Sovereignty, Pleasure, Illusion and Play (Part I)

Play is a purposeless activity, engaged in freedom, pleasure and a creative mood. It creates an illusory world in which familiar objects and persons assume new meanings and roles. In being purposeless and illusory, it is beyond logical and moral judgements.

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Play appears to be one of the essential activities of children which seems to be natural’ to childhood. Pedagogues have always been enchanted by children’s play and wondered if it could be made into a tool for purposeful education. What does a child do when she plays? Is she learning and making sense of something, applying what she already knows, imitating, creating something anew or doing all of these simultaneously? And if play is so intrinsic to childhood, what role can it play in teaching or educating children effectively, efficiently and painlessly?

Teaching by play-way’ method or khel-khel mein shiksha’ as we say in Hindi, has been handed out as the panacea for a lot of pedagogic problems we, as teachers, face. Educational literature thus has a large stock of educational games and toys and playful activities which are conceived and structured to teach something by inducing conditions of play. Teacher training has as its essential components observing children at play’ and indeed joining them in their play. But then a pedagogue is a pedagogue. We think children at play need to be watched carefully lest they harm themselves or conduct themselves in morally incorrect ways. A pedagogue looks at children as being innocent (ignorant), powerless and vulnerable, needing constant protection and guidance, control and even chastisement. Thus, play too has to be subjected to similar interventions. Of course, a pedagogue seldom puts herself in the shoes of the child to see if a child shares this view of herself.

Philosophers thankfully have looked at play from some very different perspectives and familiarity with these may help us break the frames made for us by the pedagogues and see children and play in some new light. Actually, we in India are inheritors to a tradition of philosophical and theological speculation on play which is, at least, two thousand years long if not longer. Likewise, Western philosophers have been reflecting on it from pre-Socratic to our own times. From the end of the 19th century, development psychologists, like Karl Groos, Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, who inform so much of our educational thinking, have studied the development of play among children and reflected upon its importance to various stages of child development. We also have a vast body of anthropological literature on play in different societies. All this should enable us to understand play as a general human phenomenon and its relation to the education of children.

Let me begin with the Indian tradition and briefly summarise the two-thousand-year history of reflections on the concept of play’. Ananda Coomaraswamy way back in 1941 wrote a short paper on the Vedic references to play or Lila’ and tried to trace the term to the play of flames.1 However, the earliest mature philosophical reflection comes from Badarayana’s Vedanta Sutra also called, the Brahmasutra, usually dated to the 1st to 2nd centuries CE. Badarayana confronted a major philosophical problem of explaining why the single unitary Supreme Reality (Brahman) should create this world. Given that it is all-powerful, all-knowing, and containing everything in itself, it can have no need or purpose to do any action. One acts either to satisfy a want or on orders of someone powerful or when some previous action has necessitated a new action. But such situations cannot arise for the Brahman. Badarayana solved this problem with a wonderful device, so effective that virtually all subsequent schools of philosophy and theology in India accepted it. Badarayana in a very short cryptic sutra says, lokavat tu lila kaivalyam’ (2.1.33) which can be roughly translated as However, merely as Play, just as in the world.’ In other words, creation is merely a play being indulged in by the Supreme Being. The earliest extant commentary on this is by Sankara (8th century CE), who gives an example of lila’ as it is prevalent in the world.2 The example he gives is not of a child at play, but an all-powerful king who has no wants, engaging in play for the mere pleasure of it without any purpose at all. Shankara believed that the world around us is an illusion and, hence, also attributed to the game of creation as the conjuring of an illusory world. In play, one imagines an illusory world and acts as if it were real. The very next sutra underlines another aspect of play in stating that the creator is beyond reproach for the inequalities set into motion. Play, then, proceeds like a juggernaut crushing some and sparing some…. Thus, play is an act done by someone who is a repository of power and knowledge and without any needs; it is a purposeless activity indulged in pleasure, unmindful of the moral dimensions of the consequences. And it conjures an illusion, a make-believe world. Subsequent Indian thinkers either repeated all this verbatim or tweaked it to suit their schools of thinking. This became the standard explanation for creation and also, to some extent, for the random distribution of suffering and pleasure in the world. The Kashmir Saiva masters, like Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta and Kshemaraja (9th to 11th century CE) added some significant aspects to this doctrine of play.3

