Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group)Play, Thought, and LanguageAuthor(s): Jerome BrunerSource: Peabody Jou...
Play, Thought, and LanguageJeromeBruner   I am thoroughly convinced that there is a very special place for a con-stantly r...
Play, Thought, and Languagethough it is a serious activity. It is, in a word, an activity that is for itselfand not for ot...
PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacyof NicholasHobbs   Let me now say a word about the uses to which play is put, though...
Play, Thought, and Languagemental health. I do not think we know enough to play the role of greatengineers to the young in...
PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacy of Nicholas Hobbs   Now let me tell you what happened to the children in those thre...
Play, Thought,and Languagein these past ten years studying how children acquire the uses of theirlanguage, and I want to g...
PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacyof NicholasHobbsWeirs observations, her son Anthony goes through sequences likethis:...
Play, Thought,and Languagehad the biggest set of elaborations on a theme. It isnt that hard to findsuch things out by hand...
PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacyof NicholasHobbsing concentration. I think it relates to a point that has been made ...
Play, Thought, and Languageleaders found they could divide the labor so that one could be freed up tointeract more. This w...
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Jerome bruner play thought language

  1. 1. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group)Play, Thought, and LanguageAuthor(s): Jerome BrunerSource: Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 60, No. 3, The Legacy of Nicholas Hobbs: Researchon Education and Human Development in the Public Interest: Part 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 60-69Published by: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group)Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1492180Accessed: 03/09/2009 06:53Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=lebtaylorfrancis.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with thescholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform thatpromotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group) is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Peabody Journal of Education.http://www.jstor.org
  2. 2. Play, Thought, and LanguageJeromeBruner I am thoroughly convinced that there is a very special place for a con-stantly renewing dialogue between those who spend time asking ques-tions about children and those who work more practically with them on aday-to-day basis in playgroups, nurseries, and the like. I think that therehas been a remarkably rapid progress among biologists, psychologists,and linguists in establishing findings about human growth in childrenthat is highly relevant to the way in which we conduct our education andour play activities before that. We are living in a period in which manypractical and theoretical interests concerning childhood are converging.It is a privilege to be a participant in that convergence. We have a specialopportunity, it seems to me, for exchanging our ideas back and forthbetween research and practice. My subject is the interrelationship of play, language, and thought. Ishall try to be brief about it. Not that there is a lack of research on thesubject to be reported, because a great deal has been accomplished. Butrather, I want to leave room at the end to talk about the practical implica-tions of this subject: how to organize the play activity of children inplaygroups in order to help our children realize their potential and livemore richly. Let me begin by setting forth in outline what I think to be the funda-mental functions of play in activity of children: Let me note first that to play implies a reduction in the seriousnessof the consequences of errors and of setbacks. In a profound way, play isan activity that is without frustrating consequences for the child evenJEROME BRUNERis George Herbert Mead University Professor, New School for Social Research,New York, New York. This article is based on an invited address presented to the PreschoolPlaygroups Association of Great Britain at its annual general meeting in Llanduduo, Wales,March 1983.60
  3. 3. Play, Thought, and Languagethough it is a serious activity. It is, in a word, an activity that is for itselfand not for others. It is, in consequence, a superb medium for explora-tion. Play provides a courage all its own. Secondly, the activity of playing is characterized by a very looselinkage between means and ends. It is not that children dont pursueends and employ means to get them in their play, but that they oftenchange their goals enroute to suit new means or change the means to suitnew goals. Nor is it that they do so only because they have run intoblocks, but out of the sheer jubilation of good spirits. It provides not onlya medium for exploration, but also for invention. Closely related to the previous point, it is characteristic of play thatchildren are not excessively attached to results. They vary what they areup to and allow their fantasies to make substitutions for them. If thisvariation is not possible, the child very quickly becomes bored with hisactivity. Watch an infant piling wood bricks and you will be struck by thediversity and the combinatorial richness of how he plays. It is an unparal-leled opportunity for ringing changes on the commonplace. Thirdly, in spite of its richness, play is very rarely random or bychance. On the contrary, it seems to follow something like a scenario.Recall the famous example of Sullys little twin sisters, the one saying tothe other "Lets play twin sisters." And then they proceed to play a gamein which the general object is to share everything with absolute equality,quite contrary to the way in which things go in ordinary life. Yet in someinteresting way, this scenario of total equality is a kind of idealizedimitation of life. Sometimes these