Playing With Children
by haim shafir
Why do we play?
Playing is a cross cultural social phenomenon but it is not exclusive to humans - animals play as well, which implies that play existed prior to the appearance of the Homo Sapience.
So why do humans and animals play? The first apparent reason is that playing is a form of training for adult life. A lion cub practices on how to become a surviving predator; a baby monkey swings on branches to better himself for life on tree tops and a human infant enjoys the freedom and protection of childhood to explore, gain experience and acquire favorable habits on his way to become an adult. But, if this was the only purpose of playing, one would expect that once adulthood is reached, playing would cease. As we all know, this is not the case. Humans, as well as some animals, continue to play well into their adult life as the other function of playing is to serve the social needs of the society.
However, humans play for another unique reason which sets us apart from other playing creatures, a distinction that was scrutinized by the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott.
Play and Reality
Winnicott claims that once freed from the physical placenta, an infant must relinquish his ‘omnipotent placenta’ – the illusion of infinite power which creates a Godlike self image.
Everything the fetus experiences while in the womb is perceived as an integral part of his self and exists by his will. After being born, this reality perception persists as long as the environment is small enough and enables the baby's desires to be immediately gratified and without effort.
With the help of what Winnicott calls ‘Good Enough Mother’, a newborn must gradually abandon this God-like view of reality and learn the distinction between the self, the other, and the environment and gain recognition of a new world.
Once the distinction is formed, a child’s reality is free to expand, limited only by the frontiers of his curiosity, while the self turns inwards in search of his own uniqueness and own identity. In the overlapping of these two zones – playing takes place.
A game, according to this approach, is a meet between a part or a representation of the self and a part or representation of reality.
In order to conduct a game, we must carve a portion of reality and create a symbolic world which represents it. The symbolic realm enables us to conduct the game, while the reality it represents remains in the background and grants it meaning and validity.
In order to participate in the game, a player must go through a similar process: He launches into the game a symbolic representation of his self called ‘persona’, while the rest remains in the background in order to have a meaningful and valuable experience.
Who is a Player?
To be considered a player, a participant must fulfill 3 conditions:
He must sufficiently value the object of the game, and honestly strive for victory.
He must accept the consent of the other players and agree to play by the rules.
He must maintain some contact with the reality outside the realm of the game; otherwise the game becomes the “real world” and loses its playful quality.
Playfulness represents the ratio between what is considered the “real world” and the simulated or symbolic world of the game. It is also the ratio between a player’s perception of his Self and his Persona. As the ratio between the two increases, so does the playfulness.
Playfulness influences the freedom to take risks in the game. When the experience of the Self is sufficiently greater than the persona and a reasonable portion of it remains outside the realm of the game, the player may feel safe enough to take risks and explore new venues. In such cases, when failure strikes, the perceived damage is attributed to the persona, while the self has enough stamina to find consolation and recuperate. By the same token, a player will be less daring and not as creative in game situations where the experience of the Self is not sufficiently greater than the Persona.
Playfulness and Creativity
Creativity is a process of trial and error. It is the attempt to let go of certainty for the opportunity to win the thrill of novelty. In order to be creative, one must take risks and be willing to fail. No one likes to fail or lose, however, someone who enjoys high playfulness increases the likelihood of creativity, since he is not afraid of enduring damage due to failure.
Playfulness cannot be taught. It can only be nurtured. Gaming activities nurture creativity; however, not all games are geared to this purpose.
Having fun is not the sole reason why children play. Gaming activities allow them to discover their abilities and identity. In the mind of children, the distinction between their true identity and their playing persona is not always clear and may sometime dissolve altogether, (typically, when they lose).
When children lose, they don’t enjoy the generosity of their peers, and an innocent loss may result in a devastating damage to their self esteem and social status. When so much is at stake, a child may avoid playing games he is not skilled in and may limit himself to safer zones where risks are minimal.
Only an adult, who enjoys a secure sense of Self, can be a generous winner and a smiling loser. Such an adversary projects the distinction between the reality of the game and the world outside of it. This projection allows the child the freedom to explore new territories and discover the full range of his abilities, as well as develop greater playfulness.
But as stated, in order to be considered a player, it is not sufficient to simply follow the rules. The player must value the object of the game, and sincerely strive for victory. There is no satisfaction in winning over an indifferent opponent and no one is more annoying than a bored adversary. In order to experience the full creative potential out of an adult/child game interaction, the game must captivate the adult and the child in similar levels. Therefore, when adults choose to play with children, they should make sure they choose a game they enjoy playing.