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Playful Bodies (Part 2): Toward a Genealogy of Children’s Play


In April I had the extreme pleasure of presenting a paper at the 4th Philosophy at Play Conference at the University of Gloucestershire. Below is a version of the talk I gave, which is a coming-together of old ideas, getting me one move closer what I hope will become the methods chapter of my dissertation.


Not long ago a Canadian Elementary School sent a letter home to parents announcing a new zero-tolerance policy on hands-on play; no tag, no hand-clapping, no hugging, no touching. In response to the immediate concerns raised by parents and the negative attention the letter began to receive in the press, the school’s principal defended the policy citing the intent to make play “safer.”

There are a number of obvious issues raised by a ban on hands on play, but I use this example because it reveals something about the anxieties and tensions that underlie our attempts to secure children’s play—at the heart of which is the idea that play is an important investment.

Today I want think through the idea that PLAY IS AN INVESTMENT—which is often fraught with contradictions, although not always in ways as clear to us as in the case of banning hands-on play. I want to suggest that we need to move beyond relying principally upon normative judgement to understand children’s play and that a turn to Foucaultian genealogy may be one way to do this.

Part 1: Play as Investment

Play is quite commonly thought of and understood in the context of investment. You don’t need to look very far to find examples of what I mean. The first of 523 million results from a recent Google search for ‘children and play’ is from the American Academy of Pedeatrics describing the developmental benefits of play stating that,   “play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.”

But play’s value proposition isn’t limited to the field of medicine or the developmental sciences. We see it in the marketing of products for children, in the design and branding of toys, in the policies that shape the production of children’s television programming, and in the development of school curriculum. While these examples may vary in their views about the exact benefits of play, they share the view that play is among the primary mechanisms through which we should be investing in the child.

Play is thought of in the context of investment not only for the child’s sake; concerns for the child’s development and well-being have long been closely knit to larger social, cultural and economic notions of progress. In recent years we’ve seen this emerge through a surge in concerns about a global decline in children’s play and the effect its having on broader social, cultural and economic problems such as the obesity epidemic. Many will recall in 2013 the UN issued a general comment on the child’s right to play, reinforcing the obligation of states, private organizations, and parents to provide more opportunities for children to play. Urbanization, risk averse parenting, and screen time are cited among the chief causes of a global decline in play.

The fact that we’ve used the term ‘play deficit’ so widely to refer to the contemporary condition of children’s play also further reinforces the idea that play is an investment. It’s because play serves as a thinly veiled social, cultural, and economic investment in the future that we can conceive of and fear a deficit in the first place.

To illustrate my point a little further here is a 2016 photograph taken of Pokemon Go players in Hong Kong:

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and Canadians in Vancouver, BC.:

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and Australians causing traffic jams in pursuit of a rare type of Pokemon in Sydney:

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Pokemon Go became the most popular game app in recent history with over 500 million downloads in only two months, inspiring both awe and criticism. In theory these photographs might easily be celebrated as evidence of a surplus of play. In reality, though, they accompanied commentary about our obsession with technology and the threat of screen-time. They visually represent a society connected yet simultaneously disconnected and epitomize the threat to play referenced in the UN’s general comment. These photos realize, as in make real, the spread of technology, in ways that reminded me of the widely publicized 1985 colour image of the “Ozone Hole” that when published solidified for us what scientists had already been saying for years, to no avail, about the effect of man-made chemicals on the environment. But seeing is a different kind of believing. Thousands of images and videos circulating the web that capture hoards of, young people in particular, eyes down, faces reflecting the familiar blue glow of a mobile device, offer us visual referents for the fear that technologies are replacing traditional ways of being and doing in the world.

And certainly stories of the numerous police incidence, players being being injured or killed, trespassing, sexual assault and kidnapping charges, and a class action lawsuit in relation to Pokemon Go, are understandably cause for reflection.

My point, however, is that 500 million people globally downloaded Pokemon Go to play a game, yet we remain convinced that play is in constant decline. One obvious reason for this contradiction is that not all play counts as a wise investment as suggested in this widely publicized “Make Room for Play” campaign from the Canadian non-profit, ParticipAaction. Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 11.41.50 AM

This campaign made it especially curious when ParticipAction released an official statement on Pokemon Go stating that  “Pokemon go is actually doing positive things.” And then early April, 2017 the Joan Ganz-Coony Centre in the US published a report similarly praising Pokemon Go for not only stimulating outdoor active play, but for bringing families together through what they call ‘joint media engagement’. The message is that play is strongly preferred when it can be aligned with already accepted views about what the ‘good’ or ‘positive’ outcomes of play are—in the case of Pokemon go, it’s outdoor, active play.

And as a result we have a limited, sometimes confused and often contradictory sense of what ‘good play’ is and so we walk a tight rope. In addition to the examples I’ve already used, nothing makes the confusion more clear for us than when experts advocate for ‘free’ unstructured outdoor play, yet children who are spotted playing ‘freely’ in neighbourhood playgrounds or in their own backyard are taken into child protective services while their parents subjected to investigation:

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 11.42.13 AMThese examples illustrate just how deep normative judgments about children’s play go. And for this reason I think we are at a moment where a critique of play’s value proposition has never been more difficult and more necessary.

