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Is there such a thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ play

Look at the two images at the top of this post. It’s a fair bet that they provoke different emotional reactions in you, and odds-on that you will have a more positive reaction to the one on the left. I wanted to explore why that might be, and to what extent such a response might be justified.

I think this matters because reactions to different forms of play deeply colour the debate about the state of childhood, and of culture more generally- narratives of degeneracy abound in the media and corners of academia; indeed play theorists exclude many of forms of play from their definitions. I argued against this view last time, so I won’t dwell on it. But I do think it is underpinned by an commonly held, implicit moral judgment that free play among children is beneficial, more structured play is OK, and screen-based play is actively harmful.

It is worth pausing to look at the evidence for this view.

And thought there is emerging evidence that ‘less-structured’ activities are associated with better performance of particular tasks, and in self regulation generally, compared to more structured activities. But looking closely at the classifications, many of the more structured activities (homework, piano lessons) are no-one’s idea of play, while the ‘less structured’ activities include activities with quite a degree of structure. So my reading of these studies is that they demonstrate the value of play, generally, rather than specific forms of play over others.

What does seem to be true is that play in general is good for our physical and mental health, and is an excellent framework for learning developmental skills.

Equally, claims are often made that social free play is essential to the development of imagination (this is a claim frequently accompanied by inspirational memes on Facebook, for some reason). This relies on two claims: a) that imagination can only develop in shared contexts and b) that it is fostered by a lack of constraints. The first is obviously an over-statement- your imagination may be more obvious if you and your friends are charging through an enchanted forest, but it’s no less real if the forest is a drawing you’re doing alone under your covers. The second claim also runs into trouble pretty quick- most studies of creativity find that, far from stifling creativity, structure and restrictions within which exploration can occur are essential to it. See everything on Minecraft for details.

So the claims made for certain forms of play being uniquely beneficial compared to others don’t quite add up. What about everyone’s favourite bugbear, screens?

Well, I recently helped to write the Royal College of Paediatrics guidance on screen time, so I can say with some authority…. It’s complicated.

Basically, there’s nothing in itself wrong with play on screens. The link between violence in video games and in real life has been endlessly debunked, and recent scare stories about the negative effects of screen time on mental health are academically suspect distortions of the evidence.

However, play on screens (and any screen-based activity) can displace beneficial activities, and therefore…. not cause harm exactly, but at least prevent optimal well-being.

I’m increasingly of the view that sleep is the major way that screen time impacts on well-being- the evidence is really strong both that poor sleep is a key determinant of health, and that screens keep us awake beyond our natural bedtimes.

Exercise, the benefits of which I assume I don’t need to spell out, is another obvious advantage that some forms of play have over others- and no, Wii fit or Just Dance do not count.

But if I was to pick one mechanism for the benefits of play in general, it would be social interaction- and here the story becomes a little murkier. In-person social interaction, when it works well, undoubtedly offers advantages that other forms do not. To take one example, no screen-based activity has ever been shown to be of benefit to language development- that seems to require face-to-face interaction, at least in the early years. Equally, when it comes to social understanding and the subtleties of relationships, there are things that can only be learnt in person. Studies looking at developing and generalizing planning and regulation skills from screens to physical tasks have been disappointing.

BUT…. two things. One is that in-person interaction is stressful, especially if unstructured. I am not socially impaired exactly, but an evening of adult company causes trepidation unless there’s a decent chance of some games being played. For many people, only interactions which are combined with some kind of activity are ever comfortable. If you’re uncomfortable in an interaction, you’re unlikely to be getting the most out of it, so we need to be very careful about saying that a given form of interaction is ‘better’ just because people who are already good at interaction get the most out of it.

Secondly, just because screen-based interaction is different, and doesn’t fully prepare you for interaction in the flesh, that doesn’t make it inferior. Yes, a socially awkward teenager might struggle at his gran’s tea party, but gran would equally be all at sea on his games of Fortnite. Each social environment has its own conventions, social grammar and etiquette, and it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any reason to think that any one set of skills is superior in itself.

So, where have we got to?

Play is great- the evidence seems to be that play, of any type, is beneficial to development and well-being.

