The Relation of Play to Education*

There are three general types of human activity, work, art, and play. We may define work as an endeavor, in which a definite end is set up, and the means are chosen solely with reference to that end. In art the control of the activity is not a sharply defined end which governs the selection of the means; but the harmony of the means in their relation to each other. A true work of art arouses pleasure because of the perfection of the construction and consequent truth of the representation. But it would be a false psychological analysis to assume that this end is in the consciousness of the artist, consequently guiding his selection of the means at his disposal. In the successful activity of the artist the thought of the public as pleased or bored by his production would be only so much hindrance. He has nothing to depend upon but the feeling of appropriateness and consistency in the means which he uses for the expression of his idea. The expression of the idea is the impulse to his activity but it is not an end in the sense of a consciously defined ideal object which in itself determines all the means used. The expression of the artist's idea can be clearly defined in his own mind only when the product is practically accomplished. In art then we may say that the attention is fixed upon means and their relations, in other words upon the technique. Play finally distinguishes itself from both work and art in its absolute spontaneity and in its lack of consciousness of an end in view, of the means used to accomplish an end, or finally of the perfection


(142of the movements and postures, that is of the technique. Of course an end is accomplished by play, but the health and grace of movement, the social ease and general development that follow from play under favorable circumstances can never occupy the attention of the children, nor yet can they select their plays nor the instruments which they use in them with a view to such ends. The whole spontaneity and with it the fascination and value of play would be lost if such elements were brought to the child's consciousness.

This is not saying that these typical activities do not overlap each other. There are points in all endeavor when either work or art becomes play for the time being. It is, an unfortunate workman who is in no sense an artist, and a sorry artist who never works. Finally it is possible to conceive abstractly of conditions in which all endeavor should have the spontaneity of play, should be accompanied by the artist's consciousness of the harmonious interrelation of all the activities that go to bring about the result, and yet all have the rational consequence of a piece of well considered and adequately planned work. But this overlapping and conceivable coincidence of these different phases does not blur the distinctions between them as we watch them in the lives of others and ourselves.

Now our education, at least beyond the primary grade and before it reaches the laboratory or the experimental method, depends solely upon the work phase of human activity for the development of the child. I refer here to consciously directed education and to the general drift of our methods and schools. There are notable exceptions to be found here and there, but they remain exceptions. There is as indicated a great deal of wholesome common sense which recognizes, without formulating it, the tremendous value that accrues to children from play and is willing ungrudgingly to sacrifice often the supposed advantages of regulated work in the school room for the freedom of development and generosity of interest which comes with an out of door life under favorable circumstances. I know personally a professor in Columbia University whose mother kept him out of school till he was twelve years old and left him with his interests in insects and flowers, in tools and playthings, and withal not very much directed. Similar instances are familiar, I presume, to many of us, but they are still but exceptions to the general principles that guide our education. It is the purpose of this paper to criticise the basing, especially of the earlier education of our children, upon this work phase of our activity.

Two classes of labor from time immemorial have been recognized, the free and the slave labor. Slave labor is no longer recognized in the statute-books of any civilized nation, but in the most highly civilized lands the labor-agitators are never weary of asserting that in character labor remains essentially slavish. What is the fundamental distinction between free and slave labor?

We certainly do not mean by free labor that the workman is to be left free to follow any whim which chances to root itself in his mind. The labor is to be directed as really under a system of free labor as under one of slave labor. The distinction does not lie in the presence or absence of determining direction, but in the nature of the means by which that direction is enforced. The motive of wages, with the consequent support of the laborer and his family and the possibility of rising by accumulations and increased skill, are the means used, instead of the whip. It is, however, evident that the motive power is still outside the activity of the laborer. Hunger or even hope of advancement in life represents still a vis a tergo, so far as the particular piece of work is concerned. So long as intelligent interest in the product to be attained is not the immediate motive power in holding the laborer to his work, it is slave labor, according to the definition that Aristotle gave of it. The only distinction lies in the fact that Aristotle supposed that those, whose intelligent interest could not be aroused in the work, must be politically subject to those who directed them.

Although this may not be recognized in so many words, the great advantage which branches of labor have, that involve high mechanical or some artistic power, lies in this interest of the laborer in the work itself. Labor troubles are comparatively absent from these callings, and the relation of employers and employed is much more satisfactory and intimate than in the callings in which the employer can depend only upon the bread and butter earning character of the wage to hold the workman to his task. Profit-sharing means a similar invasion of this field of essentially slave labor, and where it can be successfully undertaken the added zest of the workmen speak eloquently for the opening up of new and more natural motive power.

It is then impossible to get beyond this incomplete and unnatural character of work until the whole man responds immediately to the product upon which he is working, and is not required to seek for impetus in his labor from an interest that lies completely outside his shop or factory and its activities, This does not mean, of course,


143) that the workman is to lose all thought of those that are dependent upon him, and all that flows to him and them from his ultimate success, but that there should be no break between the two sources of interest, any more than there should be in the life of the successful business and professional man, though here the chasm is by no means completely bridged. In other words, in an ideal condition the interest which directs any separate activity should be but an expression of the whole interest in life and carry the momentum with it of this whole. Until this is attained labor cannot become entirely free.

