Bettelheim and the Importance of Play

In his landmark work "The Importance of Play" Bruno Bettelheim lays out a penetrating study that attempts to describe the psychological importance that play has upon the development of the mind of young children. Bettelheim proceeds from the perspective of classic Freudian psychology with the suggestion that play is a method by which children are able to foster mature development by addressing issues of past psychological problems. Even the most seemingly mindless of playful activities therefore works as a royal road into their minds in which they can confront unconscious fears through their consciousness, not unlike an adult may do through role-playing in a psychologist's office.

According to Bettelheim, then, play is very much an intellectual activity. It is through playacting and imagination and role-playing that children can develop cognitive functions that may very well be applied specifically in adult versions of the very games they play. For instance, one of the first games that children seem to learn to play is store. One child plays the seller and the other plays the consumer. This kind of play spurs the development of a variety of cognitive skills that can be useful as an adult, from mathematical skills to learning how to sort according to size or color.

Using the same example, playing "store" also helps to develop less obvious skills that may be mirrored in real life adult situations. The children may play at a level in which bargaining or bartering takes place; perhaps as a result of imitating either their parents or something they saw on television. In this way children learn much-needed social skills such as how to compromise and how and how to judge what they are willing to give up in order to get what they need. Bettelheim makes the interesting observation that most of these kinds of skills area acquired at the subconscious level; that is the child learns them without being aware he is learning them.

It is quite obvious that play over the last half century-and increasingly so for today's kids-works very much on that subconscious ideological level. Twenty years ago it was still not unusual to see kids playing with empty boxes, turning them into spaceships, racing cars or an entire world. Today's kids don't play with empty boxes as much anymore, technology has enabled parents to buy their children actual working racing cars and other miniaturized versions of reality. It's not enough that a five year old kid can actually drive through his neighborhood in a battery-powered vehicle and not have to rely upon his imagination to turn his tricycle into a car, but he's doing it while driving a miniature replica of his parents' Jaguar XK convertible that costs $500. This presents a dual problem. One, the child's imagination is not being sparked by play, and two he is being ideologically inculcated into a system that places a premium upon conspicuous consumption. And even if the child's parents aren't rich enough to afford the Jaguar or even the $300 dollar Hummer, he's still likely to be driving a motorized vehicle with either a single car logo or covered in a variety of merchandise logos NASCAR-style. This type of play still teaches children much needed skills, but something deeper is also going on that wasn't as big a problem even ten of fifteen years ago.

Play today has been manipulated by corporate America as a training ground. By the time children reach their teenaged years and have disposable income of their own, playing store hasn't just taught them how to count or sort or bargain, it's taught them to look for the brand name and it's taught them not to question that capitalism is the only game in town and it has officially sucked them into a system from which escape is only possible through a grand self-awareness of consciousness-raising.

Counteracting this pernicious effect is somewhat similar to Bettelheim's reply to the parents who worry about kids shooting guns. It is natural enough for some parents to be concerned about overly violent children just as it is unfortunately natural enough that other parents will replace the toy gun with a real gun all too quickly. Specific instances of aberrant violent behavior in young adults or adults cannot be blamed on childhood play, of course, but clearly there must be some connection between the violence of childplay and the violence of society. Unfortunately, it's impossible at this point to tell whether childhood play constructs violence or is merely a reaction. The real problem, however, is that while many parents do at least feel a twinge when they watch their child pretend to shoot or be killed by another, most parental outrage at play ends there.

Toys have been a method for normalizing sexist attitudes toward both boys and girls, obviously, and that has always been a problem. Girls receive Barbie dolls and embark upon a lifetime of learning that girls are pretty adornments. Boys receive balls and embark upon a life of learning competition. That is a problem associated with play that has been addressed significantly, but today it includes a new dimension that isn't be addressed. Children today play with toys that serve not only reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, but also serve to reproduce the ideological view of happiness through consumption. No longer do dolls merely come with beautiful clothing, that clothing has been designed and carries the logo of famous-and quite often very expensive designer. At the same time young boys are still playing with building toys, but instead of building bridges or a generic log cabin, they are building replicas of specific locations or characters from movies or TV shows. It is as if the toy industry is hell-bent on wringing the last remaining vestiges of creativity out of the human genome. Bettelheim responds to the fears of parents that violent games lead to randomly violent behavior by showing that the games can actually lead to more civilized behavior by creating an good/evil dynamic. The child learns to overcome evil and do good through violent confrontational play. The parent who watches in disgust when he asks his child to build something with his Legos that doesn't look like the SpongeBob or Darth Vader on the box and the child respond he can't has little hope of that this kind of play will result in the same type of civilizing effects.

