Child’s play is a tough problem

Children’s play has long fascinated psychologists. The post-Freudians saw it as a direct expression of the human unconscious and its often been seen an essential, if not slightly mysterious, element of a healthy childhood.

The New York Times has a wonderfully in-depth article on the latest scientific discoveries on the role of play in development, most of which attempts to answer the question ‘if play is so energy consuming and dangerous, why do almost all mammals engage in it when young?’.

One fascinating bit discusses ‘play signals’, body postures that are specifically used by humans and other mammals to advertise the fact that they’re playing, and so none of the rough-and-tumble is mistaken for aggression:

Social play has its own vocabulary. Dogs have a particular body posture called the ‘‘play bow’’ — forelegs extended, rump in the air — that they use as both invitation and punctuation. A dog will perform a play bow at the beginning of a bout, and he will crouch back into it if he accidentally nips too hard and wants to assure the other dog: ‘‘Don’t worry! Still playing!’’

Other species have play signals, too. Chimps put on a ‘‘play face,’’ an open-mouthed expression that is almost like a face of aggression except that the muscles are relaxed into something like a smile. Baboons bend over and peer between their legs as an invitation to play, beavers roll around, goats gambol in a characteristic ‘‘play gait.’’ In fact, most species have from 10 to 100 distinct play signals that they use to solicit play or to reassure one another during play-fighting that it’s still all just in fun. In humans, the analogue to the chimp’s play face is a child’s smile, an open expression that indicates there is no real anger involved even in gestures that can look like a fight.

…[in humans] Brown could detect some typical gestures that these 2- and 3-year-olds were using instinctively to let one another know they were playing. ‚Äò‚ÄòPlay movement is curvilinear,‚Äô‚Äô he said. ‚Äò‚ÄòIf that boy was reaching for something in a nonplay situation, his body would be all straight lines. But using the body language of play, he curves and embraces.‚Äô‚Äô

The article also looks at the possible benefits of play for brain development, and what role play takes in the learning of social roles and moral behaviour.

Link to NYT article ‘Taking Play Seriously’.

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