Play and Culture

Two earlier posts on The Neurobiology of Play and Taking Play Seriously examined play as the neurobiological and behavioral levels.  Together, they present an argument for play as one primary way that animals with large brains achieve neurological integration through play’s role in skilled behavioral engagement and the building of social relationships. The last post ended by discussing the role of play in joint coordination and reciprocal fair play, and the first post by saying that play helps combine sensory information, emotional states, cognitive framing, bodily movement, and decision making. 

Today I want to argue that together, these processes help promote the production of culture.  Without the integration of basic neurological processing and social relationships into culture, culture is, in effect, an empty shell of forms and roles and symbols.  Play connects us into cultural forms, helps recreate them anew for developing individuals and even create new forms.  In other words, I see play as part of how we get cultural creole, which I discussed in an early post, Avatars and Cultural Creole, on the challenge persistent on-line communities present to anthropology’s theory of culture. 

But first a mini-ethnographic moment.  I went sledding with my kids the other day.  My eldest son’s best friend joined us, along with his older sister.  At first I was sledding with my little daughter as the boys zipped and at times tumbled down the hill on their own.  They started to create a game out of it, imagining they were space ships in battle.  Arguments began to break out over who beat whom and what type of ship each one could be.  A new game quickly evolved as I started to race down on my sled after them—suddenly I became the enemy, trying to torpedo them, hands outstretched as they tried to squirm away.  (To note, the combined rough-and-tumble/Space Wars held no interest for the older sister and was a bit too dangerous for my daughter, so they started hanging out and doing things together.  Play and gender…)  Then the game evolved more, as I went up the other side of the run-off pond where we sled.  First I was a dangerous battleship attacking them.  Tiring more quickly than they did, I finally simply lay there on the flat bottom of the pond and became a battlestar which they could ram with fierce joy. 

An imaginative game, tensions in social relationships among brothers and a friend, gender definitions, coordinated physical activity, verbal debates about ships and wins and how many points a certain type of hit counted.  All that wrapped up in an afternoon of sledding.   

Robin Marantz Henig notes the importance of this sort of play for humans in her article, Taking Play Seriously.  Henig writes, “[F]or humans, pretend play is one of the most crucial forms of play, occupying at its peak at about age 4 some 20 percent of a child’s day. It includes some of the most wondrous moments of childhood: dramatic play, wordplay, ritual play, symbolic play, games, jokes and imaginary friends.” 

However, as Henig cautions, “Not everything about childhood play is sweetness and light, no matter how much we romanticize it. Play can be dangerous or scary. It can be disturbing, destabilizing, aggressive. It can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, leaving children out of the charmed circle of the schoolyard. The other side of playing is teasing, bullying, scapegoating, excluding, hurting.” 

Both sides of play, and its link to culture production, are clear in a more elaborate example of play that Henig presents, the “fort culture” that  “arose spontaneously in 1990 at the Lexington Montessori School in Massachusetts, when the elementary-age children shunned the organized play their teachers had arranged and instead started building forts on their own in the surrounding woods. An intricate and rule-bound subculture developed, one that is still going on.” 

Mark Powell, then a graduate student at Lesley University in Cambridge nearby, observed the recess fort culture for several years in the 1990s and described it in 2007 in the journal Children, Youth and Environments. For the first few years, he wrote, petty conflicts, stick stealing and ejections for minor infractions were a constant background hum in a play culture that was otherwise high-spirited and fun. But it finally erupted into a miniwar one autumn, sparked by the hostile actions of a fort of 6- year-olds headed by a tyrannical little boy who called himself the General. Within a month of the General’s appearance, Powell wrote, the fantasy war play ‘‘had become a reality with daily raids and counterattacks, yelling, the occasional physical scrape and lots of hurt feelings.’’ It took the intervention of some other children, teachers and the General’s parents finally to persuade the child to call a truce. Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the nation’s most eminent play scholars, has seen eruptions like the General’s many times before, but they don’t worry him. In fact, he embraces them. In such an elaborate play culture, he wrote, where so many harsh human truths come to the fore, ‘‘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.’’ But children are not only learning here but creating.  They developed the fort culture on their own.  And, as Sutton Smith has recognized in work discussed by Henig, play can be “destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. [Sutton Smith] collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ‘’being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.’’ Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ‘’phantasmagoria,’ where children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.” 

I am struck how play accomplishes much of what Daniel Linger discusses in his recent book, Anthropology Through a Double Lens.  Play is both individual and public, personal and cultural, generative in the double sense that Linger argues is important to future work in psychological anthropology—the importance of both social environments and the experiential immediacies of human lives.  But there is no listing for “play” in the book’s index. 

Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga does make the argument for play’s importance in culture explicit.  A German scholar who published the book in the 1930s, Huizinga argues for the importance of the play instinct to human cultural life, drawing on examples from around the world.  Given its publishing date, it’s full of things that post-modernists and pc people alike definitely disapprove, but it’s a rare book today given its focus on the process that can generate culture and on comparative work to understand that process. 

It’s in the videos that I have seen of play—of Nicaraguan children’s storytelling with their own invented sign language, of a musical rhythm maintained in a communal house by a group of children in a completely spontaneous way—that show plays at its best.  Sometimes description is enough, a first step and a way of insight.   

But I have stumbled across a book that does seem to get at more of what I am discussing here, at least in the cultural sense: Laurence Goldmans’ Child’s Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe.  Here’s a blurb from Amazon:  

In examining the subject from a cross-cultural perspective, the author argues that our understanding of the way children transform their environment to create make-believe is enhanced by viewing their creations as oral poetry. The result is a richly detailed ‘thick description’ of how pretence is socially mediated and linguistically constructed, how children make sense of their own play, how play relates to other imaginative genres in Huli life, and the relationship between play and cosmology. Informed by theoretical approaches in the anthropology of play, developmental and child psychology, philosophy and phenomenology and drawing on ethnographic data from Melanesia, the book analyzes the sources for imitation, the kinds of identities and roles emulated, and the structure of collaborative make-believe talk to reveal the complex way in which children invoke their experiences of the world and re-invent them as types of virtual reality.

One thought on “Play and Culture

  1. Thank you fro sharing valuable information with scholars, especially we in the developing world.

    I visited the cite to read about nueroanthropology. I am Lecturer in Kyambogo University – Uganda. I am interested in the relationship between children play and culture. That is how I came to this article, which I am going to read.

    Please, send me information on Play, Human Cultures, Child and Developmental Psychology, Learning and Life Skills.

    I will appreciate your favorable response to my request.


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