The Nature of Play

The Nature of Play:
Can an understanding of the biological determinants of play help to select the "right" toy?
© 2005-2008  Edward Loewenton

 

     Play behavior is observed in most mammals, because it is a natural consequence of the common mammalian stress-response system. Pure play is entirely self-directed, and is important for healthy cognitive-emotional growth. Good toys encourage self-directed play.
...Play, in its pure form, exercises the child's (or adult's) response systems in a "safe" way, because the individual sets the goals with limited or no reference to outside demands, and enters the drive state voluntarily...
...True play involves a self-created goal that demands effort to achieve, with a high but not absolute chance of success...
...The drive to play is a special case among these other, more obligatory responses to events and objects. It is the only one in which the individual actively seeks or creates situations that will induce arousal for its own sake, and in which the euphoric nature of the arousal is nearly a certainty, by virtue of the high probability of success anticipated by the person...
...Translating these abstract ideas into the process of choosing a toy requires some knowledge of the new or emerging competencies of the child for whom we are buying the toy...
... an ideal toy allows a child to perceive a goal to be accomplished, make an effort to realize that goal, and then to attach his or her own representational meaning to the outcome. The value of such a toy is its long-lasting play value. When a child has explored one aspect of the toy, he or she can then try something else, rather than lose interest...
...The principle value to a child of an unstructured toy is the power it gives the child to restructure a small and manageable part of his world. An adult -- with his or her vastly greater competency -- who pre-empts that power, by trying to "teach" the child how to gain a specific result, takes away from the child the real value of the toy...
...Translating these abstract ideas into the process of choosing a toy requires some knowledge of the new or emerging competencies of the child for whom we are buying the toy...

    An ideal toy provides a framework for exploration and self-directed goal-oriented behavior.  It provides enough structure so that it may be used as a tool for attainment of a play goal, and may help to focus and set boundaries for these goals, but not so much that it can only be used to accomplish a single pre-defined task. 

     An ideal toy is non-representational, i.e., doesn't define itself as having a narrow cultural meaning. A kit of abstract parts, for example, allows complete freedom of exploration, but is structured in the sense that the parts only go together certain ways. A toy car or train, a teddy bear or doll, is less open-ended, and constrains play somewhat, because even a very young child has acquired some cultural and perceptual responses to such objects. 

     Toys that are promoted by or are associated with comic-book, television, or movie characters or plots are the least free and open-ended, and constrain and limit explorative play most narrowly. A child's play with a set of Star Wars toys is likely to be based at least somewhat on his or her experience of the movies. 
     Come to think of it, by this logic, among the best toys are paper and something to draw and color with, kits to make things with, or musical and athletic or skill toys. Perhaps the best toys of all are the parents, siblings, and other close, familiar, and supportive attachment figures in a child's daily life. 
     True play involves a self-created goal that demands effort to achieve, with a high but not absolute chance of success.

A Little Background Material: Drives, Stress, and Arousal 
    
Most discussions of play focus on its purely psychological and experiential aspects. But there is also an underlying physiological process which gives play its unique importance in the development of children and the lives of people of all ages. Play has been considered a drive, that is, a motivated state that signals a need to reach some goal or other. This state also starts a physiological process of arousal that enhances and focuses attention, mobilizes energy reserves, improves mental performance and memory encoding, and generally makes it possible to achieve the desired goal. These arousal processes are experienced as pleasantly stimulating and are in themselves motivating when the drive and arousal process results in reasonably quick attainment of the goal, or when the person believes that the goal is reachable and that he or she will succeed.
     When the goal is not attainable, or when there are conflicts, for example, a desire for and simultaneous fear of the goal, then these same positive arousal processes become aversive. When these arousal processes are not terminated by success, they become unpleasant and potentially destructive at the physiological level. If they go on long enough, they become self-sustaining, become resistant to termination, and may lead to greater sensitivity generally to events that provoke fear or anger. They may even cause impairments of cognition and memory, loss of motivation, and a variety of symptoms that collectively are usually called "depression". (These ideas have been developed at much greater length, and will be presented on this website in complete form in the future.) In fact, there is considerable evidence to support the opinion among some of the most prominent behavioral neuroscientists that the changes consequent on chronic unresolved challenge and arousal are invariably a central factor in all forms of psychiatric disorder.

     The negative consequences of motivated arousal have long been discussed within the framework of stress. But it is important to understand that the deleterious effects of stress are part of a continuum with the important, useful, pleasurable and motivating properties of the very same process. Play, in its pure form, exercises the child's (or adult's) response systems in a "safe" way, because the individual sets the goals with limited or no reference to outside demands, and enters the drive state voluntarily.

