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Children's Play and Adult's Play from the standpoint of Gregory Bateson and Donald Winnicott.

Trevor Pateman

Teachers and parents like to think that they approve of children playing, that they believe children learn and develop through play. They may remember that someone once said that a Child's Play Is Its Work. Yet, equally, children's play is a source of anxiety to these same teachers and parents. They may have come to terms with Doctors & Nurses, but Cowboys & Indians or more contemporary versions of violent shootouts leave them uneasy, as does the way children gravitate towards sex-stereotyped toys and ploys for their play.

The unease might be relieved if we saw more clearly what Play is, appreciating its particular unreal, fictional and symbolic character. For Play - the genuine thing - is twice removed from reality, not once removed. An angry boy who shapes two fingers into a gun, points them at the object of his anger and fires (`Piaow, Piaow'), is using a representation (of a gun) in expressing the anger he feels. His action is once removed from reality, in the sense that it represents an attack on the hated object rather than actually being an attack with fists or stones or whatever happens to be available. But the attack, though it involves a representation (the image of a gun rather than a gun), is still located very much within a real relationship with the person who is the target of the aggression. So it is appropriate to respond to it within the context of a real relationship. The target of the aggression might meaningfully respond with such words as, "Now, now. Temper, temper".

But when in a game, a boy makes an imaginary gun from two fingers, points at a playmate [note the word!] and fires (`Piaow, Piaow'), there is no anger, and there is not a real relationship but a symbolic relationship between play-aggressor and play-victim. It is not appropriate for the playmate victim to respond, "Temper, temper". The playmate-victim should simply duck to avoid the imaginary bullet, or clasp his hand to his chest, gasp, crumple to the ground and put on a decent display of death throes - perhaps good enough to win some applause.

In a rather complicated formula of Gregory Bateson's (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 152), playful actions are twice removed from reality in that they do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote if they were not playful actions. That is, pulling the imaginary trigger in Cowboys & Indians does not denote the anger or the act of killing which is denoted (or, a better word, represented) when the angry boy points the imaginary gun at the object of his real anger.

A different way of putting this might be to say that playful actions are always ironic. They mention words and deeds, rather than actually using words and performing deeds. This way of putting things attributes to children an intellectual sophistication often lacking in adults. I think that attribution is reasonable, since I do not find it problematic to think that adults can be lesser versions of the children they once were.

Of course, the distinction between playful and non-playful representation is sometimes not recognised, or gets confused, and in both directions. In a well-known study of ritual insulting (popular with the young speakers of American Black English that he was studying), William Labov showed how ritual insults, which are meant to be funny ("Your mother, she so ugly that ....") are liable to be taken as real insults, which cause fights. A playful bite may go wrong and be taken as a real bite, provoking retaliation. In the opposite direction, a marital argument may turn into an exchange of ritual insults, and dissolve into laughter. That a line can be transgressed does not show that it does not exist, nor that it is unimportant.

There are also cases where the object of Play is to get to some real destination outside of play. I can think of two examples.

First, in "brainstorming" sessions, playful moves - fooling around, crazy ideas, heavy irony - are permitted within an overarching commitment to come up with a "real" solution to the problem being brainstormed.

Second, in sexual play (the word "foreplay" is no accident) actions may be mentioned (represented in a playful way) but with a view to their accessing or releasing real (non-playful) sexual desire. When that release happens (when someone gets "turned-on") then the line between playing and reality gets crossed and that was the hoped-for outcome of the play.

In both these cases, there is as it were an underlying belief that if you go about things too directly (too abruptly, without irony) you may not succeed in releasing, in one case, the original ideas or, in the other, the sexual desire needed for the task in hand.

I develop a similar line of argument in another essay on this website "Communicating with Computer Programs".

