Monday, October 7, 2013

If students can't play, can they learn to philosophize?

I know I'm not the first person to notice how philosophy resembles a kind of high-level intellectual play. 

For one, philosophy can be playful. Philosophical humor, while sometimes a bit acid, can sometimes make a philosophical point more effectively than sober argument.

Second, philosophy is rule-governed, but shifts its rules midstream. To give one example: Plenty of philosophical disputes are about what evidence we have a for a given claim, and at some point in a philosophical dialectic, one of the parties will often claim that we've been employing a misguided standard for evidence (too strict, too liberal, etc.). The rules of the game can themselves be open to discussion. So just as children playing a game modify the rules as they go, philosophers often modify the rules of their enterprise as they engage in the enterprise.

Philosophy also involves a fair amount of role playing. Good philosophers attempt to anticipate how their opponents will react to their positions and arguments. This requires us to take on a role — to pretend we're someone we're not in order to fully participate in the philosophical enterprise.

A related point: Philosophy is imaginative. To entertain a counterfactual in philosophical settings is to attempt to envision the world as it is not and then work your way through the implications of that envisioning. 

Finally, at its best, philosophy has inclusion among its aims. It's an unstated rule of the best philosophizing that everyone has a role to play in its inquiry — and we should be reluctant to shape the inquiry in ways that exclude anyone from engaging in it.

These analogies between philosophy and play are why I feel a bit haunted by Peter Gray's astounding and wonderful piece on the decline of play among children.

Gray laments the decline of play opportunities for children over the past half century. Between the end of legal child labor and the onset of higher academic expectations and structured "extracurricular" activities, children in the U.S. and other Western nations had an unprecedented opportunity to play:
beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at [children's] freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Grey links the decline of play to childhood mental disorders, as well as an increase in competitiveness and narcissism. But Gray's at his best when he notes that rather than contrasting learning and play, we've forgotten how play fosters a kind of learning that can be difficult to create in academic settings. Gray's research fits within the widely accepted "practice theory of play," which sees play as the rehearsal of skills that children need later in life as adults. Some of these mirror traditional academic skills:
what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

But Gray sees a decline in creativity as the greatest intellectual drawback of the decline in play. Studies indicate that over the past three generations, ‘children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle’. Gray mentions that "the biggest decline is in the measure called ‘creative elaboration’, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way."

In addition to helping children deal with difficult emotions like fear and anger, play also teaches social skills, motivating children to negotiate so that inclusion is achieved among non-equals:
The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learnt a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life. 
Watch any group of children in play and you will see lots of negotiation and compromise. Preschoolers playing a game of ‘house’ spend more time figuring out how to play than actually playing. Everything has to be negotiated — who gets to be the mommy and who has to be the baby, who gets to use which props, and how the drama will unfold. The skilled players use tag questions to turn their assertions into requests: ‘Let’s pretend that the necklace is mine. OK?’ If it’s not OK, a discussion ensues.
Gray doesn't discussion the implications of the decline in play for formal education, but I think a reasonable hypothesis is that being a philosophy educator is much tougher when one's students have little if any experience in play. What I observe in many of my students — their general anxiety, their intense need for direction, their aversion to academic risk, their fear of any inquiry without a well-defined endpoint, their inability to empathetically hear others' points of view, their difficulties suspending belief for investigative purposes, their difficulty in asserting their view without dominating —are indications that they don't score well on playfulness and the skills associated with play.

Those who can play, on the other hand, can engage with philosophical questions in ways that are autonomous and empowering. Philosophical questions are serious, "adult" questions, but paradoxically, one's ability to engage in them seems to turn on having a child's well-developed sense of play. Gray again:

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.
It's hard not to hear echoes of many of the values that inform our work as philosophy educators: developing people who are intellectually independent, intelligently skeptical about authority, and responsible for their own beliefs and attitudes, who think not just to satisfy others but to satisfy themselves and their own curiosity.

I haven't done justice to Gray's piece. But he's persuaded me that philosophers should make common cause with those working to ensure that play doesn't disappear from children's lives.


  1. There is a significant literature (see, e.g., Nichols, Nichols and Stitch, etc.) that modal intuitions (both nomological and absolute) depend on (but do not reduce to) imagination (make-believe). If play plays a central role in activating and strengthening the imaginative system, or conversely, if the lack of play limits functioning of the imaginative system, then we should expect this to have significant effects for all pedagogy and especially philosophical pedagogy. It's not just philosophers who rely on modal (especially nomological) judgments. In fact, modal (especially nomological) judgments seem to play a role even in very young children in performing hypothetical reasoning. This is just to say - yes, this is an important topic in philosophy and cognitive psychology to which we should attend not just as a philosophers but as philosophy teachers.

  2. Thanks for this excellent piece. I especially enjoyed your introductory remarks on the parallels between philosophy and play. These call to mind some other interesting observations I read elsewhere:

    From Anthony Gottlieb’s critical review ( of Alison Gopnik's book 'The Philosophical Baby', I learned that playful immersion in hypothetical worlds is what teaches kids how to make sense of the real world; children's grasp of counterfactual situations helps them understand alternative courses of action; kids who have imaginary friends are better than other kids at predicting the thoughts and feelings of real people; and from as young as two years of age, children can grasp the difference between moral rules which are intended to avoid harm, and rules which are merely social conventions.

    I also recall a powerful short piece on the importance of play ( by Susie Steiner, who wrote that: "legions of adults [are] fighting to get back to the creative freedoms of childhood and playing, the free-associating of an unfettered imagination. If you can't play, you'll never be able to write, compose, imagine, sculpt or sketch. And yet I have never seen less emphasis on playing in the education of small children. The urge my son has, to project himself into his game – to allow this 'not-self' to engage in an imaginary world – is essential for his development."

    I'm glad to have discovered your blog and look forward to exploring the archives.


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