Meaning and Value in the Cultural Work of Children's Play

Martin Packer
Department of Psychology
Duquesne University

(412) 396-4852

Presented at the symposium:

Narrative and Symbolic Action in the Construction of Individual and Collective Identities.

Annual Symposium of the Jean Piaget Society, June 1993, Philadephia

I want to suggest this morning that in children's play we find a particularly clear instance of the social construction that lies at the center of the developmental process. What we see, if we engage in the interpretive analysis of children's play, is the construction of a world, and a particular way of inhabiting that world which I call an "ethos." The world is intersubjective and practical, and the ethos is both factual and evaluative; it is a consensual sense of the "goods" of the activity of play.

Children's play thus draws our attention to the way that the everyday world of adult life is not simply factual and objective, but is intersubjective, conventional, and a practical melding of fact and value. In doing this, it helps us rethink what is required for a child to become an adult. I want to build a case for the claim that different kinds of games provide different routes of entry to membership of the adult world.

I shall be describing and contrasting the play of two groups of boys. I observed all the children in a preschool kindergarten class playing together over a two-year period. (I video-taped on the playground, focusing each day on one child who wore a tee-shirt with a wireless microphone sewn in.)

The first game is named by its originators "Laser Beasts." This game is a mix of video- game and science fiction, played by a group of three boys, led by the most popular boy in the class: Noah. Laser Beasts is initiated simply and efficiently by Noah as he and Sean, his companion and playmate, walk out onto the playground: he is "Laser Bat," Sean is "Laser Shark." Their characters agreed upon, Noah next defines their resources: laser guns with which to defend themselves, and jet engines with which to flee. It is quickly apparent that they will meet a series of challenges and threats: the first of which is something unnamed that lives in holes in the sand:

Sean says, "You know what, I don't like those little things that grow along the ground." "Jump the pits. That's where they live" says Noah.

These two boys are joined by Daniel -- "Come on; we need you on our team" says Noah - - and to the observer it gradually becomes apparent that Noah is the leader of a small team of "beasts" whose mission takes them through the vast reaches of a challenging and often threatening landscape, during which travels they must combat a rarely seen and only vaguely defined evil force. This force is manifest in a variety of shifting forms, and it outweighs them in its material resources, so that they must rely on their ingenuity and skill to attack and elude it. They deal in succession with Shark Hunters, Bionics, and Moray Eels.

The boys race back and forth across the playground, unrooted save in their relations to one another. Noah is generally in the lead, yelling things like "Come on, Laser Shark!" [VIDEO 1] The game continues in this way for about forty-five minutes, and all this time new threats and dangers appear but the plot remains the same: each challenge is heroically dealt with and escaped from at great risk, and often with damage or injury sustained, but this damage is subsequently recovered from or repaired.

Contrast this picture with the world that is constructed by Nolan and his playmates: Jamie, Jason and Jonah. Typical of their play is the day Nolan and Jonah decide that they are "Big and Bad Gecko" and "Big and Bad Alligator." They swing on a tree branch and tear its leaves off, they insult the teacher who tells them to stop, and they announce that they hate all the girls. Where Noah's team of Laser Beasts is fighting off evil forces, the "bad guys," the Big & Bads delight in being bad. Nolan refers to them all as "stinkers," and says gleefully: "We're bad boys aren't we? We're such bad boys aren't we?"

Now, in both these cases the world of the game is sustained by the playground: it draws resources from the playground and makes use of its spaces. But in the case of Big & Bad the relationship to the playground, as an adult-designed and adult-patrolled institution with its own normative order, is an ambivalent one.

This can be seen in the way Nolan's group sets out to use the playground apparatus in ways quite opposite the uses sanctioned by the teachers. Here for instance [VIDEO 2] they are running up the slide, instead of sliding down it. And here [VIDEO 3] Nolan has climbed from the top of the slide to hang from the top of the swing frame. You can see him in mid air, quickly dropping to the ground as a teacher enters on the left of the frame. And here [VIDEO 4] we see the teacher instructing the boys in the proper use of the slide: "You go down the slide," he tells them -- as though they didn't know!

