Thinking Without Boundaries

                                    Toward Play of Ideas

S3 is about the absence of a generally accepted definition of play, and its implications.

S3 is about introducing robust principles to the confusing prevailing taxonomy of play, particularly the contradiction between action and environment.

Cognitive payoff is the key.  But, what is play?  

Ask Humpty Dumpty.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." 

"The question is, “ said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." 

"The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."

                                                                                                       Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland, 1865

Ask Albert Einstein.


“The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be 'voluntarily' reproduced and combined... this combinatory play [emphasis mine] seems to be the essential feature in productive thought before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others."

                                           Albert Einstein:  letter to Jacques Hadamard,

                                                     The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, 1945 

           How Can We Agree About / Operationalize Play? 

Particularly Einstein’s "Combinatory Play” (perhaps the core issue): play with the opportunity for simultaneous high-level reasoning and manual experience, Hands and Mind (note mental and manual rotation studies -- unlike "mouse learning" / computer learning), essential in the very early years.  

"Children play naturally, and it is through natural play that children practice reasoning. Children who are manipulated into play by teachers who think that this will improve their reasoning will soon learn to resist the manipulations.  Play, in the long run, is only play if it is self-chosen and self-directed. Children practice reasoning in their own ways, through their own self-chosen play; we can't do it for them and shouldn't try.

                                                Peter Gray, "The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning”

“Play scholars” are missing the point  -- first, define the term play.  

The snowstorm of uses of the term Play is the problem -- with inevitable confusion across the aging spectrum:  

Educational "Play"  vs. "Free Play"  vs. "Playfulness" vs. "Playful Learning"  vs. "Old Fashioned Play", etc.

Not to forget other "expert” terms: 

Active Play; Arts Play; Associative Play; Collaborative Play; Competitive Play; Communication Play; Construction Play; Cooperative Play;
 Creative Play; Deep Play; Developmentally supportive Play; Directive Play; Diversional / Recreational Play; Dramatic Play; Exploratory Play; Fantasy Play; First Pretend Play; Functional Play; Group Play; Imaginative Play; Imitative Play; Independent Play; Language Play; Large-motor Play; Locomotor Play; Manipulative Play; Mastery Play; Motor / Physical Play; Non-Directive Play; Object Play; Onlooker Play; Parallel Play; Physical Play; Pretend Play: Quiet Play; Recapitulative Play; Risk-taking Play; Role Play; Rough and Tumble Play; Rule-governed Play; Sensory Play; Small motor Play; Social Play; Social Bids Play; Socio-Dramatic Play; Solitary independent Play; Structured Play; Substitute Play; Symbolic Play; Therapeutic Play; Unoccupied Play, etc. 


 One line of attack:


                        The Environment Is The Message 

                         Contradiction of Action and Environment

                                              S3 Play


"You can turn ideas around in your mind to examine them from different perspectives until you find one that works for you.  And that's what we mean by thinking." 

                                                        Marvin Minsky, "Commonsense-based Interfaces", CACM (2000)

"The S3 readily engages and captivates children, sustains their attention, and challenges and stretches them cognitively.  Moreover, it enables children to calibrate their own complexity of play …

                                                                        Laura E. Berk, Child Development, 8th Edition (May 13, 2008, cc m.s.)

                                     The Dialectic     


S3 is about pattern, "'voluntarily' reproduced and combined", the rule which governs a system or phenomenon, exactly like numeric, musical, or visual relationships -- and its simultaneous mental and manual rotation.

The Cybernetics equivalent of a model train set.

The Zen koan mechanics of enlightenment.

Mind and Machine as fugue.


   Isaac Newton and Leibnitz (stripes) formulate The Calculus           Children formulate a Systems Problem



"In terms of definition, play behavior is characterized as an unstructured self-amusement activity that has a goal in itself, and it can either be governed or not by prior rules (Brougère and Wajskop, 1997; Bomtempo, 1997; Biscoli, 2005).  Also characterized as free play are the activities that include the child’s voluntary decision, i.e., it is the child who decides when, how, where and, if necessary, with whom to play (Queiroz et al., 2006)."

                                                              Cordazzo, Almeida, Vieira (2011) Educational Research

                                                    "What is Play?"   

                                                             "What is Playtime 12?”

                                                               "Play As Mathematics"

                                   "How Play Promotes Reasoning

The core process of abstract reasoning (the barber pole below), both manual and visuospatial skills (independent of disciplines), should work together as the learner moves up the education ladder. 

The computer and the S3 learning / play process are natural partners:  both are needed, for different reasons, and should be seen as complementary, not competing. (RESEARCH) 

             Marriage of Constructivism and Computer Learning   

                Think Low-tech -- Reciprocity of Hands and Mind


                             Across the Aging Spectrum

Corporate "Play" -- one fifth of employee time must be used to work on personal projects / art -- an essential part of GOOGLE'S work culture:

"Our founders built Google around the idea that work should be challenging, and the challenge should be fun … creative approaches to work, play, life."

                 Self-determination:  "The Project Approach"

                     Critical Mass:  S3 "Play With Learning" 

Behaviorist / Cognitivist / Constructivist / Experiential / Social and Contextual



                "A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: 

                               Presenting the Evidence"

Executive Summary

“Play has become a 4-letter word.  In an effort to give children a head start on academic skills like reading and mathematics, play is discouraged and didactic learning is stressed. This book presents the scientific evidence in support of three points: 

1) Children need both unstructured free play and playful learning under the gentle guidance of adults to best prepare them for entrance into formal school; 

2) academic and social development are so inextricably intertwined that the former must not trump attention to the latter; and 

3) learning and play are not incompatible; learning takes place best when children are engaged and enjoying themselves.

 “The argument is organized into three chapters.  The first describes the current crisis in preschool education and suggests that the lack of attention to play and playful learning lies at its core.  We propose that there exists a false and counterproductive dichotomy between play on the one hand and learning on the other.  This dichotomy is echoed in society at large as parents are influenced by the media and the marketplace to buy “educational” toys and restrict free play.  While supporting the need for accountability and assessment, we suggest that the current emphasis on assessment in higher grades has lead to narrowly defined curricula objectives in the preschool.  Curriculum development has been more responsive to the practical constraints of assessment than to the findings of evidence-based pedagogy. 

 “The second chapter presents the evidence that play and playful learning enhance academic, social, and emotional outcomes in preschool. Playful learning, and not drill-and-practice, engages and motivates children in ways that enhance developmental outcomes and life-long learning.  After defining play and playful learning, we examine assumptions about how children learn and suggest that preschools are no longer teaching the “whole” child.  The weight of the evidence, from random assignment to correlational to intervention studies, suggests that both free play and playful learning create optimal environments for achievement.  Additionally, children in developmentally appropriate classrooms often show less anxiety and stronger social skills.  

 “The epilogue moves from data to application, presenting seven principles that are derived from the science that inform preschool pedagogy.  These principles reflect consensus across the learning sciences for how children learn best.  If followed, these principles can contribute to the creation of preschools that will be equipped to educate the work force and citizenry for this new century." 

In press, Oxford University Press:  Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University; Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, University of Delaware; Laura E. Berk, Illinois State University; Dorothy G. Singer, Yale University.

© Michael S. Sommer, Ph.D. 2015