Kashmir Saiva texts use a number of words as being complementary to and synonymous with lila: ullāsa, vilāsa, vihāra, vinoda, nartaka, nāṭ̣aka, moda, pramoda, utsava, spanda, and krīdā besides others. This vastly expands the range of its meaning to include a diversity of pleasurable situations and actions. Kshemaraja defines the divine play (krida) as born of Siva’s energy of his own freedom (sva svātantrya śaktyātmaka) and as being free from any obstacles (niḥśeṣ̣a vighna praśamana). If at one level play is an act of freedom and complete autonomy, at another level, it is an act of pleasure, beauty and joy. An early Saiva theorist, Utpaladeva reiterates the element of freedom in krida with the word nirargalatā, or unrestrained freedom and elaborates the combination of pleasure, play and acting, ‘…the highest Lord, due to his fullness, plays spontaneously by imitating the ways of the separate beings, having become each of them due to his reeling (ghūrṇi – rotating) under the intoxication of bliss. (For) play (krīḍā) is the vibration accompanying joy.’ Indeed, the very Sanskrit term for gods, deva’ (with its verbal form divyati) implies playing besides shining etc, a fact repeatedly pointed out by the Kashmiri masters.

Abhinavagupta, one of the most creative thinkers of the subcontinent, defines krida in most evocative lines: Heyopādeya kathā virahe svānanda ghanatayocchalanam,
krīḍ̣ā sarvotkarṣ̣eṇ̣a vartanecchā tathā svatantratvam. (Tantraloka I.101)

This has been translated as: The upsurge of one’s own intense bliss without any purpose, like rejection or acceptance, is play. This is the Will of the Lord to set in motion, because of excelling everything, and this is his freedom.’

Abhinavagupta adds yet another dimension to the act of play, concealment – the player hides his own self and his own true nature through the act of playful creation. (svātmapracchādana krīḍā). He becomes another, and indeed many other things, beings. Abhinavagupta’s commentator, Jayaratha explains this further, ‘…the concealment of his own Self, i.e., the appearance in the form of each, subject, object, etc., because of playful manifestation, that is verily play’. Of course, the act of concealment goes with moments of revelation of the true nature, for those who can see it. Bettina Baumer concludes her essay with a few pertinent observations:

An action, even if it has the appearance of a game, that does not spring from freedom, cannot be called līlā or krīḍā.’

play” means purely the outflow of the inner fullness in the body, and not any conscious action. It is an action, if at all, of the subject without any object, …Spanda4 is the origin of krīḍā.’

Kashmiri Saivism assigns a role to the viewer of this play – not only that of being a teacher or the taught, but of someone who can abandon his or her own identity and lose him/​herself in the play. This leads us into mystic dimensions, which may not be very relevant to the role of play in education. Suffice it to say that implicit in the idea of play is freedom and, hence, non-interference or direction by an external person; the only role a teacher can play is to join the play just as freely and playfully, without motive or purpose.

While it is somewhat easy to understand elements of freedom, pleasure and even power and knowledge inherent in play, the element of illusion evades comprehension. It takes diverse forms in different schools of philosophy or theology. The Kashmiri Saivas locate it in play as in a theatre or sometimes as the act of concealment. It reappears strongly in the Vaishnava tradition. For example, Krishna, the master of Lila is born with a sister, Yogamaya. We are told in the Bhagavata Purana5 that when Krishna embarked upon his Rasalila or krida, he invoked Yogamaya to his assistance (yogamaya upasrita). Indeed, almost every lila of Krishna has an accompanying element of illusion or maya. The lila of all lilas, Rasa is simultaneously a game of concealment, illusion and revelation. A play constructs and makes one live in a world of make-believe at least till it lasts. It creates a paradigm which enthrals and entraps us, where every object finds its meaning changed and imbued with a new meaning. Vygotsky calls it the emancipation of words from the objects they signify. A stick can become a horse, during the duration of the play.

Besides the element of illusion generated by play, the Bhagavata Purana emphasises an aspect mentioned earlier – the suspension of moral and social norms. The plays of Krishna are not only unnatural’ or superhuman, but also violate moral and social codes, and we can see the orthodox authors or editors of the work struggling to contain the damage. This is what the Kashmir Saivas called bereft of heyopadeya’ (censure or approbation).