This oppositionality on the part of the Big & Bads is inherently unstable. When directed towards the adult world it risks drawing down correction, disapproval and occasional sanctions. Directed towards other children it risks anger and retaliation: on one occasion Nolan and several other boys picked Emily as a target, and drove her to fury as they flung basketballs at her. The episode is painful to watch, as Emily's growing anger gets assimilated to the logic of the game: as she yells at them and then flings the balls back at them the Big & Bads see her as playing her proper "part" in the game, as target for their mean behavior. Here, for instance, [VIDEO 5] Nolan has just thrown another basketball at Emily and now turns and is fleeing with gleeful laughter as Emily tries to drive him away. Eventually she manages to convey to the boys that she is "not playing" -- as she puts it -- but only after she has endured a lot of persecution.

One further option for positioning the oppositionality is to direct the "mean" behavior at other members of the group, and this often happens too. Here [VIDEO 6] Owen grabs Nolan just as Jonah, on the swing, manouevers so as to kick him from behind. But this kind of conduct, while typical, hardly fosters the cohesion of the group: midway through the year Nolan and Jamie have fallen out: In the sociometric assessments we conducted, Nolan says of Jamie, "[He's] Really [who I] worst like playing with. He's always mean to me, and says I have to give it to him, and whenever I give it to him he just throws it at me. [He m]akes traps for me. I get so angry with him I feel like smacking him in the face." And Jamie says of Nolan: "'Cause he's always mean! Used to not be but now he is"

But by the end of the year, surprisingly enough, cohesion has been reestablished. Nolan nominates Jamie positively, saying "He's real nice; he's real silly," and Jamie picks Nolan too, though not as his first choice. One explanation for this change of view lies in the choice of a new target by the "stinkers." Most of their negative nominations in the sociometrics at the end of the year were girls (71%, up from 47% at the start of the year) - and the girls, it should be noted, returned the complement (typically over 70% of their negative nominations are boys). The boys now play games where they "chase" the girls; who scream and run. The girls invite the boys to chase them, even though the teachers discourage the game.

What is accomplished in this play? First, a world has been constructed. In abstract terms, both these groups of boys have established a shared sense of place and purpose, along with an understanding of the identities of characters and their resources and powers, and norms of accepted action.

More concretely, what has been established is a shared sense of what is real, of what counts. There is some fuzzyness, of course, but that fuzziness serves the function of providing room for creative elaboration of the game. Both the Laser Beasts and the Big & Bads occupy a world of their own production, not just a one-to-one mapping of playground artifacts to fantasy elements. It is a thorough reworking of the playground, a many-to-many mapping, that defines social "goods," as well as sites and occasions for the production and exchange of these goods.

The worlds of Laser Beasts and Big & Bad are produced and defined through the children's playful actions, and at the same time they define the contexts in which those acts have meaning, in a circular or reciprocal manner. In both the games I've described we can see the construction of what Alfred Schutz called "a finite province of meaning," "an order of reality": a world with a specific accent of reality, within which certain kinds of character exist, each with a characteristic mode of activity . The playground has been reworked as a social ground - shared and practical - on which individual acts of play can be launched, and make sense.

Schutz saw that children's play is a world of its own. But, surprisingly, Schutz seems to have thought that no real work can be done in the reality that is created through fantasy. In this regard he apparently viewed play the way Piaget and Freud did, as something that properly disappears in the course of development, as "instead of assimilating the external world to the ego, [the child] progressively subordinates the ego to reality." But how can this be the whole story, if the social world we live in as adults is the product of creative human activity? This world is not objective or natural; it is intersubjective and conventional . So are the worlds these children construct in and for their play. Viewed this way, the worlds of child and adult are not opposed as fantasy and reality, but differ only in the awareness on the part of their participants of the character of their construction and maintenance. As Brian Vandenburg has put it: "[R]eality, for humans, is a trusted fantasy. To be human, and to live in a meaningful way within a culture, requires that we live in and through a very sophisticated, abstract system that is largely imaginary."

