Koach Karl continues this great article on "Play"….
Keeping play in perspective means looking at it not just clearly but fully. Not everything about childhood play is sweetness and light, no matter how much we romanticize it. Play can be dangerous or scary. It can be disturbing, destabilizing, and aggressive. It can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, leaving children out of the charmed circle of the schoolyard. The other side of playing is teasing, bullying, scape-goating, excluding, and hurting.
I well remember this darker side of play from my own girlhood. Like many other klutzy kids, I hated recess, since it stripped me of the classroom competence that was such good cover for my shyness. Out in the schoolyard, there was no raising your hand with the right answer. I had to wait to be asked to play jump-rope and had to face embarrassment if I missed a skip or — worse, much worse — if nobody ended up asking me. Even pretend play could take an ugly turn if my playmates made their dolls say nasty things.
Recognizing play’s dark side is not difficult, if we are really willing to search our memories. To play scholars, thinking about play’s negatives can be clarifying and might even generate new ideas, not only about play but also about the double-edged nature of pleasures itself. Why is it that something so joyous, something children yearn for so forcefully, can be so troubling too? If you’re accustomed to looking for evolutionary explanations for perplexing behavior, here is something meaty to chew on: what could be the adaptive advantage of using play to wrestle your demons?
Demons do indeed emerge at playtime, in part because children carve out play spaces that have no room for the civilizing influence of adults. This is what happened in the recess ‘‘fort culture’’ that arose spontaneously in 1990 at the Lexington Montessori School in Massachusetts, when the elementary-age children shunned the organized play their teachers had arranged and instead started building forts on their own in the surrounding woods. An intricate and rule-bound subculture developed, one that is still going on.
Mark Powell, then a graduate student at Lesley University in Cambridge nearby, observed the recess fort culture for several years in the 1990s and described it in 2007 in the journal Children, Youth and Environments. For the first few years, he wrote, petty conflicts, stick stealing and ejections for minor infractions were a constant background hum in a play culture that was otherwise high-spirited and fun. But it finally erupted into a miniwar one autumn, sparked by the hostile actions of a fort of 6- year-olds headed by a tyrannical little boy who called himself the General. Within a month of the General’s appearance, Powell wrote, the fantasy war play ‘‘had become a reality with daily raids and counterattacks, yelling, the occasional physical scrape and lots of hurt feelings.’’ It took the intervention of some other children, teachers and the General’s parents finally to persuade the child to call a truce.
Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the nation’s most eminent play scholars, has seen eruptions like the General’s many times before, but they don’t worry him. In fact, he embraces them. In such an elaborate play culture, he wrote, where so many harsh human truths come to the fore, ‘‘children learn all those necessary arts of trickery, deception, harassment, divination and foul play that their teachers won’t teach them but are most important in successful human relationships in marriage, business and war.’’
Sutton-Smith’s 1997 classic, ‘‘The Ambiguity of Play,’’ reflects in its title his belief that play’s ultimate purpose can be found in its paradoxes. During his years at Columbia’s Teachers College and the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton- Smith, a psychologist and folklorist, took careful note of how play could be destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. He collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ‘‘being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.’’ Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ‘‘phantasmagoria,’’ where children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.
Check back next week for the rest of this great article.