In a sense what is happening is an abstract version of what Bettelheim is talking about when he writes about Spielraum. It is hardly a dirty little secret that outdoor imaginative play is almost unknown among older kids today; the video game revolution has taken care of that. And even younger children are choosing to limit their play room and imagination to the area in which their television and Playstation or Gameboy sits. Of course, this aspect of play is so painfully obvious that academics and psychologists have been addressing the issue for years. Another example of Spielraum that remains relatively unaddressed is how the scope of play has been shrunk as a result of the impact of commercialization upon child's play.

Play is all about controlling adaptive behavior. It's perfectly all right for a child to play any game as long as it can be controlled by adult supervisors to make sure they are learning the lessons they are supposed to learn: don't cheat, don't quit, don't give up. Society works because kids learned a few basic rules during play. But who is in charge of controlling the behavior today? Mothers have been forced into the workplace because of devastatingly bad economic decisions by politicians and as a result generations of kids playing either without one-on-one supervision or very lax supervision. Playing, as a result, is no longer under the strict supervision of parents as it used to be. As Bettelheim puts it, personality development is placed in the hands of those who are in charge think best. The personalities of today's kids are, sadly, in the hands of those making their toys. With parents too busy or tired to spur innovative and creative thinking, and pre-school teachers or other caretakers incapable of doing because they simply have too many minds and bodies to charge, the development of personality is being carved by the toymakers.

How can kids today be expected to develop a rich inner life when specificity is the byword of design. To return to the concept of the cardboard box for a moment, a cardboard box can literally be transformed into anything. Toymakers see no profit in such utilitarian design. Every toy today is designed to situate the child's developing brain into a box from which it is difficult to escape. Obviously, if a child's imagination can turn a stick found on the ground into a magical sword, then by reason it should be assumed that a child can imagine that her Dora the Explorer life-sized interactive playhouse is really a castle on Venus. But it isn't as easy to do that. It isn't as easy because a stick is a stick, but a fancy outdoor playhouse looks exactly like what it is supposed to resemble. If it's supposed to be a log cabin, then the plastic is molded to look like wooden logs. If it's a playhouse kitchen with an oven, microwave, sink and stove it becomes increasingly hard for the child to convince himself or his friends that it's really a cave. The problem today isn't so much the uncreative parent who tells his child that horses can't talk as it is Hasbro telling them if they want to pretend to play in a rocket ship they should get their parents or pre-school to buy their prefab rocket ship; if they want play house, then those supervisors should shell out the bucks their prefab playhouse. Creativity, imagination and the rich inner life of children isn't being stolen from them by academics as much as it is by Toys R Us.

This problem even extends to the playing games, though perhaps not as deeply. Playing games is also a method of engendering adaptive behavior, of course: learning the rules, understanding the rules, playing by the rules as well as learning how to cope emotionally with both success and failure. Because games are by nature much more structured than free-form play, the problems of inhibiting creativity and imagination do not run as deep. In fact, in most games creativity is discouraged; often it is even stifled. And there is a development reason for this, of course. Free-form play is the method by which the imagination of children is sparked, whereas games stand in direct opposition. Games are the method by which conformity is established and our natural tendency toward anarchy is quashed. Society cannot exist without both anarchic flights of fancy and painfully authoritarian rules. Play stands as two polar opposites toward achieving this dichotomy. And playing games is the method whereby the creativity of play is leashed.

It is distressing that the roles that games are meant to engender in youth become apparently all too quickly. Perhaps there is something to be said to the nature over nurture argument when it comes to competition. Or is there? Kids do seem to have a natural affinity for competition and very quickly express deep emotions when either losing or winning. It would seem, therefore, that humans are evolutionarily hardwired for competition. This would make sense from a Darwinian point of view when not being the fastest, or strongest, or craftiest could result in death. On the other hand, is it not true that these expressions of emotion caused by competition are so often expressed in ways that seemed to be learned? Pumping a fist into the air in victory or kicking the dirt in defeat are probably not evolutionary leftovers; they are learned expressions. Could the emotions themselves be learned as well?