To summarise, play is indulged in by someone imbued with complete control, fullness of knowledge, autonomy and without any needs. It is an expression of Sovereignty.6 Play is a purposeless activity, engaged in freedom, pleasure and a creative mood. It creates an illusory world in which familiar objects and persons assume new meanings and roles. In being purposeless and illusory, it is beyond logical and moral judgements. Not very surprisingly, the western philosophical tradition rooted in Greek thought came up with a similar understanding of play and spent considerable thinking to come to terms with it.7

To the Greeks, play (paizo) is what a child (pais) does. A series of derived words describe toys or playthings, games, singing, dancing, playing instruments, education (paideia) and even beating (paio). The earliest mention of play in a philosophical text comes from a fragment of Heraclitus (5th century BCE) the father of dialectical thinking: ‘“aion” (time) is a child playing the game of pesseia”; the child has royal powers.’ (Fragment No. 52). Almost two and a half thousand years later, Heidegger elaborated on it thus, The dispensation of Being is a child at play moving pieces on a board game; it is to the child that the kingship belongs – Kingship meaning the arche” that is what grounds, constitutes rules; Being for the being. What remains is play – the highest and the deepest.’8

Huizinga who explored the different ways in which the element of play pervades human civilisation, begins by identifying the attributes of play. Play primarily signifies the primacy of the human mind over matter and also over reason and determinism. Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos…. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, for play is irrational.’9 After a long discussion, he sums up the attributes of play thus:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary” life as being not serious”, but at the same time, absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.’10

This pithy paragraph is bereft of the richness of the detailed discussion that precedes it, and it may be worth our while to refer back to some of the nuances.

The first and the defining feature of play, of course, is the freedom which marks it off from the natural forces, like instinct. This freedom is inextricably connected with pleasure for it is the combination of the two that form the kernel of play. Child and animal play because they enjoy playing, and therein precisely lies their freedom.’11

The second defining feature of play is the creation of a make-believe world, cutting off from the real here and now. It is marked by pretence, let’s pretend’. This pretension or make-believe has no productive purpose of satisfying some felt need and, in fact, interrupts productive activities. Huizinga hastens to add that pretension or disinterestedness’ does not make play non-serious; it can be a very, very serious activity. ‘… the consciousness of play being only a pretend’ does not, by any means, prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome only” feeling.’12

The third characteristic of play according to Huizinga is, Its secludedness, its limitedness. It is played out” within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning. Play begins, and then at a certain moment, it is over”.’ This delimitation of time and space of play sets the stage, literally, for creating an order peculiar to that time and space, governing all activities of the play. Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life, it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order — absolute and supreme.’ He attributes to this orderliness of the play its inherent aesthetic and beauty, for play in some inexplicable way, is imbued with aesthetic sense and produces beauty. But as he points out, a play always has an end just as the realm of play extends only to the consecrated space. Nevertheless, once played, the memory lingers and it can be treasured, reflected upon and also transmitted to others to form a tradition. It is these dimensions of play that attract pedagogues so much, who look to it as a useful method of education. This order in a play also takes the form of the rules of the game, which require strict adherence; one has to achieve the objective set within the play while adhering to those rules. The one who violates the rules becomes a spoil sport’ smashing the make-believe world. Huizinga goes on to examine the forms taken by these characteristics of play in different moments of history or civilisation. He appears to conclude that somehow modernity suppresses play.

Much of our own thinking on play is a consequence of the early modern Protestant ethic which diametrically contrasted work and play, relegating the latter to an undesirable basket. Purposeful and productive work was privileged over mere play indulged in for pleasure bordering on the sinful. This privileging of work has its origins in the thought of Plato and Aristotle who gave primacy to techne and productive labour in understanding creation and humanity. A rational explanation of the world was possible only by suppressing the element of play as Heraclitus understood it. It was left to Schiller to break the mould and restore play as a key dimension of being human.

