"Nature programs the child to do two things from ages one to seven: structure a knowledge of the world exactly as it is, on the one hand, and play with that world in ways that it is not, on the other." (Magical Child, p. 109)
To "structure a knowledge of the world exactly as it is" means to 'learn'. As we have seen in the previous papers, learning is done by the cycle of going from the known to the unknown. This process, however, is not a matter of bouncing back and forth like a ball. A child will spend various amounts of time in exploring the unknown, and, in turn, will rest near its mother or care-giver for long periods of time just staring into space. Exploring, then, is balanced by assimilation. Physical experience is transposed into the left brain (neo-cortex) as concrete operational logic.
At some point, usually around the age of four, the experience of the concrete world, the structure of knowledge about nature and the child's environment begins to take form as a 'safe place,' as a matrix. Concrete operational thinking expands into the imaginative faculties available through the right hemisphere of the neocortex. The child begins to play.
There are two types of play: symbolic and imitative. In symbolic play, the child's knowledge of 'things' begins to stimulate its imagination and a forked stick becomes a 'person', a rag wrapped around that stick becomes a 'dress' in the child's imagination. In imitative play, the child becomes, or imagines being its own parent, or one of its heroes.
Pearce claims that "the child plays believing that he can exercise a control over the world." His parents or heroes are role models and the child's imagination fills the gap duirng play between the power of the role model and the relative powerlessness of the child. There is an inherent danger in this imitative play: it can easily become a path to delusion. I remember having fallen into this 'trap' for several years as a child. When asked "what do you want to be when you grow up?" I would answer "Nuclear Physicist" and for a time being I imagined myself being one. I looked up everything I could in the encyclopedia about Nuclear Physics and became enamored by the possibility that I would work in this field. Within a short time many close family friends and neighbors began to ask me, "How is our Nuclear Physicist?" A point came when I could no longer distinguish between imagining being one 'when I grew up' and believing that I was one already! I no longer read about Nuclear Physics but rather played the game with the neighbors that I was a Nuclear Physicist.
Then came the crash: someone who knew a little more about Nuclear Physics than I did came and asked me some pertinent questions and I could not answer. I was unmasked! I remember being very indignant as if that person had taken my toy away. It did not take me long to chose another career in the Foreign Service. That 'play' lasted almost four years, and the neighbors played along, calling me Mr. Ambassador. This time I did not fall into the belief that I was already one, and actually went to university wanting to join the State Department and become a diplomat. My guidance counsellors talked me out of it and urged me to become a teacher. That worked.
At the stage when a child builds on its knowledge of the concrete world by exploring imaginative possibilities, play itself is a form of exploration, a form of learning. In another sense, play is the beginning of creativity: when a block of wood becomes a ship in the child's imagination, that child may be guided to begin carving at a later age and actually turn a piece of wood into a model ship. Then, with the next surge of creativity, the older child will begin to build a full sized boat. When a child's play takes him from imaginative play to the accomplishment of that imagination, that child has participated in creation.
In early childhood, evidently, the child does not mix up its imaginary play and the concrete operational logic it has formed of the world. Play is a mechanism, not just in human children, but also among all mammals, to internalize social rules and interactions. It is not a conscious process, but takes place in the subconscious, the place of habituation.
To sum up play in Pearce's own words,
"(The child) is aware of the reality of his own play creation, a reality that exists neither in the world out there, nor in the concrete concepts of the child's brain. Play reality, like adult reality, is neither world nor mind-brain; it is world plus mind-brain." (Magical Child, p. 165)
Our practical purpose is to allow our children to function more and more according to their natural biological unfolding. Play begins the integration of the abstract concepts that cannot be 'experienced' through objective relationships. Play integrates them by the use of imagination. Play, therefore, is essential for childhood development. It is the greatest source of absorption of 'social rules with minimum risks', far more efficient than the adult insistence upon reality adjustment ("Do it this way because I say so!"). Psychologists who have confused play with wish-fulfillment missed the point that it is a survival tool.
Technically, then, play is the continuation of the constant cycle of going from theknown to the unknown, within the child's mind-brain. Play is the essense of learning. After the age of four, the child follows this cycle on two levels: both on the physical as well as in the imaginative. In a few years the child will graduate, quite naturally, onto a three level playing field where the learning process will leap into the left-brain and the child will be able to play with purely abstract logical concepts - only by then we cannot call it a child: when the abstract logical function kicks in, we are dealing with an adolescent.
Looking at the structure of the brain and the structure of play, we can see a very complicated set of interactions developing: Between the mid-brain and the neocortex, the former taking the structure of knowledge to an imaginative dimension; and between the right and left hemispheres of the neocortex, where first imagination is practiced and put to use, then abstract logic. While play among mammals, and especially primates, is a safe learning tool for survival in the world of hunters and prey, in humans play is a survival tool for the vast social maze of culture in which we human beings live. Play forms and creates our reality.
In the next Paper we will examine how our reality is formed if the child is denied play!