I think it’s understandable that people react differently to different forms of play- there’s always a nostalgia factor which favours play remembered from one’s youth, and for many the online, screen-based world is unfamiliar and scary. There are advantages in non-screen play in terms of sleep, exercise and preparing people for ‘real world’ interactions. There may also be advantages to ‘real world’ play in terms of self-regulation, although it does look like play can be really quite structured and still be of benefit there. But we should be very, very wary of confusing our innate biases with real differences in the value of different play experiences. Because when we rinse them out, a lot of our prejudices turn out to be… well, just that.

Where does play begin, and where does it end?

Take a look at the images at the top of this post. Which of them would you say represent a form of play? Some of you might require some kind of thing to play with, others will focus on rules. In the view of many play researchers, only 3 of these are images of play (we’ll come to which three later). But I’d like to argue that they all embody, in different ways and to different extents, important aspects of play that I’d like to explore on this blog. And yes, the last one is flirting. I’ll explain.

Without pretending to offer any kind of theory of play, here are three important aspects, as I see them.

  1. Exploration: in my reading around play, one of the most intriguing definitions suggests that play is any activity in which players assign meaning to objects or actions, not in the real world, but in a kind of mental play space. To take one example, the classic ‘last one to the tree’s a poo-head’, the tree is assigned meaning as an objective, and the slowest child, a poo-head.  This kind of assigning meaning is most obvious in imaginative play and pretty easy to grasp in games- part of the power of video games is that they make this play space literally exist in visual and auditory terms. It’s less obvious in some of my other examples, but it might help to think of the play space as a ‘what if’ space. In peek a boo, the ‘what if’ is whether and when mum will reappear. In drinking games it’s ‘what if we had to only speak in a needlessly complicated code while progressively incapacitating ourselves?’ I’ll let you fill in the gaps around flirting. I’m not in the business of excluding activities from the category of play, but the idea of a mental play space, distinct from real world interactions, explains why actual exploration, or reading, or having a drink, are not in themselves play.A word on sport before I move on: it could be objected that sport’s ‘play space’ is physical, not mental- after all, a goal is a goal. If you take that view, all I would suggest is that you watch some sport that you do not know anything about: check out some Kabbadi then tell me sport isn’t played in a mental space!
  2.  Structure. For some of our forms of play the structures and rules are explicit- although frequently for board games they are also frequently opaque! Video games don’t spell out a rules set, typically, but they constrain the player’s options in ways that are highly structured, even in open world games. Similarly, play with toys structures the actions of a child in ways that are subtle but powerful. It’s less obvious that flirting or chase play have structure, because the structure is implicit, negotiated and ever changing, but anyone who has ever transgressed the rules of flirt can assure you they exist. The tendency to miss or ignore these unwritten rules of play are also one of the main reasons that children on the autistic spectrum, even if socially motivated, struggle to sustain play, and thereby friendship.
  3. Interaction. Do you play crosswords? I think probably crosswords aren’t play, and I suspect the reason is a lack of interaction. Again, in some forms of play, interaction is an obvious feature, but play conducted alone is less obviously interactive. But you are interacting with a system, which will respond to your actions in a way that is on some way deterministic, but not completely predictable, at least to you. Static puzzles like crosswords do not interact in this way, and it does seem as if this kind of interaction is a necessary, but obviously not sufficient, condition of an activity counting as play.

What about fun? Isn’t that a necessary condition? Well, play doesn’t have to be fun. I’ve played Monopoly junior, so believe me, I’ve learned that the hard way. It doesn’t even have to be potentially fun to count as play- let’s say you’re playing a video game that you hate because you’re being paid to review it. There will be the grim satisfaction of composing scathing appraisals of its qualities, but no part of the experience can be described as fun. For me, fun, connection and joy are the reasons for play, but they don’t define its nature.

So play is an activity that consists in structured, interactive exploration of a mental space. Why does this matter? Because play is ubiquitous, important and, in many of its forms, under-valued . I mentioned at the start of this post that for many play researchers, only ‘free play’, performed by children free of adult structure and intervention, counts as play. The rest is ‘entertainment’, in their view. So perhaps the most popular, financially significant, and innovative aspect of our culture is not getting the analysis it deserves.

Instead, as I pointed out in my previous post, we get this weird mixture of drooling acquisitiveness, perfectionism, and moralising. The latter tendency, though the smallest in volume, is arguably the most interesting, and next time I’m planning to wade into that particular swamp and ask whether there is, actually, any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of play.

What I would like more than anything, having written this, is to be challenged on my thoughts on the nature of play. Have at me!