Dissatisfied with Enlightenment thinking on aesthetics, Schiller (1759−1805) initiated the turn to romanticism which valorised beauty and play. For, to mince words no longer, man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.’13 To be fully human was to be in a state of completeness and fulfilment when he can be purposive without having a purpose. Work, in contrast, was something impelled by a deficiency, an obligation to cover the deficiency. An animal is said to be at work when the stimulus to activity is some lack; it may be said to be at play, when the stimulus is sheer plenitude of vitality, when superabundance of life is its own incentive to action.’14 Thus, freedom from utility and outside compulsion and delight in the sense of fulfilment and power marks play. Nietzsche (1844−1900) saw in play the expression of absolute free will characterised by purposelessness which created and destroyed without moral judgements. In this world only play… exhibits coming to be and passing away, structuring and destroying, without any moral additive in forever equal innocence.’ And elsewhere, Not Hybris15 but the ever self-renewing impulse to play calls new worlds into being.’ Eugen Fink (1905−1975) built upon Nietzsche and Heidegger to develop an ontology of play. He identified a curious mixture of reality and unreality’ as underlying all play. Human beings relate to the world around them quite differently while playing than when they are engaged in production or struggle or love. Into this mixture of reality and unreality dissolves the distinction between subject and object. All other human phenomena imply a distinction between reality and unreality (appearance), whereas play implies an interlacing of the two. In human play, an unreal sphere of meaning breaks into the total reality of actual things and processes, a sphere which is here and not here, present and yet not present.’ The word unreal points to the fact that the play world transcends the causal chain of phenomena or ordinary reality, overspilling into the realm of appearance… (T)he world shines forth in the play’s realm of appearance.’ By shining forth Fink means when reality reveals itself in the outer phenomenon. One may recall here the conception of Krishna’s Lila as a play of concealment and revelation and also the Saiva doctrine of Siva’s five cosmic deeds.

The world in which we wish to see reason and morality and purposefulness turns out to be devoid of all finality and has no value”: it is above all ethical evaluation, beyond good and evil”. Without reason of end, without sense or goal, without value or plan, the world contains within itself all the reasons of the intra-worldly beings that have a ground, it embraces in its universal futility the paths along which one attempts to reach any ends or goals.’16 In this world-play’, as Fink calls it, there is no player – it is a play without a player. At this, David Farrel Krell returns to the child’s play to point out when the child plays there is no player. Everything is played.’17

While the contemporary philosophical discussion of play may be firmly in the terrain of the esoteric as far as a school teacher is concerned, we cannot help notice the fact that for over 2000 years and across continents, the idea of play is strongly associated with a set of dimensions – a combination of complete freedom, autonomy and power (sovereignty), pleasure, purposelessness, devoid of ethical considerations, hovering between real and unreal, rational and irrational, subject and object – illusion, concealment and revelation.

Development psychologists, like Vygotsky and Piaget, who saw play as an important activity of children sought to understand how it develops and what role it plays in the maturing of children.

Developmental Psychology and Play

The early 20th century studies of child development were caught up with the defining stages of development, whether in the cognitive field or in moral ideas or play. Thus, we have Parten’s five-stage development of play in children (solitary, onlooker behaviour, parallel, associative and cooperative plays). As is obvious, this study focussed upon the social’ dimension of play in the transition from individual to collective playing. Towards the end of his life, Lev Vygotsky summarised his findings on play in a lecture preserved for us in a verbatim report, which though somewhat dated, is illumining on several points.18 He makes three major points regarding play and children: firstly, that even though play may not be the predominant activity of children it plays a leading’ role or important role in their development. Secondly, play comes into being at a point of development and undergoes change as the child grows. And thirdly, play induces significant changes in the cognitive and affective development of the child.

According to Vygotsky, play emerges in the age group of 3 – 6 years which enables children to address their desires that are unrealisable or immediately not realisable through imaginary, illusory’ realisation. A major role in this is played by the new dimension of a child’s cognitive development, the ability to imagine. Vygotsky virtually treats imagination and play as identical. For young children, play is imagination in action while for adolescents imagination is play without action’. Play, thus, is placed in the affective domain of satisfying desires. As a child grows up, play is increasingly governed by rules which make it more complex, leading eventually to internalisation of play in the imagination of the adolescent child instead of physical action.

Play has a significant role in the cognitive development of children in so far as it enables the development of abstract thought by disengaging meaning from objects. For young children (under three years), objects have an inherent meaning demanding specific action – door to be closed, stairs to be climbed… Perception is not separated from affective and motor activity – hence, the child’s actions are constrained by the objects around/​situation. In play, this changes and the child (aged 3 – 6 years) is not constrained by the meaning of the object and is able to impute to the object meaning other than its normal meaning. This is facilitated by the child’s creation of an imaginary situation in play. Action, in an imaginary field, teaches the child to guide his behaviour not only by perception but also by the meaning of the situation. At the same time, the child cannot yet abstract meaning or ideas entirely and needs the prop of an object: a stick can be imagined as a horse, but the stick is still needed as a prop for the idea of a horse.

