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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Play History and Theories

In an effort to situate my dissertation in the current play research, I reviewed developmental, evolutionary, and cultural theories of play (Schwartzman (1980 a, b, & c); Herron and Sutton Smith (1971); Yawkey and Pellegrini (1984); Smith (1984); Ellis (1973). Nagel (2002) provides a genealogy of play, while Bruner, Jolly and Sylva (1976) in Play-Its Role in Development and Evolution explore play in animals and man (Fagen, 1976; Groos 1976a & b) and various linguistic perspectives, as well as the notion of association and bisociation (Koestler, 1976). This volume also includes articles by Piaget (1976a, b), a major play theorist (“Symbolic Play” and “Mastery Play”) as well as K. Lorenz (1976) and Geertz’s (1976) notion of “Deep Play and Balinese Cockfighting.” Donaldson (1993), who has played with animals in the wild, rival gang members, prisoners in South Africa, and special needs children, sees play much differently. Donaldson’s concept of “original play” reveals a kind of play that is beyond categories, based on caring and connection. In his book, Playing by Heart, Donaldson shows just how far we have come from “original play” to its “adulterated” version which is mainly competition-oriented.

Levy (1978) considers play behavior in its many forms. Piers (1972) considers play’s developmental aspects. Sutton-Smith (1997) has studied different play theories extensively from a meta-level, while J. E. Combs (2000) contemplates the possibility of a new ludenic age. Play’s performative nature is considered from an anthropological perspective in Scheckner (2002) as well as in Turner (1988). The major classic works in the field are Huizinga’s (1944/1955) Homo Ludens, Caillois’s (1958/2001) Man, Play and Games (Les Jeux et Les Hommes), D. L. Miller’s (1970) Gods and Games, Erikson’s “Toys and Reality” (1985), “Play and Actuality” (1976), and Winnicott’s (1999) Playing and Reality.

Bateson also writes widely about play (1971, 1988, 1990) and speaks of play as a meta-communication and concentrates on its paradoxical nature. Hyland (1984) in considering The Question of Play develops a “stance of play,” while McLellan (1970) traces the history of play research and discusses the role and types of play in children from infancy through junior high school. Sutton Smith (1971a, b, & c) discusses play’s developmental role, as well as such subjects as boundaries, and the psychoanalytic tradition with reference to play. Sutton-Smith (1995, 1997) analyzes the many different play theories and in other writings proposes a sportive theory of play (1980) and a syntax for play and games (1971d).

Origins of play are also examined in Pellegrini (1995) The Future of Play Theory, which contains articles from Fagen (1995) on animal play and Mergen (1995) on play’s history in terms of its relics and memory. Gilmore (1971) considers play a special behavior. Play in Animals and Humans (Smith, 1984) is a collection of essays by various play theorists: Taylor-Parker (1984), and Burghardt (1984, 2005) discuss play’s evolutionary origins in animals and humans; Lancy (1984) looks at play from different anthropological perspectives, and Sutton Smith and Kelly-Byrne (1984a) discuss the idealization of play. Bruner (1976) discusses the nature and uses of immaturity, while Maxine Sheets-Johnstone focuses on movement in relation to play (1999a; 1999b; 2002, lecture). Stuart Brown, as cited above (1969; 1994; 1995; 1998; 2002, unpublished manuscript; 2003, unpublished chapter), realized the importance of play after studying the Texas tower shooter in the 1960s and as a result went on to dedicate his life to the study of play in animals and humans.


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