Did you know that Play Studies is a) a thing and b) a thing that very smart professors at very prestigious universities research and teach?
I’m guessing you don’t have a Play Studies class in your school—recess or gym, maybe, but not Play Studies.
Right now, you probably study just a handful of academic subjects in school—things like history, science, or math. Those are all really broad topics. The farther along you progress through school, the more specialized those subjects will become.
High school students don’t just study math, for instance. They study geometry, algebra, and calculus. College students don’t just study geometry, algebra, and calculus. They study things like differential geometry, algebraic number theory, and stochastic calculus. Then, once someone has gone to graduate school and decided to devote their entire life to a very specific academic subject, they might start start studying a really, really specialized topic.
One of those specialized topics is Play Studies.
What is Play Studies? Play Studies starts with the idea that play plays an important role in individual and societal development. From that starting point, it ventures into every academic subject under the sun. You’ll find its specialists within a colleges’s sociology department, history department, education department, psychology department, and more.
The papers within a very serious publication called the American Journal of Play tackle some not-so-playful topics:
- In a paper called “Play, ADHD, and the Construction of the Social Brain,” a famed neuroscientist argues that decreased opportunities for natural play have contributed to a growth of ADHD diagnoses.
- In a paper called “Worlding through Play,” a team of professors of English, Pediatrics, and Design describe a project they undertook in 2013. With funding from the National Science Foundation, they created an alternate reality game (ARG). Their intention: teach kids on the South Side of Chicago about STEM, literacy, and social justice by having them play immersive games.
- In a paper called “Cognitive Processes Underlying Play and Pretend Play: A Comparative Cross-Species Study on Degrees of Memory, Perception, Imagination, and Consciousness,” a professor of Arts and Cognition uses evolutionary theory to examine the brain processes that help us play and determine how they differ in humans and nonhuman animals.
- In a paper called “Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence,” an evolutionary psychologist argues that hunter-gatherer groups could not have achieved their egalitarian societies without an openness to play. Play produced the unity that they depended on for survival.
The origins of play studies as an academic discipline stretch back nearly 100 years, with the publication of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens. That’s Latin for “Playing Man.” Huizinga devotes hundreds of pages to the idea that play is not just the trivial pursuit of children who don’t have anything better to do. Rather, he says, play is a key part of all human culture, and it is something that has, to the detriment of us all, declined in the modern world. Since Huizinga, hundreds of scholars have tried to home in on a definition and meaning of play.
Not least among all those scholars who write about the concept of play are people who study education. Two of them, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, wrote a book called Let the Children Play, in which they say that the absence of free play and the insistence on structure and uniform standards are ruining schools, especially in America. “The death of recess,” they say, “is an “American tragedy.”
We devoted last month’s issue to a fun scavenger hunt—and this month’s issue to that scavenger hunt’s very fun results!
Because the transition to online learning during the ongoing pandemic has been challenging for many families. Those families might benefit from remembering that play is fundamental to being human. Play doesn’t have to be a diversion from learning. Play can be learning, and learning can be play.