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Wednesday
Feb112009

New York Times: “Taking Play Seriously”

I originally read Taking Play Seriously not long after it was first published. I was totally enthralled. It later played (no pun intended) into my eventual ah-ha moment of recognizing my interest in studying and working on playful technologies. It seems altogether appropriate as the first post to this blog.

Fantastic reading as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, you need a (free) NYTimes account to read it online, but it’s well worth the trouble.

It’s difficult to distill all the amazing goodness in this article. Nevertheless, here are a few choice excerpts:

Discussions about play force us to reckon with our underlying ideas about childhood, sex differences, creativity and success.

Armed with research grounded in evolutionary biology and experimental neuroscience, some scientists have shown themselves eager — at times perhaps a little too eager — to promote a scientific argument for play… They are studying, from an evolutionary perspective, to what extent play is a luxury that can be dispensed with when there are too many other competing claims on the growing brain, and to what extent it is central to how that brain grows in the first place.

Scientists who study play, in animals and humans alike, are developing a consensus view that play is… a central part of neurological growth and development — one important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.

Squirrel monkeys won’t play when their favorite food sources are unavailable. In humans under stress, what happens with play is more complicated… As George Eisen wrote in ‘‘Children and Play in the Holocaust’’: ‘‘Children’s yearning for play naturally burst forth even amidst the horror. … An instinctual, an almost atavistic impulse embedded in the human consciousness.’’

Recognizing play’s dark side is not difficult… Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the nation’s most eminent play scholars, has seen [dark expressions of play] many times before, but they don’t worry him. In fact, he embraces them… he wrote… ‘‘children learn all those necessary arts of trickery, deception, harassment, divination and foul play that their teachers won’t teach them but are most important in successful human relationships in marriage, business and war.’’

Idealization is a trap. And it seems most seductive when it comes to play, especially one particular kind: pretend play… It includes … : dramatic play, wordplay, ritual play, symbolic play, games, jokes and imaginary friends. And it is the kind of play that positively screams out for hyperbole when outsiders try to describe it. This is where even coolheaded scientists get florid in their prose — and where play advocates like Stuart Brown and play skeptics like Peter Smith engage in their most vivid disagreements about the ultimate purpose of play.

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