play reflects the values of their cultures, what significance would such toys have for a child in a small Kenyan or Chinese village?  Furthermore, children may feel that these interesting and colorful objects are “better” than the traditional toys that were available to their parents, and by implication may conclude that they are products of a better culture.

Increasingly Organized Games.  Piaget (1962) spoke of the difference between games with rules transmitted directly from adults or older children and games with rules that emerge spontaneously from the interaction of the children involved.  While the former are passed on purely “through the social pressure of children”, the latter “are the outcome of socialization…which, though it may involve relationships between younger and older children, is often only a matter of relationships between equals or contemporaries.” (p. 143).   Self-created and spontaneous games were the most interesting to Piaget and the most meaningful for development because, in the process of creating rather than simply adapting to rules, children develop a more complete understanding of rules themselves, and particularly for the rules for social engagement.

          Rule games invented by children themselves seem to be more valuable in fostering an understanding of the meaning and relevance of rules than are rule games passed down from a higher authority (Castle, 1998; Castle & Wilson, 1993).  Invented games encourage children to develop organizational skills, understand the perspectives of others as they attempt to negotiate the rules, understand concepts of fairness, and develop a sense of autonomy (Castle, 1998; Castle & Wilson, 1993). 

          As we enter the 2ist century, it seems that commercial games with predetermined instructions and increasingly organized sports are replacing the invented games of childhood.  The culture of sports, with externally imposed rules, referees, uniforms, and an emphasis on outcomes (winning) clearly differs from spontaneous, self-regulated play.  In fact, spontaneous play has been described as the “inversion of sport”; unlike organized sport, spontaneous play is intrinsically motivated, flexible, and regulated by the players themselves so that it may change as the interest of the players change from moment to moment ( Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2001).     

Rough and Tumble Play as Pathology.  Rough-and-tumble play, a form of social engagement consisting of activities such as play fighting, hitting, wrestling, and chasing with the intent of fighting, is believed to constitute approximately 15% of all the vigorous physical play observed in children (Humphreys & Smith, 1984; Smith, 1989). While it is not known why immature organisms engage in such play, Pellegrini and Smith (1998) suggested that its primary function might be to allow children, and particularly boys, to establish their status within a dominance hierarchy.  This appears to be the function of rough and tumble in other mammals, such as chimpanzees; it is a relatively safe way to establish one’s status within the group without the risk of injury that may occur during genuine aggressive acts (Pacquette, 1994).

There is a correlation between the appearance of this activity and the maturity of the frontal lobes of the brain.  The executive functions of the frontal lobes include reflection, imagination, empathy, and play/creativity, and when these develop, they allow for greater behavioral flexibility and foresight, for well-focused goal-directed behavior.  As the frontal lobes mature, the frequency of rough and tumble play goes down, and damage to the frontal lobes is associated with a higher level of playfulness (Panksepp, Normansell, Coc, & Siviy, 1995).  In fact, surgical reduction of the frontal lobes of young rats results in an increased level of playfulness and hyperactivity.  However, when these surgically altered rats are given ample opportunity to engage in rough and tumble activity, the decline in such play with maturity is even more dramatic than the decline that occurs in the normal rat, leading to the speculation that rough and tumble play is not only correlated with frontal lobe development but may actually promote it  (Panksepp, Burgdorf, Turner, & Walter, 1997).

          Spontaneous rough and tumble play may be increasingly seen as a sign of pathology rather than as an ordinary childhood activity), a growing intolerance corresponds that with one of the more intriguing trends in the diagnosis of childhood psychological problems: the dramatic increase in the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorders in the late 20th century (Panksepp, 1998).  It has been estimated that in the year 2000 15% of American children (about 8 million) were so diagnosed, up from 1% at the beginning of this century and 5% at the beginning of this decade (Armstrong, 1995).  It seems unlikely that there really has been an increased prevalence of genuine neurological disorders in the United States; a more likely interpretation is that we have redefined what we consider to be “normal” childhood behaviors, and spontaneous energetic physical play is sometimes interpreted as a form of pathology (Panksepp, 1998).

          There is evidence that genuine attention deficits in children are correlated with reduced frontal lobe size and activity (Barkley, 1997), although brain-imaging data is obviously not a prerequisite for a diagnosis of ADHD.   Whether or not a neural disorder is present, however, findings from animal research suggest that rough and tumble play not only reflects frontal lobe development but also promotes it.  In other words, active, energetic, spontaneous physical play may facilitate neurological development.  If this is the case, the inhibition of play through the use of behavioral restrictions or medication might actually contribute to developmental abnormalities.  Indeed, while psychostimulant medications such as Ritalin are quite effective in focusing children’s attention, another of their major effects of is to reduce the urge of young organisms to engage in rough and tumble play (Panksepp, Normansell, Cox, Crepeau, & Sacks, 1987). 

          Since learning requires attention and focus, vigorous physical play may appear to be antithetical to the educational process.  Teachers may believe that opportunities for physical play may make children, and particularly those diagnosed with attention disorders, even more difficult to teach.  Panksepp (1998) maintained that, as is true of other appetites, the need for rough and tumble is self- regulating process.  Once the need is satisfied, the organism will return to a relatively quiet state.  In fact, there is evidence to suggest that if children are deprived of physical play, they will play with even greater vigor when given the opportunity to do so (Pellegrini, Huberty, & Jones, 1995; Smith & Hagan, 1980).  If there is an appetite for rough and tumble play, and if such play not only reflects but also promotes neurological maturity, it seems that it would be counterproductive and possibly harmful to try to prevent it.



Several years ago, Brian Sutton-Smith solicited from a wide variety of scholars their thoughts on a number of issues related to play.  Perhaps the most intriguing question in the survey was, “How do you think children will be playing in the year 2050?”  The temptation is to respond that children will always be children and will always find a way to play.  Essentially this is the case.  When Edwards (2000) re-examined data on play from her Six Cultures study done during the 1950’s and broadened it with data collected during the 1960’s and 1970’s, environmental changes over the years resulted in changes in societal reinforcement for play.  Improving literacy, increased availability of formal education, a decreasing sense of isolation, and greater exposure to the media and mass communication have all had an influence on play.  However, every variety of play could still be found in each of the cultures studied.    Edwards (2000) observed that a community may reinforce play to a greater or lesser extent, but it is children themselves who instigate it.

The questions raised in this chapter should not be taken as concerns that spontaneous play will disappear in the 21st century.  If the research on play reveals anything, it is that play is a natural and universal activity of childhood.  Cross-cultural research reveals, however, that play reflects and is influenced by cultural values, and regional differences in play have been documented repeatedly.  If we conceive of cultural variations across time instead of space, there is reason to believe that play will change over time.  If, in fact, spontaneous play arises from an atmosphere of openness and freedom, there is reason for concern that, while play will continue to exist, it will be less spontaneous and less free.  The challenge to educators and psychologists is to guarantee that children will continue to have opportunities for spontaneous play.




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