Children Play with Their Minds and Bodies 2 Play as a Cultural Heritage

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.

2 Play as a Cultural Heritage

Moderator: The discussion has already touched on some central issues regarding play. We have considered the origins of play, but there is also a cultural aspect. Play also functions as a way of passing on culture.

Saito: Some activities cease being played at a certain point in history. This is the case with sumo. Until very recently, sumo was a form of play that children had engaged in for hundreds of years. But, nowadays there are few children who do sumo as a form of play. When children stopped playing sumo, nothing was done about the situation and this is the result.

In the past, lots of children used to play with sticks. It's a simple activity, but was fun for them to just run around with sticks because it made them feel big and strong. However, children don't do such simple play.

Children used to climb up to high places to sit and talk. Boys would climb up on block walls or roofs. It is not the talking with friends, but the sitting and talking in a high place that makes this activity a kind of play.

Jumping down from high places was a kind of play, too. It could hurt, but it wasn't cool to slip down slowly. Jumping off was a way to show off and made it a little scary. It was a way for children to test their limits. Nowadays, play is supposed to be something easy or pleasant, but when play has an element of tension or trial, it becomes more like a game. The key consideration in play is deciding what sort of limits to set.

But, these limits aren't set by individuals. That would require considerable skill. Instead, play is something that is passed down through generations. The types of play that have been passed down to us have evolved and been tested in history, and they represent one kind of play.

Of course, imitative activity involves direct mimicry. It is possible, for example, to mimic the forms of sumo and the techniques themselves. If the structures and limits that emerge in the techniques and movement are maintained, the movements will be performed naturally. Once these are lost, they rarely reappear. If the ways of culturally setting the limits that define sumo are lost, the physical movements that constitute sumo will disappear. The area of play in our lives has dramatically changed, but Japanese people seem rather oblivious to this, or shall I say, uninterested.

Kobayashi: What is meant by setting the limits that defines play? This must be something that adults have thought of. I wonder if children have thought of it.

Saito: Of course, adults were involved in setting these limits at a certain point. Children may set them to some extent, but as Mr. Asao said earlier, it is the adults who teach children that a certain action is supposed to be interpreted as play. Unless adults indicate that a certain action is play, children will fight and the play turns into something serious.

Kobayashi: I think that throughout history, adults have tried to teach something to children through play whether they were conscious of what they were doing or not.

Asao: When they do this, adults are not teaching a certain lesson or moral, but instead conveying a meta-message that a certain activity is really play. For example, when adults tell children to stop playing and clean up, they define play for children. When adults tell children not to play on a fence, they are telling them that climbing on fence is considered play. So, defining activities in this way is very important in that it tells children what is and is not play.

Defining an activity as play also involves a cultural repertoire of play that has been passed down through the generations, as Mr. Saito mentioned. The richer the repertoire, the greater the opportunities for play, and the more readily activities will be regarded as play. At the same time, this also defines what activities is not play.

Saito: It is possible to think of play as a particular genre of activity, but I think it is also possible to characterize it in qualitative terms. Take, for example, putting advertising inserts in newspapers. This is typically considered work. One could say that it is even monotonous work. But, in my experience, when people do something together, like grading papers, it turns into play at some point. A certain rhythm develops, the flow picks up, and people feel energized. Labor is dramatically transformed into play. At some point, this kind of qualitative change takes place.

This is related to what Mr. Asao said earlier about what sort of attitude one demonstrates toward activities. Instead of labeling an activity as work, it is possible to step back and try to enjoy it. To some extent, this is what adults teach children, and it makes difficult work more interesting and helps pass the time. This kind of practical wisdom is also a part 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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