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Children Play with Their Minds and Bodies 1 Humoring by Mother Develops Play

This is a summary of a dialog between Takeshi Asao, professor of developmental psychology at Nara Women's University, Takashi Saito, assistant professor of pedagogy at Meiji University, and Noboru Kobayashi, M.D., director of CRN.

1 Humoring by Mother Develops Play

Moderator: I'd ask your views on children's play from various perspectives. Can we think of play as an activity as fundamental to children as eating or sleeping?

Kobayashi: Play is thought to originate in the act of mimicking. Neonates are known to mimic, and this behavior has recently been observed in chimpanzees as well. This would seem to indicate that the basic behavioral programs are already genetically determined at this stage. However, the type of mimicry that we see in neonates is not actually mimicry as it is defined in psychology, but what we call a sympathetic response, namely, a reflexive action that they perform without being taught by an adult. When this behavior comes under control of the cerebral neocortex, it develops into a higher level of mimicry or play. Play is a fundamental activity in the sense that this neuronic system is genetic.

The basic functions that we have as adults are genetically programmed, and combinations of these functions are then created within the environment in which we are raised. We can say that the programs of play are a result of this process.

Asao: I think that play is a fundamental activity, too, but it is difficult to say whether a neonate really plays. Jean Piaget, the well-known developmental psychologist, basically considered all exploratory activity by infants to be play. Take, for example, when infants suck their fingers. They first try different ways to do it. Piaget called this activity "assimilation," and included this in play. But, if this is the case, all exploratory activity then becomes play, and play is ubiquitous. I don't think that all activity in which curiosity is directed toward the external world should necessarily be considered play.

So when do we perceive infants to be playing? Usually when adults play peek-a-boo or stick out their tongue and the infant responds by making sounds of pleasure and smiling. I think that there has to be a feeling of enjoyment for an activity to be considered play. The mother-child relationship is crucial to child development, but it is not enough for the mother to simply take care of the child, and unless the mother is trying to humor the child playfully, I don't think the interaction can be considered play

Kobayashi: When a primate mother teases and plays with her child, can't this action be seen as a learning experience, as a way of teaching the child something? Even if, strictly speaking, this can be distinguished from play as phenomenon, it seems to me that the brain is using practically the same functions as it does in other exploratory activity.

Asao: Yes, that's true, but the feeling of being amused or humored is an element that can't be left out. Mothers don't play with their babies to make them fine or smart adults later, but only because they enjoy teasing and playing with the child. For example, the mother pretends to do something and this thwarts the child's expectations. This is actually an intellectual activity that makes the child use his or her mind. In this sense, we can say that play stimulates children intellectually. But, I still think that this play is different from the kind of learning that we do for the sake of learning.

Kobayashi: I think we should look at the issue like this. If five functions of the cerebrum are involved with play and eight with learning, we can suppose that many of these functions overlap. In other words, the functions that originally overlapped in infancy differentiate and recombine during the growth process so that play and learning activities develop on different tracks. Although play and learning both shared the same part of the cerebrum as well as physical functions at the beginning, they begin to operate differently, as either play or learning, as the child grows.

Asao: As Dr. Kobayashi has mentioned, it is very difficult to observe and distinguish play and learning on the basis of function. However, I think it is possible to make a distinction between the two by the degree to which children are enthusiastically absorbed in the activity, in other words, by their awareness and attitude when engaged.

The biologist, Gregory Bateson, explained play as an activity that communicates the meta-message, "This is play." Take, for example, two young monkeys that are chasing each other. Even when one makes an aggressive gesture and threatens to bite the other, it doesn't turn into a fight because the gesture also communicates the message that the monkey is only playing. For Bateson, play is an activity that contains this message.

Bateson's idea can be extrapolated and applied to the relationship between adults and children. In general, adult mammals control aggression and avoid getting too serious with younger members. For instance, an adult plays a game like "stone, scissors, paper" with a three-year old, and the adult wins. The adult doesn't take it serious, but will tease the child and joke around about winning. This is playing. No adult would take a game of "stone, scissors, paper" with a three-old child seriously.

In interactions with children, adults don't take what happens seriously. Their attitude tells children that they are just playing. This is Bateson's message of "this is play." Mammals do not get seriously angry with younger members. None of the interactions get too serious, but they are always conducted in a gentle and pleasant mood, and carry a message that what is happening is not serious. I think this sort of playful attitude is the origin of play.

Takeshi Aso
Professor of Faculty of Literature at Nara Women's University
Specializes developmental psychology
Books include Miburi kara Kotoba he (From the gesture to the words)
Kodomo to Yume (Children and Dream)

Takashi Saito
Professor of Faculty of Literature at Meiji University
Specializes pedagogy
Books include Koe ni Dashite Yomitai Nihongo (Japanese phrases to read aloud)

Noboru Kobayashi
Director of The International Center for Child Study, Konan Women's University
Professor Emeritus of The University of Tokyo
President Emeritus of National Children's Hospital
Books include Human Science, Kodomo wa mirai de aru (Children are Our Future), Kodomogaku, Sodatsu sodateru fureai no kosodate (Reciprocal Development Through Child-raising).
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