scenarios are harder to discern than atother times, but it is always worth looking carefully to see what in aformal sense play is about. It is often, in Joyces words, an epiphany ofthe ordinary, an idealization, a pure dilemma. Fourthly, it is said that play is a projection of interior life onto theworld in opposition to learning through which we interiorize the exter-nal world and make it part of ourselves. In play we transform the worldaccording to our desires, while in learning we transform ourselves betterto conform to the structure of the world. This is an extremely importantactivity for growth, and we will come back to it later. It gives a specialpower to play that is heady and, sometimes, a little frightening. Finally, and it can really go without saying, play gives pleasure-great pleasure. Even the obstacles that we set up in play in order tosurmount them give us pleasure in doing so. Indeed, the obstacles seemnecessary, for without them the child quickly becomes bored. In thissense, I think we would have to agree that play has about it something ofthe quality of problem solving, but in a most joyous fashion. But let mebe clear. Unless we bear in mind that play is a source of pleasure, we arereally missing the point of what its about. 61
  4. 4. PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacyof NicholasHobbs Let me now say a word about the uses to which play is put, though Ihave just said that play is free and seemingly for itself. For it is the casethat (though it is self-prompted) we often use play to achieve other endswe may have in mind. We do this necessarily but at our own peril. Take first the way in which play is structured in order to instruct ourchildren, however subtlely, in the values of our culture. Take competitionand competitiveness as a case in point. We often encourage competition inplay, indeed use play to instruct our children how to compete well, andfrom a very early age. Let us even grant that Waterloo was won on theplaying fields of Eton. But the children of the Tengu in New Guinea playgames in their society that do not terminate in one party winning, butonly when the two sides have achieved equality. This emphasis on equal-ity, you will not be surprised to find out, is also very characteristic of theadult society. Does this differential emphasis on the element of competi-tion in play serve to make our society and Tengu society as different asthey are? No, that would be going a bit too far. But nevertheless, the waythe competitive element is handled in childhood play is a big factor inpredisposing children in particular societies to take the competitivestance that they do as adults. There is no question that the games ofchildhood reflect some of the ideals that exist in the adult society and thatplay is a kind of socialization in preparation for taking your place in thatadult society. We would all agree that it is important to be conscious abouthow much competitiveness we encourage in the play of children, lest wecreate so much of it that something of the freedom of play is lost. It is onething to use play as an agent of socialization in some spontaneous way.But exploiting it is somehow a different matter. We also have it in the back of our minds, when we encourage variouskinds of play in childhood, that the activity will serve some therapeuticfunction for the child. Perhaps that puts it too strongly, but it is better tooverstate it than to sweep it aside. Plainly, play with other children doeshave an important therapeutic role or, in any case, an important role inhelping children to take their place more easily in the stressful socialactivities of later life. We know from research on isolated monkeys raisedin the laboratory, that if they have twenty minutes of play with othermonkeys they will not (like total isolates) lose their capacity to interactwith other animals nor will they, like those others, show a decrement inintelligence. Twenty minutes a day of free play is all that is needed to savethe sanity of these poor animals. But to organize play mainly with the view toward fostering mentalhealth in children is also to risk losing something very important. Againthere is a danger of "taking the action away from the child." We maythank God and evolution that it is difficult to exclusively take the actionaway from children in order to organize their play in the interest of their62
  5. 5. Play, Thought, and Languagemental health. I do not think we know enough to play the role of greatengineers to the young in their or any other domain. And then there is play as a means of improving the intellect. Yes, ofcourse, but ... we will come back to this matter, but the same stricturesabout great engineering will be found to be true again. There is every-thing to be said, indeed, for letting the child loose in a decent setting withrich materials and some good cultural models to follow. I think I can evengive a practical argument for this view-that we can be quite relaxedabout not pushing children through play in order to squeeze some ap-propriate behavior out of them. Let me tell you about an experiment. It is an experiment I conducted with two colleagues, Kathy Silva andPaul Genova. It can serve as a little moral for my point. We studiedchildren between the ages of three and five. They were given an interest-ing little task to do. A child had to get a pretty little piece of colored chalkout of a transparent box that was placed some distance out of reach ofthem. The rule of the game was that they had to get the colored chalkwhile they remained seated in their chair some distance off. They had allsorts of things to use: some sticks, some clamps, some string. The solu-tion to the problem consisted of making a longer stick by joining togethershorter sticks with the clamps or string. If a child didnt succeed right offthe bat in solving the problem, we would give him hints, and if thatdidnt serve, we would then give further hints until he finally got to theend. The first hints were something like "Are you thinking of some wayin which you can help yourself