Play in the sense of action and representation twice removed from reality resides in the fact that it exists in a realm (of fiction, imagination or symbolism) where it would be misguided and mistaken to evaluate it with respect to the kind of moral, political, commonsense or scientific criteria always relevantly applicable in everyday life. No moral condemnation can properly be attached to shooting dead your best friend in a game, and no teacher should be alarmed by the sight of a playground full of dead bodies. It's only a game, Miss. Put differently, and a bit more challengingly, the living heart of play is that it is irresponsible. Taken out of its context, it may even be shocking or offensive. This is the sad fate which descends on other people's sexual play when narrated for the benefit of newspaper readers or court rooms incapable of irony.

It is in being `Only a Game', existing in a realm bracketed off from real world appraisal, that play can function as a potential space for development, learning and creativity. This is the view of D. W. Winnicott, who in Playing and Reality writes that, `in playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative'. Among the adult games he includes psychoanalysis which, he says, `has been developed as a highly specialised form of playing in the service of communication with oneself and others'. Here `playing' is being used in a technical or semi technical sense, but to mean more or less what I have been using the term to mean. In psychoanalysis, the analyzed person can, for example, say things which in the real world might fairly be rebuked as aggressive or depraved but which in the psychoanalytic situation are not taken to denote what they would denote if they were spoken elsewhere. Additionally, in psychoanalysis - and in play more generally - Winnicott has in mind that the suspension of rules makes possible the creation or invention of fresh meanings. Play is linked to creativity specifically via the idea that in play no holds are barred: all rules can be broken, and all kinds of new rules can be invented.

In play we do not have to aim at `Literal Truth'. We are free to invent non - existent entities and treat them as existing for the purposes of the play. We are free to improvise, using our imagination to turn a broomstick into a hobbyhorse (to take E.H. Gombrich's famous example; see his essay "Meditations on a Hobby Horse"). We are free to associate senses and symbols as we wish, and to create nonsense. The test of good play is not whether it mimics the world or conforms to pre - existing rules, but whether it satisfies the participants (and sometimes, of course, mimicking the world or conforming to rule may be necessary to satisfaction). So there is a connection between Play and the `free play' of the imagination, which is set at liberty in Play.

However, one might well ask what motivates Play, and what drives the imagination in Play. Reflecting on these questions may cause a modification of the picture of play so far presented. For an `obvious' answer to the question of play motivation is that it in some sense satisfies perfectly real desires, whether conscious or unconscious, and these desires give shape to the play, dictating the choice of Cowboys & Indians, Doctors & Nurses, or Mothers & Babies. Likewise, it is desires, and also anxieties and fears, which drive the imagination along particular pathways, producing (for example) narratives of abandonment and loss - or happy endings. If this is at all the right way to think about the motivation of play and the shaping of the imagination, then it suggests that though in one sense twice removed from reality, in another sense play is not removed from reality at all. That, of course, is consistent with the idea that the line between play and non play can easily be crossed, since the drives which produce play and fuel the imagination are the same ones which operate in the rest of our lives. We should then think of play, like art in the Freudian scheme of things, as involving something we might want to call sublimation. This line of argument easily becomes the thin end of the wedge for those who want to stop children playing Cowboys & Indians or Doctors & Nurses. For they can say: This is not Play at all. It is simply (thinly disguised) Desire, and as such legitimately the object of all the kinds of appraisal from which (in the paragraphs above) you have tried to protect it. You are simply wrong. It is really worrying when children engage in playground shoot-outs. It's not only a game.

A completely different approach would treat a `Play Instinct' as serving nothing other than itself - not any set of external Needs or Desires. This is what we find in Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man; in Huizinga's famous Homo Ludens; and perhaps also in Melanie Klein's idea of an epistemic instinct. On this view, broadly sketched, there is a human drive to create symbols or representations. There is a drive to play with words, images and actions not connected, directly or indirectly, to conscious or unconscious desires seeking an `outlet'. Play would, on this view, be a self - sufficient activity with its own sources of energy. This is to make play even more opaque to the ordinary utilitarian understanding, since it is tantamount to saying that play is not for anything; it just is.

Website version 2006. Revised and expanded from the essay "Play" appearing in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts. A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education. London: Falmer Press 1991