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EducationLearning: Theory and Practice
Playing and Learning
by Judy Diamond

As a graduate student at the University of Colorado, I studied how young coyotes learn about their social and physical worlds. Coyotes are highly flexible animals, in that they adapt their learning strategies to the demands of their environment, and much of this adaptation in young coyotes is accomplished through play. Infant coyote pups play with nearly anything within reach, including their food, grass, rocks, and any movable object left in their enclosures. They also engage in lengthy bouts of rough and tumble play with each other, producing special signals to let each other know when an interaction is "just for fun."

Later, when I started examining the behavior of family groups that visited the Lawrence Hall of Science and the Exploratorium, I found that here, too, a major component of people’s interactions with their environment involved play. In the museum, people who played more also seemed to spend more time at the exhibits and appeared to get to know them better. Sometimes visitors made explicit connections between the exhibits and related phenomena outside the museum, and I hypothesized that playing at exhibits might facilitate these kinds of connections. Perhaps this was because the act of playing resulted in a deeper involvement in the exhibit than might otherwise be the case.

The teenage Explainers working at the Exploratorium became the subjects of a study I organized that examined the long-term effects of a science museum (Diamond et al. 1987). The Explainers have refined the art of playing with exhibits to a fine degree. Their innovative antics with the exhibits sometimes serve as mass entertainment, attracting crowds and sending giggles throughout the museum.

But can significant learning be that much fun? One Explainer suggested to us that playing with exhibits might lead to the formation of critical judgments about natural phenomena. She recalled how working at the museum enabled her to feel more confident in her knowledge about the world. By way of example, she described confidently telling her boyfriend that the loud explosions in the space movie they were watching couldn’t be accurate. She knew this because there was an exhibit in the Exploratorium that showed that sound won’t travel in empty space.

Museums are among the few public institutions where play is not only tolerated, but encouraged. Understanding the relationship between play and learning in museums, however, is no small task. This review summarizes some of the ways that researchers understand the contribution of play to the development of motor skills, sociality, and cognition.

Growing up with play
Play is a basic part of the behavior of most mammals, including people. Although play is easy to recognize, it can be hard to define. Ethologists have tried to define play by the context of certain behaviors. However, for every generalization about play, there is also an exception. For example, play occurs more readily in immature animals, although it is by no means the sole province of juveniles. Play may involve intense social interaction between the participants, but it also can occur in solitude. Play is generally not directed to a specific goal, since it is usually self-rewarding; however, short-term goals sometimes facilitate play. Play is often elicited by a wider range of stimuli than other activities, but sometimes very specific behaviors ("play signals") can initiate play.

In spite of these seeming contradictions, there are some generally agreed-upon characteristics of play:

  • One of the universal features of play is that it appears to lack extrinsic goals. Play behavior is intrinsically rewarding, more an enjoyment of means than an effort devoted to some particular end. In utilitarian terms, Garvey (1990) suggests that play is inherently unproductive.
  • Play generally includes motor patterns that are taken from other functions, such as eating, fighting, and exploring, but in play they don’t serve the same end. The motor patterns are thus generally performed out of context.
  • Play behaviors don’t necessarily occur in their typical sequence, and patterns of different or even incompatible functional systems may follow one another, often resulting in highly unlikely sequences. These can include incomplete sequences, reordered sequences, and incomplete movements. In play, there is also a tendency to repeat sequences of behavior. Sometimes individual play movements are exaggerated in form.
  • Play is characterized by the occurrence of play signals, such as "play invitations," "switch signals," or "play faces." Bruner (1972) and others have described these signals as a form of metacommunication that modifies the meaning of other actions, so they won’t be taken too seriously.
  • In people, imagination plays a particularly important role in all play activities. Children attach different meanings to objects and assume changing roles during play, and fantasy becomes superimposed on reality.
  • Play is not the same as exploration. In play, one attempts to vary stimulation in order to sustain a relatively high level of activation. In exploration, one seeks to reduce uncertainty and hence the arousal or activation produced by the novel or complex stimulation.

Scientists recognized early on that children’s play changed as they grew. Jean Piaget was a leader in describing the developmental components of play. Piaget (1962) identified three types of play, each of which was characteristic of a stage in the development of the child. Sensorimotor play occurs in infancy through the second year of life when children are busy acquiring control over their movements and learn to coordinate their gestures and their perception of the gestures’ effects. The infant derives pleasure from mastering motor skills and from experimenting with the world of touch, sight, and sound, taking joy in being able to cause events to recur. Symbolic or representational play occurs from ages two to six when children acquire the ability to encode their experiences in symbols, and then begin to play with symbols and their combinations. The third stage in play, games with rules, begins in school when children have begun to understand cooperation and competition.