solve the problem?" And eventually wewould say things like "Have you thought about the possibility of clamp-ing together two sticks?" Finally, all of the children solved the problem,even if we had to guide them all the way home. I can tell you that it wasthe sort of play that delights the children very much. We divided the children into three groups. The first group of children were given a period of play before facingour task, and in the course of that play they had an opportunity to foolaround with the sticks, with the clamp and a string, however they mightdesire. In a second group we gave each child a little pedagogical demon-stration explaining how you could join together two strings with a clamp,etc. And in the third group, we simply familiarized the children with thekind of material they were going to be playing with and gave them somesimple demonstrations of what the material was like. By a little clevermanipulation we saw to it that all of the children had roughly the sameamount of exposure to the material as far as time is concerned, although,obviously, the quality of the exposure differed according to which of thethree groups they were in. 63
  6. 6. PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacy of Nicholas Hobbs Now let me tell you what happened to the children in those threedifferent groups. The children in that first group who had a chance to play with thematerials in advance solved the problem better than the children in theother two groups. Let me call these children in the first group the "trueplayers." Not only did they solve the problem more often, but theyseemed to make better use of the suggestive hints we gave them than theother children. Besides, the "true players" had far less tendency to aban- don the task enroute when they ran into trouble. They were more frustra-tion proof. They seemed altogether better at the way in which they wentabout things, those "true players." They knew how to begin simply; theyhad far less tendency to try out complicated hypotheses; and so forth. Why did our "true players" do so well? To begin with, they seemed farless frustrated in carrying out the task than did the other children. Theyneither seemed to resent their failed efforts nor did they feel they werelosing face. That was what made it possible for them to begin simply, andalso what made it possible to accept hints and suggestions more readilythan the other children. The "true players" saw the task as an invitationto play around with a problem. They did not have to cope with putting agood face on their efforts or of dealing perpetually with self-esteem.They could be free and inventive. I know this experiment is too simple-minded. But for all that, it was alittle microcosm of life. Think of the hypothesis of the great Dutch histo-rian Huizinga: that human culture emerged out of mans capacity to play,to adopt the ludic attitude. Or of those great laboratories of physics atCambridge under Lord Rutherford or at Copenhagen under NielsBohr-places known for their good humor, practical jokes, and funnystories. Perhaps our "true players," like those happy physicists, couldbenefit from those huge benefits in spirit that play grants us. Let us pass now from the little world of experiments with children orwith playful physicists in the great laboratories. Consider now how it isthat human beings accomplish the formidable task of learning how tospeak their mother tongue. For I think that we will also find here thatthere is a considerable role for playfulness in the childs mastery of themiracle of language. Do not be confused by the aspect of language that isinnate or inborn. But remember that there is a great deal of it that also hasto be mastered through try-out and experience. We have to learn all sortsof subtle things like, for example, that when somebody says "Would yoube so kind as to pass the salt?" that they are not asking us about the limitsof our kindness, but are making a request for the salt in a fashion thathonors our voluntary role in complying. I have spent a great deal of time64
  7. 7. Play, Thought,and Languagein these past ten years studying how children acquire the uses of theirlanguage, and I want to give you a few of my conclusions as they bear onthe issues we have been discussing. One of the first and most important conclusions is that the mothertongue is most rapidly mastered when situated in playful activity. It isoften the case that the most complicated grammatical and pragmaticforms of the language appear first in play activity. Take as an exampleone of the first uses of the conditional in a child of three years who says toanother child: "If you give me your marbles Ill give you my revolver ifyoure nice." It is a long time before such complicated language is used inthe more tense, practical situations of ordinary life. In general it has beenmy experience that playful situations are the ones where one finds thefirst complicated predicate structures, the first instances of ellipsis, ofanaphora, and so forth. There is something about play that encouragescombinatorial activity in general, including the intrinsic combinatorialactivity of grammar involved in producing more complex expressions ina language. Aside from that, it matters deeply in a childs mastery of hisown language that there not be too many consequences that stem frommaking errors. Confrontations with adults or older children who insistthat the younger child say something correctly will very frequently leadto certain kinds of expressions going underground and not being triedout for some while afterward. There is one aspect of the early acquisition of language that is extraor-dinarily important in nourishing language. It poses a dilemma. Thekind of talk by mothers that encourages children to enter into conversa-tion is in what is technically called the B.T. register; that is to say, BabyTalk, talk that is at the level of the child, talk that the child can alreadyunderstand. How can the child learn his language from talk that he canalready understand? That is the dilemma. The solution is