Vygotsky uses dialectical thinking to point out some underlying contradictions or paradoxes in play, whose resolution leads to the higher stage of cognitive thinking. The first paradox he points out is that while the child is able to change the meaning of the objects, s/​he still needs a real situation and action to work out the imagination. The second paradox is that while the child is relieved of the constraints of the situation in his/​her thinking, s/​he still subordinates her/​himself to rules for abiding by them promises maximum pleasure. This deferring of the impulse to rules of the game also plays an important role in helping the child make a transition to mature thinking and action and, eventually, work. Thus, play has a two-fold function of assisting in cognitive development leading to disengaging meaning or concepts from objects and also in the affective domain by freeing the child from situational constraints and yet restraining impulsive reaction and developing rule-bound action. ‘(T)hus, play creates the zone of proximal development of the child. … (I)n play it is as though the child is trying to jump above the level of his normal behaviour.’ And further, Action in the imaginative field, in an imaginary situation, the creation of voluntary intentions and the formation of real-life plans and volitional motives – all appear in play and make it the highest level of preschool development.’

Jean Piaget probably conducted the most nuanced and theoretically rich study of play though he too, characteristically, sought to define stages of development of play and its relationship with the overall stages of development of the intellect of children.19 Again, typically, most textbooks tell us about the stages while sparing us the rich and rigorous theoretical formulations and empirical observations of Piaget. It is pertinent, at this point, to briefly recapitulate some of his main findings and reflections.

Piaget considers play as a necessary component of child development and locates it at a particular point of this development and indeed argues that once that stage is crossed, the importance of play recedes. Children move from playing for oneself to playing collective rule-bound games which may no longer have some of the key features of play. Before we proceed further, it would be useful to point out that while the particular function that play plays in child development may have become redundant, it does not end the role of play (or for that matter of imitation) in human life. Playfulness and play continue irrespective of one’s age as essential ingredients of human activity. With this caveat, we may proceed to summarise the findings of Piaget.

Readers may recall Piaget’s theory of cognitive process as being one of assimilation and accommodation of new experiences to previously formed schemas or concepts.20 Play among children is said to be an act of pure assimilation’ which subordinates to itself earlier accommodation and assimilates the real to the activity itself without effort or limitation’.21 In play, the reaction ceases to be an act of complete adaptation and merely gives rise to the pleasure of pure assimilation… All schemas are capable of giving rise to pure assimilation, whose extreme form is play.’22 Thus behaviour or activity, which no longer poses a physical or intellectual challenge or is needed for intentional accommodation’ is carried on by a child for mere pleasure. This marks the beginnings of play.

Piaget places activities done merely for functional pleasure’ in the category of play in contrast to imitation where the element of mere pleasure may be absent.23 (‘maintenance and exercise of activities for the mere pleasure of mastering them and acquiring thereby a feeling of virtuosity and power’. And further merely for pleasure accompanied by smiles and even laughter and without expectation of results.’)24 These develop as distinct and marked behaviour in the third to the sixth stage of a baby’s development (normally corresponding with the fourth month onwards) according to Piaget. The objective of these actions is not to learn or acquire something or even to attain mastery over an operation, but merely to taste the pleasure of doing it. Thus, so far, we see three elements of play, autonomous and conscious action of the child (not reflexive action) lack of any definite purpose25 other than pleasure, and a feeling of power (control) and virtuosity. Stages V and VI of a baby’s development are marked by a distinct transformation of play with the additional element of what Piaget terms ludic ritualization’ (play in the form of a defined sequence of activities) and symbolic play’ (in which familiar objects are given the role of something else, like a stick becoming a horse). He places stress on the emergence of symbolic play as a major development in the intellect of the child who now begins to manipulate symbols and signs, no doubt in all their concreteness. The stick symbolises and also acts as a horse, becoming a building block of the make-believe world created by the child. As Piaget observes, this symbolism involves ludic assimilation, which distorts objects and uses them at will’.26

In a play of falling asleep, She kept her eyes open, but blinked from time to time as if she were alluding to closed eyes. Finally, laughing more and more she…’27 A wink, smile or laughter indicates that the child is aware of the make believe’ and is having fun. The play is in concealing the reality, but the pleasure of the play can be realised only when the player returns to the external reality, thus, moving seamlessly between the make-believe world of her creation and the real world outside of it.