We are not, of course, interested at present in the probability or the improbability of the coming of such a millennium. The advantage for us of the recognition of the different sorts of labor lies in the possibility of discussing the legitimacy of the application of the principle of work to education. We are not able to reconstruct our whole industrial system so that the labor shall be always an expression of the whole man, but we are able to banish this slavish, dwarfing method from our school rooms.

The unfortunate character of the method comes out most clearly when we consider it from the standpoint of the physiology of the nervous system. As we know now, the cells in the brain at birth are practically all complete, but the connections between the cells-the so-called co÷rdinations-have yet to be established, at least in large measure. Indeed this process goes on at least till the age of twenty-five, and perhaps much later. It is the formation of these co÷rdinations that represents on the side of the nervous system the process of education. The question at once suggests itself, how can they be set up? Is the brain an empty country into which the educator can go, like the manager of a telegraph company, and put wires where he will? Is it possible for him to break through paths in the brain at any point that suits his fancy, or, if you like, his pedagogical sense? Is it possible to force a path through by pure force of drilling along lines to which the child shows no capacity? Or is it a question of what the Germans call Anlage, or a natural capacity? Or, to put the question in still a different form, is there an essential difference in the development of the body after and before birth? The surrounding mother form affords before birth the appropriate conditions and stimuli for the development of the embryo. Does society do more than to receive the child into favorable conditions and afford the appropriate stimuli for the development of the still imperfect child form? So far as we know the mother form provides simply favorable conditions for development, plus the stimulus of a highly organized food medium. Can society legitimately attempt to do more than the mother form in principle? And yet when society employs the method of work as the method of education it is taking a completely different course from that which is pursued by nature before birth.

To comprehend this we must remember that the brain co÷rdinations are as really organs of the body as the lungs or the heart, that they have their essential value in the development of the whole organism as really as the liver or the intestines. Now so far as we understand the development of the embryo the stimulus is at first food, and not until the organ is comparatively highly developed does the stimulus of use come in. This comes out very clearly in the evolution of such functions as those of walking after birth. There is a steady development of the co÷rdinations in the brain which call forth this activity, but the process itself is not called into action until the co÷rdination is practically formed. Take a child seven or eight months old and hold its feet on a smooth table and he will move them rhythmically, showing that the co÷rdination is already largely broken through. But nature does not at once place the necessity of walking upon the child in order to insure the skill of the older child in walking. She lets him kick his legs as much as he will. That is. she allows him to play, and out of this play arises all of the exercise that is needed. What needs to be noticed here is that this play does not direct the child's attention to any end to be accomplished by the use of the limbs. In other words the stimulus of use does not arise under normal circumstances until the organ is so far developed that its use becomes a natural and essential part of the activity of the whole body. Nowhere in the development before birth and immediately afterwards, nor anywhere, where our instruction does not come in, is an organ used simply with a view to a function that is to come later. Or, to put it in terms that we used earlier, nature never compels work with reference to an end which has not direct interest, while the young form is developing. She accomplishes her part of the task by spontaneous activity, in other words by play, while we feel it necessary to arouse the stimulus of use before the organ is capable of being used in the only sense in which an organ should be used. When an organ is properly used, when it is fully and normally developed, any exercise of it should be one of the entire organism through it, that is the whole interest that is involved in the entire life process should come to expression in that one function. Play is the application of this principle to development.


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Undoubtedly in play, an exercise is given to as yet imperfectly developed organs, but it never involves a directing end or purpose which lies in it's full expression beyond the capacity of the organism in its present state of development. For example a kitten playing with a spool undoubtedly represents an exercise of the functions of mouse catching, which is of great value to the full developed animal; but the point is that nature neither makes the kitten dependent upon the use of its yet imperfect capacity in order to stimulate it to higher development, nor yet does she in any way test the success of any separate part of the act by the criterion of adult mouse catching. The playing with the spool stands upon the same plane of development as the kitten, and there is no control exercised over it by the completed act of mouse catching, except in the sense that the spool calls out spontaneously all the mouse- catching capacity of the kitten at her present stage of advancement.

As fast as these co÷rdinations begin to ripen there is abundance of nerve force to keep them exercised. It is the most evident characteristic of childhood that there is a superabundance of energy, required for no immediate purpose, that brings to expression each now capacity of the infant-form as soon as it is consistent with the entire life-process of the organism. In other words under normal conditions the child's life should be perfectly homogeneous, either it is made up of the pursuit of ends, which are perfectly comprehensible to the child and of native interest to him, or else of spontaneous outbursts of activities that represent newly formed co÷rdinations, whose meaning is not yet fully evident and will not perhaps become so till the form has become adult. So far as the immediate life of the child is concerned and its consciousness, they have no value except as escape valves for the surplus energy. They are purely spontaneous. From the standpoint of the final development of the child they mean the taking possession of and making itself at home in new-won co÷rdinations, that are later to be of the highest value to the man.

