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Introduction “WORK CONSISTS OF whatever a body is obliged to do,” Tom Sawyer lectured to his friends, and “Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”1 Mark Twain’s definition of play seems so simple, so clear. Yet those who have observed and thought about the play of children have embellished the concept with a dizzying array of variations and qualifications. Articulating a single acceptable definition of play is almost impossible. In fact, the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences admits that “No one definition of play is necessary or sufficient” and that it is “a controversial and unresolved topic.”2 An anthropologist’s concept differs from a sociologist’s, whose concept differs from a psychologist’s, and so on. Most agree that a child’s play has a purposeless quality—Tom’s view that it is not work —but they also agree that play does have a function that is immediate in its behavioral, social, intellectual, and physical rewards and in the development of the child into an adult. For the most part, the theorists—all of them, of course, adults— link the play of children to another simultaneously simple and complex concept that probably would have satisfied Tom Sawyer: fun, meaning the feeling of bliss and amusement. Play, in this regard, is the spontaneous, joyous activity of children. But the experts also conclude that play has functional, utilitarian qualities related to a child’s development and learning. An individual, according to a common school of thought among educators, psychologists, and philosophers, acquires vital social, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills through play, thereby learning how to prepare for a future role as a productive adult. At the same time, play is said to ease a child’s adjustment to the present and make life meaningful. Play, say the experts, inspires imagination and invention, helping children attain positive emotions and control negative ones.3 The dynamic factors that characterize play are legion. They traverse a spectrum from elation and freedom to tension, conflict, and 1 destructiveness. Along this path lie various intensities of behavior: fantasy, competition, risk, and mimicry.4 Some kinds of play, including such competitive sports as Little League baseball and youth soccer, or the activities sponsored by commercial play spaces, such as Kids Sports Network and Discovery Zone, fall under adult supervision; they are formal and bound by rules, and they take place in predetermined environments. Other play activities—interactive experiments occurring in children’s museums, for example—are semiformal; adults facilitate play activity but do not directly control it. Still other kinds of play are completely informal, improvised, and “childish,” involving what some psychologists believe to be children’s innate biological impulses to investigate and engage with their world and to amuse themselves in unstructured ways.5 Thus, daydreaming and exploring have been considered playful activities. But so, too, are child-instigated games and sports, such as playing “house” or pick-up baseball, that require memory, strategy, and dramatizing but transpire away from adult scrutiny. Equally important, different children play in vastly different ways. Age, sex, social class, access to time, and other characteristics affect the preferences, style, and quality of play. And what might be deemed as “fun” play to one child might not be so to another, and what a particular child might consider as play one day may not seem so the next.6 A condition of innocent joy is not the sole factor present in play, for what passes as playful activity may also be dangerous, cruel, destructive, or unpleasant. French philosopher Roger Caillois, for example, noted that play could involve “endlessly cutting up paper with a pair of scissors , pulling cloth into threads, breaking up a gathering, . . . [and] disturbing the play or work of others.”7 Children who may be deficient in certain social, physical, or intellectual capabilities, whether from lack of maturity or from permanent developmental incapacity, may find no delight in a particular game or activity that is beyond their faculties. Physical or psychic injury can result from even innocent play, such as might ensue from climbing a tree, bicycling on a rough surface, or being the target of snowballs, and some activities that a child might enjoy, such as capturing insects or bullying other kids, could also be malicious and sadistic. Thus, as much as the concept of children’s play invokes positive reactions, it can have a darker side.8 As soon as childhood became a subject of serious social scientific...


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