This make-believe world is constituted by the creation of illusion and Piaget pays considerable attention to this phenomenon. ‘(T)he deliberate illusion’… in play is merely the child’s refusal to allow the world of adults or of ordinary reality to interfere with play, so as to enjoy a private reality of his own.’

Piaget distinguishes between three kinds/​stages of play in children: what he terms, practice games’ which begin even in a month-old baby, symbolic games’ from two years on and games with rules’ emerging from the fourth year and marginalising the rest by the seventh year of the child.28 (The practice games correspond to the sensory motor stage’, the symbolic games to the pre-operations stage’ and the games with rules to the concrete and formal operations stages of cognitive development.)29 Piaget’s discussion of the symbolic play and its supposed decline after age four to seven is particularly rich and very pertinent to our purpose.

(S)ymbolic games imply representation of an absent object, since there is comparison between a given and an imagined element… For instance, a child pushing a box and imagining it as a car, is symbolically representing the car by the box, and is satisfied with the pretence because the link between signifier” (box) and the signified” (car) is entirely subjective.’

Symbolic play begins with acts like pretending to sleep, wash, etc. Piaget asks, Why, indeed, does the child enjoy pretending to sleep, wash, swing, bring a bird? Sleeping and washing are certainly not games, but when practised symbolically, they become so… All that he is trying to do is to use freely his individual powers, to reproduce his own actions for the pleasure of seeing himself doing them and showing them off to others, in a word to express himself… Symbolic play will therefore consolidate, through representational assimilation of the whole of reality to the ego…’30

In Piaget’s scheme of development, symbolic play is a crucial aspect of the emergence of representative thought: representative thought as distinct from sensory motor activity, begins as soon as the signifier” is differentiated from the signified” in the system of significations which constitutes the whole intelligence and indeed the whole consciousness.’31 While language is the mature product of this process, the symbolic image and imaged or pre-conceptual representation have their place’ in cognitive development; in contrast to language which is a social phenomenon, symbolic image is very private to the individual (i.e. a pillow cover may represent going to sleep or a box may represent a car or a plate to eat from) and hence, plays an important role in enabling the child to make a transition to abstract thought and expression in a very private zone of comfort. What role does symbol perform in play in which accommodation is subordinated to assimilation’?

Piaget contrasts cognitive representation (in which the signifier – sign – has a definite and fixed corresponding object) and symbolic representation of play (in which the signified is merely assimilated to the ego for a very temporary satisfaction and is used due to a very vague and subjective notion of resemblance, such as a stick or pillow that becomes a horse). In Piaget’s technical language, while in cognitive representation there is a permanent equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation, in ludic symbolism, there is a predominance of assimilation in the relationship between the child and the signified.’32 The question is, why is the representative schema assimilated to the ego rather than to logical thought (which is social and shared by others too)? Piaget answers this question thus: It is simply because in early childhood, this (logical CNS) thought has not yet been constructed, and during its development, it is inadequate to supply the needs of the daily life. Moreover, the most adapted and most logical thought of which the young child is capable is still pre-logical and ego-centric.’33 In the absence of logical thought (marked by reversibility), a child is subjected to constant disequilibrium or, at best, temporary equilibrium and the only way in which sanity can be preserved is by assimilating reality to the ego and creating with the symbols an orderly world which is very private to the child. In a very perceptive passage Piaget elaborates this idea thus:

It follows that for the child’s assimilation of reality to the ego is a vital condition for continuity and development, precisely because of the lack of equilibrium in his thought, and symbolic play satisfies this condition both as regards signifier and signified. From the point of view of the signified, play enables the child to relive his past experiences and makes for the satisfaction of the ego rather than for its subordination to reality. From the point of view of the signifier, symbolism provides the child with the live, dynamic, individual language indispensable for the expression of his subjective feelings, for which collective language alone is inadequate. The symbol object (for example, the stick or box) being a real substitute for the signified, makes it actually present in a way that the verbal sign can never achieve.’34