It is evident that nature, then, never uses the principle of work as that upon which to forward development. I am referring of course to as yet undifferentiated functions. What the child comprehends and can do, it will do with a native interest that requires no continuous spurring. But this occupies but a small part of the child's life. Nature depends upon the presence simply of the right stimuli to call out spontaneous use of now co÷rdinations as fast as formed. And this is, in principle, play. As a part of the supporting and developing social form for the yet dependent child, it is our duty to see that the requisite nourishment and protection for the continued, growth of the child is present, and then that those stimuli are not lacking which answer to the developing co÷rdinations of the central nervous system, and which will call out spontaneously the exercise of these functions. In a word the whole education of a child should be,, upon the principle of teaching him to walk. We do not put him through a carefully controlled series of leg motions from birth on that he may have the necessary facility later. We simply see that there are an abundance of chairs and other objects by which he can pull himself up, a floor adapted to stimulating the soles of the feet and things that he wants at a distance. There is nothing else to be done in teaching the use of number or any other branch so far as the principle is concerned.

The matter is simple enough so far as the, walking is concerned, for these means are right at hand. The problem becomes much more complicated when we reach higher stages of development. A moving object is all that is necessary for the education of a kitten. But the life of the man is indefinitely complicated in comparison with that of the cat, and the, series of stimuli that are needed for his education are proportionately more numerous and complex. I think that it is fair to say that in an ideally constructed society these stimuli would be as naturally present, as are those which bring about the education in walking. But it is just the characteristics of our society that it is not perfect and that it is the child par excellence, that forces upon us the recognition of this lack of perfection, and makes us with reference to him, try to provide a miniature society which shall be as near perfection as possible. The environment of the child, as providing the appropriate stimuli to call out the exercise of all the functions of the child in succession as they appear, would represent, in miniature, at least the normal environments, physical and social, of the man. The problem of educating the child is almost, as large as that of accomplishing the full development of society, representing an earlier stage in the accomplishment of the latter. It is still true that "a little child shall lead them."

As far as system is concerned it is a great deal easier to simply drill a child a year on all the combinations of numbers up to five, than it is to find out how and when he naturally begins to recognize the numerical distinctions, and to provide the natural stimuli to which these coordinations will respond. Miss Allyn did it, for example in Mrs. Quincy-Shaw's school, some years ago, by the use of coins. Upon them as stimuli the child responded gradually with a whole series of combinations. It was not for the purpose of actually


(145) buying and selling. It was simply playing at buying and selling. It was a purely spontaneous activity, but one that was essential for the child, if he was to take possession, so to speak, of these new brain co÷rdinations, just as a smooth floor and objects by which to pull himself up are essential to the child if he is to walk. No one can tell him how to use his limbs, but one can put chairs in his way and hold out to him an apple at a little distance. If he have no stimuli he will never walk, but the stimuli do nothing more than enable him to do what he is all ready to do.

The problem is to find the appropriate stimulus which naturally calls out the activity as far as it is then developed, not to get hold of motives which will force the child to work where he has and can have no interest. The final solution of the problem is surrounding the child with the life process in such a form that it will appeal to him. In Sloyd work or the simple use of carpenters' tools, in molding objects from the history of the race, in the presentation of industrial processes, in the watching and care for insects and animals, there lie, an abundance of stimuli for all the developing child's powers, not presented in a helter skelter fashion but arranged and united in such a way that the child responds to their values for life, as he gradually awakes to them. For, to continue our terminology, a child is forming, in the central nervous system, not only simple co÷rdinations but co÷rdinations of co÷rdinations, and there must be the stimuli for these latter as much as for the former. The problem is by no means a simple one, but this is no excuse for continuing the old method of giving him his whole technique of life in advance, before he can have any objects on which to use them.

For this is our method at present. We aim to give a child methods while his interest is all in objects. He wants the natural stimuli, and we insist on forcing through co÷rdinations of our own making. This method is of course subject to a fundamental psychological fallacy. We try to fix the child's attention upon the problem we set him, and really we are fixing it upon the external motives ,which are to keep him at work. The result is that he loses, frequently the power of real concentration. How many of us can add a long column without making a number of errors? We are unable practically to keep the attention upon so, simple a process continually, while in something that has our whole interest from the start, which we have learned under the influence of this interest, there may be no break in the process from beginning to end. I am sure that this very common disability comes from, the constant break that must take place in the child's study of arithmetic as it is usually taught. He must be continually jumping back from the study that has. no interest for him to the discipline of the school that keeps him at work. We are setting up co÷rdinations: here but, instead of their being between the different; steps of the problem, they lie from one step to the teacher's eye or the fear of staying after school and back again. Those we set up are making constant breaks in the co÷rdinations we wish to form.

In referring to play, then, as the principle upon which education should be conducted we do not mean that the child should be left to the chance influence of what may be about him, but that we should so arrange these stimuli that they will answer to the natural growth of the child's organism, both as respects the objects he becomes successively interested in and the relations which they have, to each other in the life process that he will have to carry out.

Notes

*Address delivered at the Chicago Commons. May 1, 1896.

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