Competition is deemed natural in society and becomes normalized even more with each passing generation. But is it really natural that a four or five year old become apoplectic upon losing a game of Candyland to a young rival? Where is this anger coming from? Surely it must be learned, at least in part. This is probably due to the fact that while competition may be genetically inclined, our response to competition is being guided by social concerns. Competition used to be normal because it was necessary; today it is not so much. And the competition that is being expressed in games, while meant to instill the kind of competitive desire that is necessary when one breaks into the world of work, is all often too often treated as the competition that should be relegated to gaming.

It isn't just in sport-related games that parents treat winning as an indication of a child's self-worth, it's spread to all games. It is far from unusual to watch children playing board games react to victory or defeat in the same way that they react while playing soccer or baseball. Trash talking, high fiving, chest-thumping: all these symbols of athletic competition are now expressed routinely in everything from a game of cards to a spelling bee. One may well ask why this has come to be. Certain games that use to be very epitome of polite behavior have now become subject to the same rules of etiquette as a basketball pick-up game. Over the course of the last two decades the intent of gameplay seems to have undergone a massive shift from teaching children how to play by the rules toward teaching them that competition is everything; the rules matter, but winning matters more.

On the other hand, this increase in the importance of competition at the game-playing level has had another effect as well. The dividing line between genders may still be nearly as intact as ever when it comes to toy play, but in terms of game play that line is much less darkly defined. Girls have been welcome into coeducational sports leagues, girls teams have received more funding at the school level and to a certain extent even at the professional level females are the objects of competitive focus.

Little girls are no longer expected to sit on the sidelines and cheer the boys on in their neighborhood football games. This competitiveness coincides, obviously, with the growth in the female workforce. Just as game playing was a deemed a necessary part of developing the skills necessary for competitive little shortstops to become competitive businessmen, so now are girls expected to learn the rules and how to play the game. Playing the game is now imbued with such developmental importance that few gasps of outrage occur anymore even when a pretty little apple-cheeked seven year old girl engages in the same kind of trash talking as her male counterpart. It's a tough world out there, dog-eat-dog and better these girls learn that now than jump into the workplace still thinking everything is Barbie dolls and Care Bears.

It is interesting to note, however, that this point of view is a testosterone-dominated one way street. It has how become accepted-even mandated-that little be exposed to play that engages all the best "male" attributes, yet the same thing doesn't apply in reverse. While little girls are now learning to be as competitive and cutthroat as little boys, where is the play that allows little boys to develop their "female" attributes such as sensitivity, openness and understanding? Let's face it, both little girls and little boys play with dolls. But to suggest that his little boy is playing with a doll to bring about the instant reply, "It's an action figure" one need not necessarily be talking to some homophobic, right-wing, country-music-loving, NASCAR-watching, Bush-loving redneck. Just about any American male will do. It is a well known fact that girls play with dolls and boys play with action figures. To hint otherwise would be worse than standing up and proclaiming oneself an atheistic Communist lesbian at Bob Jones Univ.

This is more than unfortunate, it is tragic. As Bettelheim points out, dolls are symbolic representations of iconic figures and interactions with them could go prove quite beneficial to the emotional development of boys. Even though most boys do play with dolls that are violent or militaristic in nature-from GI Joe to Star Wars figures-it still rarely results in the interaction with fathers that results when mothers join daughters in doll play. This is probably a result of the fear of losing his masculinity since the father more than likely played with "action figures" himself. It is sad that fathers are far more likely to join in play with sons when the toy is perceived as more masculine than with the doll, which would offer a natural chance to engage in emotional role-playing that could go a long way to helping his son to deal with emotional insecurities.

Play, clearly, is not the same activity today that it was a few decades ago, much less a hundred years ago. But while play isn't quite as pure as it may have been then, poisoned by ideological interests of commercialism, it is still just as vital and misunderstood by most parents as ever.

Timothy Sexton
April 9, 2007


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