At this point, Piaget raises a vital question, as to how a child relates to his or her own make-believe world. He points out that even though the child is aware that this is a make-believe world (and hence, is not lost in it as in a dream) s/​he has no problems in believing in it: because symbolism is egocentric thought, we have no reason to suppose that he does not believe in his own way anything he chooses’. The deliberate illusion’ thus created in play is the child’s refusal to allow the world of adults or of ordinary reality to interfere with play so as to enjoy a private reality of his own. But this reality is believed in spontaneously, without effort, merely because it is the universe of the ego, and the function of play is to protect this universe against forced accommodation to ordinary reality.’35

As the child grows up’ and masters the cognitive operations and acquires the foundational logico-mathematical’ abilities, s/​he withdraws from symbolic games. The more the child adapts himself to the natural and social world, the less he indulges in symbolic distortions and transpositions, because instead of assimilating the external world to the ego, he progressively subordinates the ego to reality. The child’s engagement with the real world increasingly satisfies his needs and he does not have to take recourse to an imagined world. As the child learns to adjust to the external reality and engage with it, the need to create distorting symbols in play recedes. Play itself become more and more rule-bound or constructional (as in building a toy house or a crane or cooking), in other words, play ceases to be Play.36

We may end this saga of the rise and fall of play in child development by returning to Krishna and his Lilas. Those who have studied the Bhagavata Purana, point out that the use of the term lila to describe the exploits of Krishna is very sparse for the sections on the adult life of Krishna after he moves to Mathura and Dwaraka from Vrindavana. In fact, it is seldom used in his adult contexts.

Developmental studies’ perception of play as something that happens in a certain phase of childhood reinforces a popular perception of play as belonging to childhood. In adult life, play is overtaken by games’ as in sports – both as pastimes and competitions and by theatre which creates the make-believe world for adults. It almost seems that genuine play – the pursuit of pleasure in an activity that combines striving for pleasure without a purpose, pursuit and diligent construction of fantasy, imagined, make-believe world, a sense of freedom and autonomy of the individual or simply discarding all rules and playing with figures, numbers, forms, idea etc., has no place in adult life. Yet creativity, insights, sudden perception of deep patterns, and indeed, a bold rejection of the TINA37 trap to explore and visualise alternatives have, necessarily, to be products of playful minds, minds that value autonomy and creation. Play and playfulness may not just be a dimension of human life but can also be the defining feature of humanity, which when invoked, can help us get over many of the impasses we find ourselves in. It may help us to slip out of the world of meaningfulness and purposefulness which reason has created for us.

Even if one may not accept extreme views of play, one can still visualise it as not belonging just to childhood, but to our human existence, in general, which requires nurturing during the entire process of formal education and subsequently too.


C N Subramaniam worked with Eklavya in the area of social science education. He is now retired and lives in Hoshangabad.

Featured photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE on Unsplash

  1. Ananda K Coomaraswamy, ‘Lila’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 61, No. 2 (June 1941), pp. 98-101↩︎

  2. George Thibaut, (Trans) Vedanta Sutras, with the commentary of Sankarakarya, Part I, Oxford, 1890, p.356-358↩︎

  3. The following discussion of Kashmir Saiva conceptualisation of play is based on Bettina Baumer, ‘The Play of the Three Worlds’, in William Sax (ed.), 1995, The Gods at Play. Līlā in South Asia, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 35-49 See also Pandit Balajit Nath, Specific Principles of Kashmir Saivism, Motilal Banarasidas, Delhi, 1998, especially the chapter on the Vilasa principle.↩︎

  4. Inner pulsation.↩︎

  5. The Bhagavata Purana is generally assigned to the 9th and 10th centuries CE by scholars.↩︎

  6. The principle of Sovereignty, in some measure, involves the principle of play. Thus, the President of India’s orders are always acts of pleasure and not of reason. (The President is pleased to….)↩︎

  7. This discussion is largely based on Mihai Spariosu, Dionysus reborn: play and the aesthetic dimension in modern philosophical and scientific discourse, Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press 1989 and Johan H. Huizinga – Homo Ludens – Study of the Play Element in Culture, Routledge (1980)↩︎