simple. Theimportance of Baby Talk is that the child gets an opportunity to try outthe different ways in which he can combine the elements of the languagethat he already knows in order to make more complex utterances and inorder to get different things done with the language that he already hasin hand. The child is not simply learning language, but learning to uselanguage as an instrument of thought and action in a combinatorial fash-ion. In order to be able to talk about the world in a combinatorial fashionthe infant seems to have to be able to play with the world in that flexiblefashion that the playful attitude promotes. There are some celebrated studies by linguists like Ruth Weir andKatherine Nelson that have recorded the "conversations" that youngchildren have after theyve been put to bed all alone and the lights turnedout. These bedtime soliloquies provide pure little experiments, in whichthe child is pushing language to the full limits of its combinability. In 65
  8. 8. PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacyof NicholasHobbsWeirs observations, her son Anthony goes through sequences likethis: "Mommy hat," "Mommy blue hat," "Mommy hat blue, no, no,no." Anthony was the classic instance of a spontaneous grammaticalapprentice. Or Katherine Nelsons Emmy, who would spend five min-utes of talk pushing to the limits the meaning of her fathers utterancebefore bedtime, that only little babies cry, that she is a big girl, and biggirls dont cry. The number of changes that she rings on the theme aremonuments to her effort, half seriously and half playfully, to arrive atsome meaning of her fathers imprecation. So we are left with the interesting dilemma that it is not so muchinstruction either in language or in thinking that permits the child todevelop his powerful combinatorial skills, but a decent opportunity toplay around with language and to play around with his thinking thatturns the trick. Now I think we can turn to the practical question about whether andhow we can be, and whether we should be, engineers of play in ourplaygroups and nursery schools. I want to use as my text a report wepublished on the organization and conduct of playgroups and nurseryschools here in Britain during the closing years of the 1970s. As you all very well know, there developed during the last generation acurious ideology about the nature of play and how play should be con-ducted in groups. This ideology was founded on the belief that variousactivities were really play. Anything that had any structure to it, or thatin any way inhibited spontaneity was not really play. Moreover, real playhad to be free of all constraints from adults and be completely autonom-ous of their influence. True play, in a word, came entirely from the insideout. Its typical vehicles were fingerpaints, clay, water, sand, etc. I rathersuspect that the basis of this ideology of play was principally therapeu-tic, in the sense that it was designed to take all pressure off the child,although it had a touch too of the romanticism of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Early in our inquiry in ordinary playgroup settings we started study-ing what in fact really produced rich and elaborated play in children,without any particular attachment to prevailing ideology. We wentabout our observations with the high rigor that serious experimentsdeserve, in order to find out something about what children really like todo, what kinds of themes and materials they like to work with, and whatit is that produced richness and elaboration in their play. As some of youwill recall, we made thousands of observations using the most moderntechniques, and naturally and eventually, like the modern investigatorswe were, we eventually committed our findings to a computer to whichwe directed some very sharp questions. For example, we asked the com-puter to figure out for us the kinds of activities and the kinds of cir-cumstances that produced the longest episodes of play and the ones that66
  9. 9. Play, Thought,and Languagehad the biggest set of elaborations on a theme. It isnt that hard to findsuch things out by hand, but when you have thousands of observationsto sort out, the computer helps. The results were more than a little in-teresting. The sequences of play that were the longest and the richest and themost elaborated were produced by materials that had a structure thatcould be called instrumental-that is to say, episodes that had means thatled to an end. Mostly, these were activities and materials that made itpossible for the child to construct something. They were constructions,moreover, whose progress could be appreciated by the child withoutinstructions from or recourse to an adult. I have to tell you that water,sand, clay, and fingerpaint were not up at the top of the list of materialsthat produced this form of constructive and elaborative play. Such mate-rials, though they have much worth, do not lead to the kind of com-binatorial push of which we have been talking. In order to get that pushyou need some sort of back and forth between means and ends. A second answer our computer gave us about what produced pro-longed concentration and rich elaboration in play rather took us aback. Itwas the presence of an adult. I do not mean an adult "over the shoulder"of the child, trying to direct his activity, but one in the neighborhoodwho gave some assurance that the environment would be stable andcontinuous, but would also give the child reassurance and informationas, if, and when the child needed it. Let the adult intervene brusquelyand steal the initiative from the child, and the childs play, or the chil-drens play would become duller. In some ways, I think, this sympatheticpresence of an adult or partner is similar to the role that an adult plays inthe development of language about which we have already talked. I think youll be glad to learn that the third secret our computer di-vulged we already knew pretty well, although it is sometimes denied inthe official ideology of the last generation. It is that one is a wanderer, twois