Press Play

play buttonOn Saturday, September 26, 2009, the US network Nickelodeon did something unusual: it switched itself off. This was in observance of the "Worldwide Day of Play," an event Nickelodeon inaugurated in 2004. The network -- along with its sister channels Noggin, the N, and Nicktoons, and their associated Web sites -- went dark for three hours to encourage its young viewers to "ride a bike, do a dance, kick a ball, skate a board, jump a rope, swing a swing, climb a wall, run a race, do ANYTHING that gets you up and playing!"

While this is certainly a laudable sentiment, it's interesting to take a look at the list of things that kids are told not to do during that time, which includes "read a book," "watch television or movies," "surf the web" and "play video games." This suggests that the Day of Play is somewhat akin to Turnoff Week in its attitude towards media (and, indeed, the Day of Play occurred on the last day of the 2009 Turnoff Week) -- that anything media-related is, by definition, not play, even playing video games. Other efforts to bring back "traditional" play, such as those described in these New York Times articles,  also focus heavily on physical, typically competitive games such as stickball, ringalevio and jump rope.

It’s easy and fairly natural to make this distinction: consuming media has always been seen as a passive activity, in contrast to physical play -- consider the traditional contrast between the "bookworm," or the violin-carrying child off to his music lesson, with the "all-round boy" engaged in physical play. But are play and media really incompatible? For that matter, what exactly is play?

What is play?

This turns out to be one of those questions that is much more complicated than it looks. As children, we are certainly aware of a distinction between those things we do that are "play" and those that are not, but it's difficult to broaden this into a true definition. There is no agreement, for that matter, on why we play: while some varieties of play make evolutionary sense, such as the "rehearsal" play we share with other animals (cats, for example), other kinds of play are harder to justify from an evolutionary standpoint. (A good summary of the leading theories of play can be found here.) Among the few qualities of play that are universally acknowledged are that participants in play share an acknowledgement that they are playing, that play involves activities removed from their normal context, and that play only happens in leisure; in situations of significant stress, such as hunger or other kinds of deprivation, play disappears.

The National Institute of Play  has identified seven types of play, these being:
attunement play (behaviours that build a connection between the player and another person or group)

  • body play (motions and activities with no purpose other than to take pleasure in them)
  • object play (taking pleasure in the manipulation and observation of objects)
  • social play (playing with social roles and hierarchies)
  • imaginative and pretend play, storytelling play (distinct from the former because it requires narrative)
  • transformative-integrative play (play with ideas, exploring concepts and possibilities.)

The NIP makes the point that adults take part in these activities as much as children: a baseball fan doing "the wave" is engaged in attunement play as much as a baby playing "peekaboo." As well, it should be noted that there is not necessarily a hard and fast line between "play" and "work". Artists, for instance, engage in a sort of "professional play" (and we disdain art that is lacking that feeling of play, calling it "by the numbers" or "hackwork"), while Einstein, as the NIP's Web site points out, was engaged in transformative-integrative play when he performed the famous thought experiments, such as imagining himself riding a beam of light, that led to his theories of relativity.

It's clear, though, that the Day of Play is specifically about physical play. While the decline of outdoor play and the increase in childhood obesity are certainly matters of concern, some experts feel that we've suffered more from a loss of imaginative play. Laura Berk, an Executive Function Researcher at Illinois University, told National Public radio that children have less ability to regulate their behaviour than in the past because they engage in less make-believe play, which requires what's called "private speech": "If we compare preschoolers' activities and the amount of private speech that occurs across them, we find that this self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play. And this type of self-regulating language… has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions." (Indeed, one study summarized here found that sustained imaginative play was one of the only reliable ways of improving children's self-control.) One widely-cited study compared the ability of children in 2001 to stand still with children in the late 1940s, and found that the earlier group was two years ahead (so that a seven-year-old in the 2001 experiment showed the same level of self-control as a five-year-old in the earlier study.)

Media play

Why are kids engaging in less imaginative play? The easy answer is to blame it on the media: children spend more time as passive consumers of movies, TV, video games, YouTube videos and so on, leaving them with no room for imagination. But children in the 1940s consumed plenty of media such as movies, radio and comic books. The screenwriter William Goldman has written of spending entire Saturdays at the movies, by no means an unusual experience, and in many houses the radio was turned on as soon as the children got home from school, broadcasting adventure serials and comedies just as TV does today. This media diet was not absent from children's play, nor did it detract from it: Brian Doyle, whose novel Angel Square is based in part on his own childhood experiences, depicts his heroes re-enacting and elaborating on the stories they saw and heard in the movies and radio. In my own childhood the media certainly played a large role in our imaginative play, but not a limiting one: our Star Wars figures journeyed to places Luke Skywalker never saw and George Lucas never imagined, and our Smurfs were as likely to have adventures drawn from Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons as from their own comics.