  8. Cited in Sapriousu, p.120↩︎

  9. Huizinga, 1980, p. 3-4↩︎

  10. Huizinga, 1980, p. 13. For possible pedagogic implications of Huizinga’s definition of play, see Christopher Joseph An, ‘On Learning, Playfulness and Becoming Human’ in Philosophy, 93, 2018.↩︎

  11. Huizinga, 1980, p. 8↩︎

  12. Huizinga, 1980, p. 8. It is for this reason that Vygotsky contended the pleasure principle in defining play. See #23 and #25 below.↩︎

  13. Cited in Sapriousu, p.59↩︎

  14. Cited in Sapriousu, p.61↩︎

  15. Intentional use of violence to humiliate↩︎

  16. Sapriousu p. 132 citing Fink.↩︎

  17. David Farrell Krell, ‘Towards an Ontology of Play: Eugen Fink’s notion of Spiel’ in Research In Phenomenology, 1972, Vol 2, pp 63-93.↩︎

  18. Lev Vygotsky, ‘Play and its role in mental development of child’ (Translated by Nikolai Veresov and Myra Barrs) in International Research in Early Childhood Education, Vol 7. No. 2, 2016, pp 62-76.↩︎

  19. Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, (Translated by C Gattengno and FM Hodgson), London 1951.↩︎

  20. Adaptation involves two sub‐processes: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the application of previous concepts (schema) to new concepts. Accommodation is the altering of previous concepts in the face of new information.↩︎

  21. Piaget, p. 90↩︎

  22. Piaget p. 90-1↩︎

  23. Lev Vygotsky strongly contends the pleasure criterion of play as children are seen to pursue play in utter seriousness and enduring even pain. However, elsewhere in the same talk, he uses the pleasure criterion for play, evidently contradicting himself. See Lev Vygotsky, ‘Play and its role in mental development of child’ (Translated by Nikolai Veresov and Myra Barrs) in International Research in Early Childhood Education, Vol 7. No. 2, 2016↩︎

  24. Piaget 1951. p.90. also ‘he repeats his behaviour not in any further effort to learn or investigate, but for the mere joy of mastering it and of showing off to himself his own power of subduing reality.’ P.162. See also Catherine Garvey, Play, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mas. 1977, for a longish discussion on smile and laughter in the context of play in p.17ff↩︎

  25. Vygotsky rejects the ‘purposelessness’ criterion of play mainly citing children’s participation in competitive games with the goal of winning the race etc. In Piaget’s schema, these come rather late in a child’s life as part of rule-bound games which actually mark the end of play. Dewey too rejects the idea of the purposelessness of play and holds that there can be no sustained activity without a sense of purpose. See John Dewey, Democracy and Education, the chapter entitled, ‘Play and Work in the Curriculum’.↩︎

  26. Piaget, 1951, p.102 also see p.163↩︎

  27. Piaget, 1951, p. 96↩︎

  28. Piaget, 1951, p. 110ff↩︎

  29. Vygotsky contends that all forms of play right from the beginning are rule-bound and it is incorrect to say that early childhood games or play is devoid of rules. For example, in a game in which a child takes on the role of a mother, the rule of the game requires the child to behave only as the mother and not anyone else. In fact, it is the rule-boundedness of the play which gives it the distinct character. While Vygotsky is probably correct in this, in the case of early childhood make-believe play, the rules are implicit in the roles assigned and not externally imposed constraining the child in the achievement of a goal while ‘rule-based games’ of Piaget actually refer to rules which are externally determined by some clear principles of fair play etc., rules which are shared by a community of players and provide the challenge to the individual child.↩︎

  30. Piaget, 1951, p.121. Vygotsky equates symbol to sign and hence rejects the idea that play is a symbolic activity: ‘Therefore, play is not symbolism. A symbol is a sign, but the stick is not the sign of a horse.’↩︎

  31. Piaget 1951, p.163↩︎

  32. Piaget 1951, p. 165↩︎

  33. Piaget 1951, p. 166. Logical thought to Piaget requires decentring and also the ability to practice reversibility so important to his logico-mathematical abilities. With this, one can participate in a wider community of fellow human thinkers and engage with their ideas and concepts.↩︎

  34. Piaget 1951, p. 166-7↩︎

  35. Piaget, 1951, p. 168↩︎

  36. Piaget, 1951, 146↩︎

  37. There Is No Alternative↩︎