company, and three is a crowd. More seriously, two children playingtogether can exchange ideas, can negotiate their intentions, can elaborateas needs be, and can go on for as long as necessary. One alone hasdifficulty sustaining play activity. And three is indeed a distracting crowdwith nobody able to hold the floor long enough to carry the day. Watchtwo little girls playing at a tea party under a blanket spread across thebacks of two chairs. They generate a domestic scenario of astonishingsubtlety and richness. Listen to them: "Would you like a cup of tea, mydear?" And the other responds: "Oh, yes, but wait just a second, thetelephone is ringing." And the first continues after a pause: "I hope it wasa friend of yours." and the other: "No, it was the tailor calling back." Andon it goes for five minutes. It is perhaps more difficult to know why it isthat children operating on their own, solo, have such trouble in maintain- 67
  10. 10. PEABODY JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONThe Legacyof NicholasHobbsing concentration. I think it relates to a point that has been made byvirtually every student of child development in the last half century.Thought and imagination frequently begin in the form of dialogue with apartner, and without the support of another, it quickly collapses. At leastearly on. The development of thought may be in large measure deter-mined by the opportunity for dialogue, with dialogue then becominginternal and capable of running off inside ones head on its own. Let me tell you one last finding of our study on the sources of richnessin play. I must confess I was rather surprised by it. If a child is in a class orgroup that during some period of the day requires its children to takepart in some high level intellectual activity, then the child will play in aricher and more elaborated way when he is on his own. It is as if theactivity of the class playing together serves as a model for the spontane-ous play activity of the children playing on their own. We can ask now whether these analogous research findings about playcan help the playgroup organizer become a better engineer of the younghuman soul. Well, the answer will not be as simple as one would hope.There is little question that one can certainly improve the materials andthe atmosphere in playgroups in a way to improve the concentration ofthe children and the richness of their play. That does not take very muchdoing. It is the sort of thing that we do through the Preschool PlaygroupsAssociation encouraging the construction or purchase of better materialsand the use of better approaches to play. But there is a more interestingmatter than that. It has to do with playgroup leaders and nursery schoolteachers and how they improve the quality of play of children. It takessurprisingly little to bring about small miracles. We found, for example,if they simply listened to a recording of themselves interacting withchildren-indeed, listened to it alone-they would often recognize im-mediately what was right and what was wrong. They recognized, forexample, the extent to which they were either underestimating or over-estimating the ability of children to take and to hold the initiative inconversation, the extent to which they were dominating, holding back,etc. Playgroup leaders, having listened to a tape of themselves with theirchildren, would often say things like: "But I dont listen enough to findout what theyre saying." Or: "I seem to be spending all of my time as akind of fire brigade, looking after troubles rather than helping childrenwith their projects." They knew intuitively what they should have done,but circumstances often had got in their way. It does not take a massivepsychoanalysis to get these teachers back on the track! For example, ourcomputer told us, to our surprise, that on the average, infants in a play-group spoke to an adult only once every nine minutes, and that in themain, these exchanges were rather superficial. Some little experimentsin which leaders looked at themselves teaching were promising. Play68
  11. 11. Play, Thought, and Languageleaders found they could divide the labor so that one could be freed up tointeract more. This went a long way toward increasing the quality, thefrequency, and the length of conversations that children had with them.Play leaders became interested in what could be done. Once interested,consciousness is raised and improvement almost inevitably follows. I doubt very much whether in any of these interventions, we reallybecome engineers of the human soul. What it amounts to is setting upsituations that make rich play possible. I happen to believe that rich,elaborated, and prolonged play makes better human beings than im-poverished, shallow, and shifting play. To that extent, I suppose, I am anengineer. Or perhaps, just a human being with some interesting biasses. Let me draw some very brief conclusions to all this. To play is not just childs play. Play, for the child and for the adult alike,is a way of using mind, or better yet, an attitude toward the use of mind. Itis a test frame, a hot house for trying out ways of combining thought andlanguage and fantasy. And by the same token, there is much that one cando to help the process of growth. But do not overheat the hot house! We must remember that children playing are not alone and are not bestalone, however much they need their periods of solitude. But as much asthey need their solitude they need to combine their ideas from their ownhead with the ideas that their partners have in theirs. Call it negotiationor whatever you will, it is the stuff not only of play but of thought. Let notthe school cultivate only the spontaneity of the individual. For humanbeings need negotiation in dialogue. It will furnish the child with mod-els and with techniques for how to operate on his own. Finally, play under the control of the player gives to the child his firstand most crucial opportunity to have the courage to think, to talk, andperhaps even to be himself. 69

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