Second, each of these worlds embodies what I like to call an ethos: a characteristic, enduring and shared understanding of valued goods, and of the manner of their production and exchange. In these games fact and value are unified; they have not been separated into two distinct realms, let alone become labelled "objective" and "subjective" respectively. The distinction between "good" and "bad" is played out in both these games not as a simple evaluative dichotomy, but in a concrete and practical awareness of the properties of factual entities.

For example, the Laser Beasts can lose a "life" in their dealings with challenges like the Moray Eels, and it is accepted that Noah has the resources to restore these lives: here [VIDEO 7] he is leading Sean by the hand to the Climbing Structure to "recharge" him... "If we want you to live," he says, "come on." He sits Sean down at the top of the slides. "Don't mind the little tickle it's gonna give you." [He presses an imaginary button.] "Err, err, err. OK, you have six more lives. Come on. Let's go."

In the game a life is a matter of fact, but it is also an evaluative matter, both quantitative - Noah and Sean can argue about how many lives they have left - and qualitative - loss of a life is the occasion for weakness. The next overhead [attached figure] shows a structural description of the ethos in each game.

The third construction is my most speculative claim: I think we can start to see in these games the way identities are forged on the payground. By "identity" I mean a sense of a characteristic way of being in the group, and a way of regarding and dealing with children outside the group. Think about the different ways good and bad is played out in these games. For Noah's team the distinction between good and bad provides the occasion for an ethos of camaraderie and mutual caring among the team members. For Nolan's gang, mutual meanness is the norm. But in both cases - Laser Beasts and Big & Bad - forms of masculine identity are being forged. It goes without saying that, by and large, on the kindergarten playground boys play with boys, and girls with girls. The first basis upon which playmate choice is typically made is gender: being a boy, at this age, amounts first of all to not playing with the girls, and vice versa. Laser Beasts and Big & Bad elaborate on this in different ways, however: the Laser Beasts ignore girls entirely, most of the time; the Big & Bads take them on, as suitable targets for their meanness.

For the Laser Beasts, masculine identity is a matter of boldness and bravery. There are a few very interesting occasions where I think we see identity carried out of the game in which it plays a central role: Here [VIDEO 9] the "beasts" are in jail, on the top of the Climbing Structure. And here [VIDEO 10] Noah is falling off, quite by accident. The event visibly shook him but he was able to weave it into the terms of the game:

"There! That's- that's the way to get outta there! That's the way. hey Sean! That's the way to get outta there! Whew! That's the closest thing to, to dead there is." He goes over to the teacher: "You know how to get out of that jail? [...] You slide over the edge and then I used my head to get out and I fell down like this way, and I didn't get hurt at all!"

Identity is being shaped in terms of the practical distinctions of the world of the game: good and bad, or bad and nice; risk taking; separation of "us" and "them." The two games I've sketched here define masculine identity somewhat differently, and in doing so they provide different routes into the adult world. These games are by no means utterly divorced from the larger social order, they are not a social construction from scratch, but nor are they simply an imitation of that order. When the Big & Bads chase the girls and make them scream this is not simply imitated sexism. I think it has to be seen in this case as a creative solution to the problems raised by taking an oppositional stance in a setting where one has minimal power and no authority. I don't intend in saying this to excuse in any way the sexist behavior of the Big & Bads, and their behavior will most likely be hard to alter precisely because it is sexism reconstructed on the local level.

But nor do I want to dismiss their oppositionality as simple obstreperousness. Nolan's group, unlike Noah's, confronts the adults' reality.. The challenge their oppositionality poses to the normative order of the playground opposes any simple dichotomy of good and bad with a more nuanced and ambiguous reading, one that exposes the lack of an claim to privileged objectivity on the part of the adult world, as well as the way it rests upon authority, even if it is one most of would consider benign. The social worlds of both adults and children are made up of sustainable fictions, conventions rather than necessities, that eventually come to be second nature, either because people taken them for granted, or because newcomers find them already fully made. The transition from childhood to adulthood is not the subordination of fantasy to reality, but in part the loss of an awareness of the creative and playful origins of the apparent "objectivity" of fact and value, and of personal identity


A characteristic, enduring and shared understanding of valued goods, and of the manner of their production and exchange