Children have probably always based their play on the media they consumed; where else would classic schoolyard games like "Cops and Robbers" have come from? Certainly children weren't watching policemen chase criminals on their own streets -- but they were watching, hearing, and reading about those stories, directly or second-hand, through the various media of their times. Media play can be seen as a declaration of ownership, of independence, taking the branded entertainments we are sold and warping them into the stories we want to tell.

What's changed is not the role of the media alone but also the decline of unstructured play time, which provides an opportunity for this kind of media appropriation. Two main factors are responsible for this: first, a growing fear over the last thirty years or so that children cannot be safely left to play unsupervised, and a cultural pressure to have children engage in "worthwhile" or "educational" activities rather than unstructured play. (The media is responsible, at least in part, for both of these: the former due to unrealistic depictions of crime, and the latter due to bad science reporting and the relentless advertising of supposedly educational games, videos, and so on, nearly all of which have been shown to have no developmental value -- a toddler gets as much benefit out of wearing a Baby Einstein video as a hat as he does from watching it.) As well, changing patterns in employment -- both an increased number of women working outside the home and longer average work hours for both sexes -- have led to a perception that parents have less time to spend with their children (though in fact Statistics Canada reports the amount of time spent with children is actually on the increase), which may cause parents to enrol their children in organized activities that are seen as being "worth more" than unstructured play.

Play school

What's particularly unfortunate about the decline of unstructured, imaginative play is that it fosters skills that are more important than ever before, and not just the self-control Berk refers to -- though that is surely of importance at a time when our words can be instantly transmitted around the world and may haunt us forever online. In fact, Project New Media Literacies identifies Play as the first of their "Core Media Literacy Skills," defining it as "the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem solving." Simulation is another, and simulation forms the heart of imaginative play. As children "try on" roles and identities in games as basic as "House"; their understanding of these roles is drawn as much from media as from life -- as is ours.  Appropriation, defined as "the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content," is explicitly tied to media play: without knowing it, this is what children have been doing for years when they have Barbie marry G.I. Joe or Superman fight Popeye. Another of these new media literacies, Collective Intelligence -- defined as "the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal" -- has more in common with imaginative play than it does with more structured activities. In a sport, after all, or other organized or "educational" play, the rules and conventions are already set; there is none of the collaboration and negotiation that's involved in imaginative play, whether or not it's media-related ("We're playing Star Wars, but Jeff and Max both want to play Han Solo." "Well, maybe Han has a long-lost brother…'")

Play day

Of course, Nickelodeon should be praised for encouraging kids to engage in active play (though a cynical soul might note that they typically follow their three-hour "blackout" with marathons of their most popular shows, which adds up to a rather mixed message.) But it's important to get past the simple equation of play with exercise and recognize the value of play for what it is: unstructured time in which we can, if we choose, defy Nickelodeon's commandments and "take a nap," "read a book" or "twiddle your thumbs." So, too, must we abandon the notion that free play is wasted time, that it's only useful if children learn something. Children at play certainly are learning things, but they are doing so in ways that cannot be planned or designed.

Exercises for teachers

  • How can we incorporate elements of imaginative play into our classes? What are the key elements (creativity, choice, open-endedness, etc.)?
  • Discuss ways in which different media can stimulate types of play.
  • Think of ways you can encourage students to appropriate and play creatively with the media products they consume. For example, you might ask students to act out a story where an unlikable media character becomes the hero, or where a character defies his/her stereotyped depiction.
  • Take an exercise or assignment and convert it into a play-based activity. What has to be changed? How much of the instructional content has to be sacrificed?
  • Try to think of a few opportunities for students to just "play" with your class content. Think about applying this to different subjects. Do some lend themselves more naturally to play? Why?
  • Think of ways to incorporate extended imaginative play into your classroom. Encourage your students to stay in the roles they've chosen as long as possible and interact with each other according to those roles. Don't forget the "pre-play" period where you and the students negotiate roles and rules: if students are role-playing numbers or elements, for instance, talk about what those roles will mean, both to the individual student and in relation to one another (for instance, larger numbers might boss smaller numbers around, positive ions might be cheerful and optimistic and look to pair with gloomy negatives, and so on.)
  • What are the limitations of play in a classroom setting? When should play activities not be used, and why?