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     John Bowlby formulated what I believe to be the most useful model of drives 
(read more about this theory), by identifying an "unstable equlibrium" between two sets of drives. One serves the security needs of the individual, including nutrition, avoidance of harm, maintenance of stable body temperature, reproduction, and attachment. It may be that attachment and the other motivators comprising the physical security group are independent drives, in view of the fact that attachment and these other security sub-drives may be in conflict. 
     The second (or perhaps third) group serves needs for exploration, learning, autonomy, mastery, and, by extension of these ideas, play behavior
     Behaviors serving both security and exploratory needs in some proportion include social confirmation, human sexual behavior, creative employment, affiliative behavior, and the need to make sense of the environment, i.e., to have sets of object-representations that are compatible with each other and with perceptible outcomes. 
     These are all drives. Their activation increases arousal, energizes efforts to reduce the arousal, and stimulates representations of the desired end-state. All have similar neurophysiological profiles. Achievement of the end-state is euphoric and enhances behavioral adaptation.  Failure to achieve the goal or resolve the challenge is dysphoric. Chronic or catastrophic failure to terminate arousal by resolving the challenging event (successful goal attainment) has pervasive and persistent behavioral and neurobiological consequences that may be self-amplifying, and that are especially destructive in infants and children due to coincidence with critical neurodevelopmental windows.
     Bowlby's concepts of drive derived some of their explanatory legitimacy and claims to validity by reference to their apparent evolutionary adaptiveness; for example, an organism that is inherently motivated to explore its environment will, presumably, learn more about that environment and will thus function more effectively in it, thus becoming more likely to survive to reproduce and safeguard its young to maturity. The same can be said for an infant's drive to form an attachment to the most responsive and available adult in its environment, thus increasing its chances of survival to maturity. In the case of the exploratory drives, especially play, there may be some circularity to this argument.
     However, a newly formulated understanding of the functions of the brain systems involved in arousal, learning and memory, response to stressful events, and motivated behavior suggests that a drive to play has a biological status equal to more obvious ones, such as hunger, sex, avoidance of physical harm, and attachment. 

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     The drive to play is a special case among these other, more obligatory responses to events and objects. It is the only one in which the individual actively seeks or creates situations that will induce arousal for its own sake, and in which the euphoric nature of the arousal is nearly a certainty, by virtue of the high probability of success anticipated by the person. In fact, the very reason (aside from safety) that toys are age-rated is to offer a play experience that will have just sufficient difficulty or complexity to stimulate arousal, with a sufficiently high probability of success so that the child can control the event outcome within some preferred interval of time. 
     This is precisely the description of the euphoric and behaviorally adaptive kind of arousal. Parameters of duration of effort, complexity of required control behavior, and numbers of trial to success and termination of the experience are all part of the organism’s autonomous process of play-experience selection. Arousal level is a positive function of all three, and determines the self-reinforcing value of the experience. 
     To the extent that the process is not autonomous, or that any of the security drives are involved, the behavior is not entirely play. It is interesting to speculate that the individual’s preferences regarding the three aforementioned parameters are indicative of core characteristics of top-down affect control and cognitive and behavioral competencies; and that these competencies are the beneficiaries of play that has just the right setting for each of the three parameters.

The Real Meaning of "Open Ended" 
     Following the ideas discussed so far, we can say that an ideal toy allows a child to perceive a goal to be accomplished, make an effort to realize that goal, and then to attach his or her own representational meaning to the outcome. The value of such a toy is its long-lasting play value. When a child has explored one aspect of the toy, he or she can then try something else, rather than lose interest. 
     An open-ended toy permits the expression of an increasing competence. As the child masters one set of outcomes offered by the toy, he or she will find challenges in the same toy that yield more difficult or complex results. We often see a child reach the end of his or her current repertoire of behaviors with an unstructured toy. The emphasis here is on the word current. If the toy is a good one, the child's maturation will at some point provide a new repertoire of responses. Play concepts that were out of reach are now accessible, and provide one of the most vivid rewards for growing up: an enhanced competency. 
     The principle value to a child of an unstructured toy is the power it gives the child to restructure a small and manageable part of his world. An adult -- with his or her vastly greater competency -- who pre-empts that power, by trying to "teach" the child how to gain a specific result, takes away from the child the real value of the toy. One of the most important things a child ever learns, either through self-structured free play where the child sets his or her own goals, through structured, didactic learning experiences, or by doing real-world tasks, is that the successful attainment of a predetermined goal is supremely satisfying, and that part of the satisfaction comes from the knowledge that he or she may fail to attain the goal in any particular instance. This tension is what triggers the arousal processes that makes goal attainment possible, and that also makes it enjoyable in the special way we call "fun". It's the challenge that makes the fun.

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Choosing a Toy 
     Translating these abstract ideas into the process of choosing a toy requires some knowledge of the new or emerging competencies of the child for whom we are buying the toy. A detailed disussion of the stages of acquired abilities at different ages is beyond the scope of this short article. But just to give a few examples, very young infants are challenged by the discovery that motor activity can make a visual, auditory, or tactile experience change in a predictable way. Crib mirrors are superb for providing infants as young as a few weeks of age with visual stimuli that is contingent on their behavior. Soft squeaky and textured toys provide this, as do mobiles that move when the infant kicks or moves in some way. 
     When children start to crawl, and can use their hands effectively, manipulative toys such as pat-mats and rattles are good. Children of this age enjoy repetitive behaviors. Because they are still developing their sense of object constancy, they also are most effectively challenged by "peek-a-boo" toys, where they find object hiding under other objects. Toddlers starting to walk find the right sort of challenge in push and pull toys, simple put-together toys, scooters and pedal cars, and anything that challenges their new motor skills. Their newly developing language skills make word and number toys, especially ones that involve a parent, a good choice. 
     As children reach the age of five or six, they are just discovering the notion that there are systems of rules, and are challenged by and enjoy role-playing, often inventing elaborate rule systems. Soon after, generally around age seven, they develop abilities to follow formal systems of rules, and begin to enjoy playing games in a more adult sense, as well as building models or using construction toys to achieve a specific result.
     For all these reasons, truly expert toy design pays attention to age-appropriateness, not just with reference to safety concerns, but with a deep understanding of the typical abilities of children for whom the toys is intended, as well as the developmental challenges that define each age group.

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