|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
peoples 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
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 couldnt
be accurate. She knew this because there was an exhibit in the
Exploratorium that showed that sound wont travel in empty
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
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 dont serve the same end.
The motor patterns are thus generally performed out of context.
- Play behaviors dont 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 wont
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.
early on that childrens 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 Piagets stages can be
a factor in play at any stage of development. That certain developmental
stages are associated with particular kinds of play doesnt
preclude those kinds of play from being expressed in a wide variety
of ages and contexts. Sensorimotor play is a component of childrens
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,
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 youngsters control (Garvey
1990). The childs 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
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 Bruners
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 ones
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
childrens 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
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 ones
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 exhibits
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.
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and further readings