It’s unbelievable, it’s incredible, it’s sublime and wonderful. I’m a dad, a father, paterfamilias to a beautiful boy who came into the world simultaneously innocent and somehow terrifically wise.
In fact, synchronicities abound. With a symmetry that might make even rationalist me consider however momentarily the existence of some kind of Great Architect, my son Zak shares a birthday with my own long-since departed dad. And the sleepless nights, ear-piercing screams, and twin phenomena of projectile vomiting and projectile pooing are rendered insignificant every time I get that dazzling, heartfelt smile from young Zak.
Don’t worry. I’ll stop eulogising now. I just had, much like Zak and his aforementioned poo, to get it out of my system. But Zak’s relevance to this column’s raison d’etre remains undiminished. Because, and I wouldn’t have thought it possible in a baby born just over two months ago, Zak plays.
Now, I don’t want to turn my son into a subject of either academic or journalistic scrutiny. But since Zak’s day is taken up with a seemingly fairly narrow number of activities including, in no particular order, eating, crapping, crying and sleeping then in fact playing would constitute a fairly major proportion of his very young life. That Evolution or the Great Architect, if you’re that way inclined should dedicate so much effort to this activity is, I think, very telling.
If the very fact that such a young child plays surprises the childless amongst you, fear not, it came as quite a surprise to me as well. My partner, who’s altogether cannier about these things than lil ol’ me, twigged long before the baby was born that playing was one of the first things we and the infant would be able to do together.
She consequently purchased the book with the deeply intriguing title Games to Play with Babies, written by Jackie Silberg (Brilliant Publications 2001). The book contains a range of ‘games’ for babies from zero up to 12-months old and we’ve certainly returned to it off and on throughout the preceding two months.
Not that I wasn’t initially hugely sceptical. I will freely admit that when the Amazon package hit our doormat, I greeted the arrival of said book, complete with front cover depicting an infant apparently chewing its own foot off, with a howl of derision. However, my partner patiently explained, in a manner reminiscent of Marge addressing Homer, that indeed babies could play, and from a very early age, indeed.
As a consequence of this much needed contextualisation, my initial scepticism soon transformed into breathless anticipation. In between changes of diapers I envisaged myself and Zak happily dispensing with gibbering aliens in Halo 2 and forcing each other into spectacular collisions on the racetracks of Burnout 3. After all, as someone once said, the family that plays together stays together.
Suffice it to say that Zak’s interest in GameCubes, Xboxes and PlayStation 2s is somewhat limited at the moment. For the time being, Zak’s play is a much purer experience, free of high score tables, power-ups and the mesmerising spectacle afforded by digital gaming.
I’m sure at some point in the near future we will indeed be playing digital games together. And I guess, like any other new parent operating in a technological world I’ll need to work out just when is appropriate for my child to enter the magical environments offered up by polygons, processors, and the errant imaginations of designers, programmers and producers. But I still think the game/play Zak indulges in now, though it’s deceptively simple, tells us a lot about the nature of play and games.
Reductively expressed, currently his play seems to take two distinct forms. The first was inspired by one of the ‘games’ outlined in Silberg’s book. Though it probably isn’t the politest way of greeting your heir apparent, right from the beginning I began sticking out my tongue at the baby to see if he would respond in kind, as per the book’s explanation.
Initially it didn’t seem that he was necessarily responding to me, since babies have a tendency to play with their tongues a lot anyway. But gradually it became very apparent that he was indeed reacting to what I was doing, and so a properly interactive form of two-way communication outside of he-screams-I-change-nappy seemed to have arisen. Indeed, his repertoire has increased in the last few weeks, since, as alluded to earlier, he’s now begun smiling, also in response, particularly but not exclusively, to cues from his mother and myself.
Is this play, though? Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but surely mimicking someone else is too far removed from what we’d ordinarily understand to be play for it to be of any use.
Of course, it all depends on how you define ‘play’ and ‘games’. One of the definitions Roger Caillois, author of the seminal Man, Play and Games (University of Illinois Press, 2001), uses is indeed that of ‘mimicry’, and by that gauge Zak clearly is playing. Whether he’s playing a game or not is perhaps more contentious. If a definition of a game is that it must somehow feature an objective, then it’s tricky to see what the objective might be: perhaps to elicit a further response from me or his mother?
For me the breakthrough was less the mimicry that Zak exhibits than what he does with the knowledge he acquires via the mimicry. Somehow it’s altogether more impressive when he moves beyond being reactive and when he himself smiles or sticks out his tongue unprompted. It seems to me that this is what raises what he’s doing from just simply copying to the act of play itself: in instigating an action he is exploring and experimenting with the responses of his parents, or in fact other players.
His other form of play is probably more obvious as play because it involves toys. Zak lies either on a mat with toys strung overhead a device fondly referred to as his ‘baby gym’ or sits in his chair with a variety of toys strung across in front of him. At this stage the objective for him seems to be to touch specific toys: the octopus one moment, the blue whale the next. If we’re feeling adventurous we could employ Caillois’ term ‘vertigo’ in this context, since the physical effort must, I guess, cause a rush of vertiginous excitement (and physiologically speaking, the generation of the pleasure chemical serotonin). Of course Caillois was referring to physical games played by adults, like soccer or tennis, and it seems to me this points up the limitations of such categories: what play or game isn’t somehow physical? After all, I can get just as dizzy after a good session of Rez as I can playing badminton.
In short, the importance of play and games to human development in both an individual and evolutionary sense seem more obvious to me than ever before. It’s a shame that the structures and institutions we’ve created in Western civilisation seem often to marshal against such creativity.
Indeed, the anti-play lobby are everywhere, and nowhere are they more evident than in education. In Britain, as I’m sure is true of Western civilisation generally, the rightist tendency to simultaneously identify and prescribe a cure for supposed declining levels of literacy is to return to what is euphemistically described as ‘basics’. In terms of writing, ‘basics’, it would seem, are things like grammar. Presumably if we know how to conjugate our verbs the British will once more turn into a nation of proud wordsmiths.
In Britain this eccentric position would be fine if it hadn’t started influencing so profoundly the policies of what is supposed to be a progressive government. Whey faced liberals like me don’t mind views like this if they’re expressed in Evelyn Waugh novels, but we don’t expect to encounter it in real life.
Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials saga (Laurel-Leaf Books, 2003), recently took issue with this idea in The Guardian (“Common Sense Has Much to Learn from Moonshine”, 22 January 2005). He observes that children become good writers by playing with language. Of course, the obvious response is “How will children learn the rules if all they’re doing is playing?” But think about any game you ever learned: like my son Zak, you learnt to do it through playing, through experimentation, and look how far you’ve come.