In fact, each of Piaget’s stages can be a factor in play at any stage of development. That certain developmental stages are associated with particular kinds of play doesn’t preclude those kinds of play from being expressed in a wide variety of ages and contexts. Sensorimotor play is a component of children’s play with food and the natural environment, and it is a vital component of adult sexual play. Symbolic play occurs as a component of all imaginative activity, including creative problem solving. Games form the basis of many kinds of organized recreational activity, including sports.

One of the most stable features of play is the fact that it offers consistently by gender. Nearly very species of animal that plays shows gender-related differences in how play is expressed. In people, despite differences in the values and organizations of diverse communities and cultures, sex differences in play are virtually universal (Garvey 1990).

Differences in play begin early and persist throughout the lifetime of the individual. For example, in preschool, girls were found to be more likely to describe or plan their play while boys were more likely to enact their themes in pretend play. Boys were more likely than girls to generate pretend themes completely unrelated to props in the room. Girls were more involved in maintaining collaborative group activities, while boys were more concerned with pursuing their own individual interests. These differences are well established by the time that children enter elementary school (Garvey 1990), and they are pervasive in informal as well as formal educational institutions (e.g., Diamond 1994). By fifth grade, differences in play behavior are entrenched.

One of the most famous studies of play examined preadolescents between 11 and 13 years old who were participants in the Guidance Study at U.C. Berkeley, in which 200 children were studied over a period of 20 years. The subjects were observed and interviewed while they were asked to create a scene from an assortment of toy blocks, people, cars, and animals. Erikson (1951) found that the configurational patterns of the scenes of boys and girls differed dramatically. In boys, outstanding variables were height and motion; in girls, the variables were static and enclosed interiors. Girls generally built quiet scenes of everyday life, while boys depicted street and outdoor scenes. Boys used more blocks in more varied ways than the girls. Only boys built configurations of only blocks and only girls built configurations of only furniture.

Parents and caregivers may select the type of toys that children play with according to their adult notions about what is appropriate. How a child plays with those toys, however, remains largely under the youngster’s control (Garvey 1990). The child’s behavior is nonetheless shaped by powerful forces of gender and development to ultimately influence how she or he experiences the physical and social worlds.

Play and learning
Play is pleasurable, spontaneous, and voluntary. Does that mean that play serves no function other than pleasure? Just how play and learning relate to each other is the source of both speculation and experimentation.

Bruner (1972) views play as a means for acquiring information about and experience with the environment. Once acquired in play, information and experience can be used to maximize the flexibility of the individual. Play can produce the flexibility that makes tool use, invention, and creativity possible. In Bruner’s view, play provides opportunities to try combinations of behaviors that would otherwise never be tried. The experiences with these behaviors then can serve as the basis for later learning. For example, in play, children may master the subroutines that make later observational learning possible. Young children take selectively from demonstrations those features of performance that are within the range of their capacity for constructing skilled acts. Without play, children have no experience with the subroutines on which to build skilled activities.

Other components of play may influence the learning process. Bruner (1972) believes that social play, in particular, provides a means of minimizing the consequences of one’s actions and of learning in a less risky situation. It is also possible to view social play as a kind of communication system and the behaviors involved as transmitting messages. Play can thus be viewed as a means of learning proper social communication.

Social influences also modulate how one plays with objects in the environment. For example, mastery of complex tool skills among non-human apes depends not only on observational learning but also on whether they take place around trusted individuals (Bruner 1972). In children, the influence of trusted adults may have less to do with outright teaching or providing opportunities for imitative behavior than with calming kids down so they can engage in sustained play. In one study in a museum discovery room, children engaged in a greater diversity of play and exploratory behaviors when they were in the presence of adult caregivers than when they were alone or with peers (Diamond 1988).