PART 2: Beyond Vindication and Denunciation

The idea that play is an investment is not new to the 21st century, and I’m not alone in suggesting that they need our attention. In The Ambiguity of Play Brian Sutton-Smith, perhaps most memorably, calls what I’m referring to as the ideological rhetoric of play as progress. At least two approaches have been used to critique our social preoccupation with play as progress or as investment. The first describes those who, like Sutton-Smith, denounce progress rhetoric on the basis that they are ideological, normative, or wrong. The second approach challenges progress rhetoric on the basis that they are limited and aims instead to vindicate of some type of play that is typically excluded by the progress rhetoric (for example dark, risky, fantasy, rough and tumble play etc.). This approach tries to resolve the problem of progress rhetoric by uncovering the hidden value of that which is not easily valued under the progress rhetoric.

Both approaches have given us insight into the types of investment claims we make about play and their limitations, helping to legitimize alternative types of play. Neither approach is, however, able to get us around the problem I raised at the start of this talk. And that is the problem of relying on normative judgment in the first place to make decisions about what sort of play to stimulate and which to regulate or prohibit.

If we are to learn something new and if we are to be vigilant in acknowledging the relationship between our convictions about play and the lived experience of it, then I agree with Rose and Rabinow that “celebration and denunciation are insufficient as analytical approaches” (Qtd. In Koopman, 2015, p. 85)

When we are focused primarily on investment logic or the denunciation or vindication of play’s value proposition, we are liable to overlook the fact that how we define play is not a matter of nature, but in fact has a history of its own. By scratching at the surface of that history we open new possibilities and directions for the study of children’s play and for the critique of play’s value proposition.

PART 3: Toward Genealogy

One of the hallmarks of Foucaultian genealogy is its ability to disrupt taken-for-granted phenomenon that, like play, seem so natural to us that we wouldn’t think to question them. It does this by illustrating that they are the result of interpretation, that they are not a matter of nature, but rather contingent upon the emergence of complex intersections of practices.

To clarify, I don’t in any way mean to suggest that play is not integral to the child. After all, is precisely because play is integral to the child (and adult for that matter) that investment logic seem so impossible to escape in the first place.

Foucault used genealogy to clarify and intensify the dangers of the present whose histories he studied. Showing that our present preoccupation with play’s value proposition is problematic, fraught and in need of attention is not the same as saying that they are wrong. Genealogy aims to point  “…out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices we accept rest” (Koopman, 2015, p. 128). So, for example, when we look closely at the practice of banning hands-on play, we can see that it rests upon familiar and unchallenged notions of play as an investment that we can then begin to ask questions.

The question genealogy invites us to ask of play is not whether play is an important investment, but, ‘how play has come to be seen as an investment?’

In my current research I’m taking up this question in the context of CBC Kids, the Children’s Television Department of Canada’s national public broadcaster. The CBC, I argue, carries  a kind of ‘expert’ status in Canada on the subject of developing nationhood and has historically played a role in the development of a Canadian national identity and the Canadian citizen-subject.

I am exploring the ways that play’s value proposition has been taken up by CBC Kids since 1954 and worked over through its mandate, policy, programming, and public outreach. This requires both empirical investigation, through detailed archival research and interviews, as well as broader theoretical conceptualization. The goal is to understand how various existing practices managed to contingently intersect in the past so as to give rise to our present preoccupation with play as an investment.

I have only just begun this project, but I can give you one example.

The Canadian Council on Children and Youth, which was a voluntary organization concerned with the wellbeing of Canadian Children, developed a 5 year project called the Status of the Child in Canadian Society between 1965-1970. As it turned out the project’s most significant contribution was a National Task Force on Children’s Play.

The CBC and the CCCY forged multiple ties (for example, the CBC children’s department head was also the chair of the CCCY board) and together mutually reinforced play as a tool for building up a national resource: children. The CBC used the CCCY as a source of expert knowledge, which significantly influenced their program policy and public outreach and also allowed the CBC to appear sympathetic toward concerns about mounting fears in the 60s about children and television. For example, the CCCY published a report on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood exploring the possibility that the program would increase spontaneous imaginative play in preschool children more than adult instructions. The CCCY similarly benefited from having the national public broadcaster as a communication channel through which it regularly promoted its views on childhood and play. For example, the CBC aired a program titled: Towards the Perfect Playground, which was the 8th part in the series titled “Children as People” that “shows that children learn more about life from play than they do from school.”

We can begin to see how play at the CBC has emerged out of a complex set of relationships and practices that reach far beyond the CBC.

Rather than simply saying that play’s value proposition IS contingent, the idea of Foucaultian genealogy is to show HOW our knowledges, powers, and ethics have contingently formed so that we may also point to the possibility that we could do things differently.

The objective is not to make yet another a normative judgment about play (ie. whether it is good or bad), but to show that we could think of play and develop practices around children’s play differently, that is, if/when necessary, to include perhaps a broader or perhaps more inclusive, or perhaps more realistic understanding of what play is in the 21st century. It is not for genealogy to say what is right or wrong; it is for genealogy to show us the conditions of possibility that have lead us here, to the present moment—to our present treatment of children’s play as an investment and then we can decide if/when to reconstruct play differently.

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