Friday, June 14, 2024

True, But Not Useful

My wife's former business partner was fond of an expression that I've adopted because it covers so many things in life: "That's true, but not useful." 

In his case, it referred to anything, no matter how insightful or interesting, that could not be practically applied to challenges and opportunities at hand. It was an effective way to move things along, which is important in a business where time is money and all that. That said, I'm not a businessperson and while I value efficiency when it comes to things that I'd rather not be doing (e.g., folding laundry) if this blog proves anything about me it's that I very much enjoy thinking about ideas, and often the more "useless" the better. I will warn you before you read any farther that what follows is as useless as it gets.

Case in point: I've recently been thinking about the challenge of defining play, which is an important topic for anyone researching this universal urge, but not particularly useful for those of us who simply need to know play when we see it. On a day-to-day basis, when pressed, I might define play using some version of "self-selected exploration, discovery, and invention." This is inadequate, however, for someone attempting to put together a proper study or experiment. 

Psychologist and evolutionary biologist Gordon Burghardt, in his book The Genesis of Animal Play, proposes that a behavior can be called play when it meets the following five conditions: it must be "nonfunctional"; purely voluntary; clearly unlike the animal's typical behaviors; involve repeated behaviors, with modifications; and can only take place when the animal is safe, well-fed, and healthy.

There is plenty to quibble with here, but one thing I find particularly useless, and therefore worthy of idle speculation is the distinction he makes between "exploration" (which is part of my own knee-jerk definition) and "play." In a nutshell, Burghardt asserts that exploration is asking the question, "What is this?" Play asks the question, "What can I do with this?"

How can you separate the two? I mean, after all, isn't the process of answering the question "What can I do with this?" also one of trial-and-error exploration?

That said, ever since I came across this distinction I've found it creeping into my own thinking about play. For instance, even if we stipulate that exploration isn't play, but rather a precursor to play, we cannot also conclude that exploration leads inevitably to play. Sometimes the exploration leads to pain (e.g., pricking your finger on a rose thorn) or fear (e.g., a growling dog), which generally puts the kibosh on any subsequent play, at least in that particular area of exploration. I've witnessed countless children walk away from the workbench upon encountering the business end of a hot glue gun.

Indeed, pain and fear as a result of exploration means that the "animal" is not, in that moment, feeling particularly healthy or safe, which in turn means, according to Burghardt's definition, that it cannot be play. 

But how does risky play fit into this? After all, wrestling (or play fighting) is often identified by researchers as the most universal form of play, yet pain and even fear are inevitable aspects of that particular play activity. In fact, part of the allure of play fighting, or climbing to great heights, or achieving great speeds, or getting lost, or using potentially dangerous tools is testing oneself against pain and fear, risking it. Some children a lot of the time and all children some of the time, experience feeling unhealthy and unsafe while continuing to play in risky ways.

And that brings me to another condition of Burghardt's definition: it must be voluntary. Is it significant that the pain and fear that exists right at the edge of so much of what we call play (including social-emotional play) is there with the full knowledge of the player? A child might not know in advance that falling on pavement is painful the first time they do it, but by the tenth time, certainly they know that scraped knees and elbows are aspects of, say, running in the parking lot. The first fall might simply be exploration, but the rest of the falls, even by Burghardt's definition, are play: play undertaken with fear perched on their shoulder. So, if I were allowed to tweek his definition, I'd say that play can happen under conditions of being unsafe or unhealthy, but only if the risky behavior is entered into voluntarily.

I also wonder if play must be defined through observable behavior, or movement. I get why someone studying play in animals would want to make movement a defining characteristic because, after all, it isn't possible for us to base science on speculations about another species' internal state. That's hard enough when trying to understand humans who can, at least to a certain extent, self-report their thoughts, feelings, and motivations using language. But as someone who enjoys playing with ideas, I know that it's possible to play without exhibiting movements or behaviors that could be considered playful. I can't be the only one who likes to sit and just let my mind wander. Just this morning, I sat on my front porch as the sun rose. It was nonfunctional, voluntary, unlike what I do throughout the rest of my day, and I was well-fed, safe, and felt as healthy as a 62-year-old man can feel, but my movements as seen from the perspective of an outsider amounted to little more than turning my head, breathing more deeply, and occasionally tipping my coffee cup to my lips. Nevertheless, I feel like I was playing. I might not have been asking the question, "What can I do with this?" but I was definitely playing with the question, "What is the meaning of this?" Is that play or something else?

I'm likewise not so certain about the word "nonfunctional." As Burghardt uses it, he means behavior that does not obviously serve the animal's need to survive or reproduce. But given that play has been part of animal existence for, literally, billions of years, evolutionary orthodoxy would identify it as essential for survival, if not reproduction, even if we aren't entirely sure of the why or how.

Where I seem to be landing in this completely self-indulgent and not useful blog post (I'll leave it to you to assess whether or not there's any truth in it), is that play is voluntary (although I prefer the term "self-selected") and it is unlike what we normally do. The rest is open to interpretation.

I warned you at the top that this post would not be useful, but now that you're here at the bottom, having joined me for a few minutes, I have a question for you: Is it possible to define play as anything we choose to do that is true, but not useful


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download podcasts.

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