Researchers have long suspected that there are cognitive benefits to play. During the 1970s and 1980s there were various attempts to determine whether play in young children transfers immediate benefits to how they solve problems. Dansky and Silverman (1973) tested the notion that play furthers a measure of creativity known as associative fluency. They measured four- to six-year-old children’s ability to form associative elements into new combinations that met certain task requirements. One group of subjects was allowed to play with a particular set of objects, another was asked to engage in an equivalent amount of imitative behavior with the same objects, and a third group was shown the objects but given experiences that did not involve contact with them. The study found that the subjects in the play configuration produced significantly more nonstandard responses for every object than subjects in either imitation or control conditions. Later work by the authors suggests two important principles: (1) play creates a set, or attitude, to generate associations to a variety of objects, whether or not those objects are encountered during the play activity; and (2) make-believe is one form of play that contributes to the enhancement of associative fluency.

If prior play experience facilitates associative fluency, then does it also help children solve specific, goal-oriented problems? Sylva, Bruner, and Genova (1976) found that prior play experience gave preschoolers an advantage in solving certain kinds of problems, such as retrieving a piece of chalk in a box that is out of reach without getting out of your chair. This was true even when the play subjects were compared to subjects who were given a demonstration of the solution. Pepler and Ross (1981) later showed that, among preschoolers age three to four, experience with play that had no single correct solution led to greater flexibility in problem solving and more imaginative solutions than single solution play or controls.

Many questions remain about the relationship of play to problem solving. Among the methodological issues of concern in some studies are the relatively short durations of play sessions and possible experimenter bias,as well as the possibility that because the children were asked to play, their activities lacked the essential feature of intrinsic motivation. Although studies show that play can change the way people solve problems, they do not necessarily demonstrate improvements in problem-solving ability.

Specific outcomes of play, such as practice with skills, social communication, and problem solving, may not fully explain its overall function. Rather than primarily training specific motor or cognitive skills, Fagan (1982) suggests that play may provide the generalized ability to adapt to environmental novelty. He finds strong evidence for the claim that enrichment through play enhances behavioral flexibility, including the ability to solve novel problems and to respond effectively to novel environments. In this light, play experiences facilitate generalized learning and problem-solving skills, such as seeking multiple solutions to problems, adjusting problem-solving strategies to the task, and adapting to changing environmental or problem conditions.

These generalized functions may be particularly important in explaining adult play. Apter and Kerr (1991) find evidence of play in nearly everything adults do: sports, games, sexual behavior, gambling, even some forms of religious experience. They view play as a state of mind rather than a series of behaviors, distinguishing "telic" or serious states of mind from "paratelic" or playful states. In the paratelic state the individual is able to explore, develop, and elaborate a variety of skills, and test them to the limits in a free and imaginative way. He or she is able to build up a stockpile of habits, skills, and knowledge that is more extensive than it would have been in the goal-oriented telic state alone. In the latter state, the individual learns to select from these, to articulate them over time in a way that may demand anticipation, foresight, and planning. It is the transitions or "reversals" between the two states that allows learning to occur. This serves as the basis for what the authors call "reversal theory." Overall, play or paratelic thinking creates a means for adapting to one’s environment by providing self-confidence, new ideas, and relief from stress, and by reinforcing social relationships.

  • play provides both adults and children with experiences on which to build later learning;
  • play promotes flexibility and possibly creativity in problem solving, which may or may not lead to more successful problem solving; and
  • play can relieve factors that inhibit learning, such as stress.

In the context of museums, play can be encouraged in ways that few other public institutions make possible. Museums provide a physically safe environment, so that people can play without having to be on guard. Museums encourage group participation and social interaction, allowing both children and adults to benefit from social play. Museum exhibits can become play objects with which to investigate fantasy, sensory inputs, and the physical world. Most important, museums offer most visitors a free choice in what they will interact with, allowing the motivation for play to be intrinsic to the individual.

In spite of the potential benefits, many museum staff have an ambivalent relationship with play. One curator expressed his profound disappointment that "kids seemed to run and jump through the museum, with little time for serious activity." Research on play, however, suggests that the very act of running and jumping through a museum might help make serious learning possible. This can occur by relaxing the learners, by familiarizing them with a variety of stimuli, and sometimes by acquainting them with components that later will be relevant for a task. The visitor may choose not to engage in the intended task of an exhibit, such as when a child refuses to assemble a pile of bones into an animal, but insists on creating a tower with them. However, when a child invents a new way of using an exhibit, at least two important things occur: The child constructs personal meaning from an exhibit, and the child acquires the ability to approach a task by inventing an original solution. The construction of personal meaning and the ability to invent new solutions may, in fact, be more important for later learning than the communication of the exhibit’s original message.

One might assume that there would be much active research on play in museums. However, relatively little is known about how visitors use museums for play. Such research could help clarify the relationship between play and learning, and it could give useful guidance on how museum exhibits might be designed to facilitate play. Finally, furthering our understanding of play makes possible an appreciation for the educational role of museums, not as institutions for teaching about specific information, but as institutions that encourage people to develop the desire and skills for lifelong learning.

Resources for this article

Apter, Michael J., and John H. Kerr. "Chapter 12: The Nature, Function and Value of Play," in Adult Play, ed. John H. Kerr and Michael J. Apter, 163+176. Amsterdam: Swets and Zeitlinger, 1991.
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Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972.

Bekoff, Marc. "Animal Play: Problems and Perspectives." In Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 2, edited by P.P.G. Bateson and P.H. Klopfer. New York: Plenum Publishing Co., 1976.

Bekoff, Marc. "The Development of Social Interaction, Play, and Metacommunication in Mammals: An Ethological Perspective." Quarterly Review of Biology 47 (1972): 412-434.

Bruner, Jerome S. "Nature and Uses of Immaturity." American Psychologist 27, no. 8 (1972): 28+60.

Bruner, Jerome S., Allison Jolly, and Kathy Sylva. Play - Its Role in Development and Evolution. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976.

Dansky, Jeffrey L., and Irwin William Silverman. "Effects of Play on the Associative Fluency in Preschool-Aged Children." Developmental Psychology 9, no. 1 (1973): 38+43.

Dansky, Jeffrey L. and Irwin William Silverman. "Play: A General Facilitator of Associative Fluency." Developmental Psychology 11,1 (1975): 104.

Dansky, Jeffrey L. "Make-Believe: A Mediator of the Relationship between Play and Associative Fluency." Child Development 51 (1980): 576-579.

Diamond, Judy. "Sex Differences in Museums." Curator 37, no. 1 (1994): 17+24.

Diamond, Judy. "California Academy of Sciences Discovery Room." Curator 31, no. 3 (1988): 157+166.

Diamond, Judy, Mark St. John, Beth Cleary, and Darlene Librero. "The Exploratorium’s Explainer Program: The Long-Term Impacts on Teenagers of Teaching Science to the Public." Science Education 71, no. 5 (1987) 643+656.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenäus. Ethology, the Biology of Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Erikson, Eric. "Sex Differences in Play Configurations of Pre-Adolescents." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 21 (1951): 667+692.

Fagan, Robert. "Evolutionary Issues in Development of Behavioral Flexibility," in Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 5, ed. P.P.G. Bateson and P.H. Klopfer, 365+383. New York: Plenum Press, 1982.

Garvey, Catherine. Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Hutt, Corinne. "Exploration and Play in Children." Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 18 (1966): 61-81.

Kremer, Kristin Benne and Gary W. Mullins. "Children's Gender Behavior at Science Museum Exhibits." Curator 35, 1 (1992): 39-48.

Lever, Janet. "Sex Differences in the Complexity of Children's Play and Games." American Sociological Review 43 (1978): 471-483.

Martin, Paul and T.M. Caro. "On the Functions of Play and Its Role in Behavioral Development." In Advances in the Study of Behavior, edited by J.S. Rosenblatt, C. Beer, M.C. Busnel, and P.J.B. Slater, 15 (1985): 59-103.

Mueller-Schwarze, Dietland. Evolution of Play Behavior. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson and Ross, Inc., 1978.

Pellegrini, Anthony D. "Chapter 13: The Effects of Exploration and Play on Young Children's Associative Fluency: A Review and Extension of Training Studies." In Child's Play: Developmental and Applied, edited by T.D. Yawkwy and A.D. Pellegrini, pp. 237-253. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984.

Pepler, Debra J., and Hildy S. Ross. "The Effects of Play on Convergent and Divergent Problem Solving." Child Development 52 (1981): 1202+1210.

Piaget, Jean. Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1962.

Poirier, Frank E. and Euclid O. Smith. "Socializing Functions of Primate Play." American Zoologist 14 (1974): 275-287.

Smith, Peter K. and Tony Simon. "Chapter 9: Object Play, Problem Solving and Creativity in Children." In Play in Animals and Humans, edited by P.K. Smith, pp. 199-216. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Sylva, Kathy, Jerome S. Bruner, and Paul Genova. "The Role of Play in the Problem Solving of Children 3+5 Years Old," in Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution, ed. Jerome S. Bruner, Allison Jolly, and Kathy Sylva, 244+257. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

References and further readings


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