Studying play yields crucial insight into fields such as history, psychology, anthropology, biology, dance, ecology, education, ethology, folklore, leisure and recreation studies, musicology, philosophy, psychiatry, developmental psychology, neuroscience, sociology, mathematics, and the arts. There are others, too. In short, play is important. Yet you’ll find no Department of Play Studies at your local university. In fact, no such department exists anywhere. There should be such a thing, of course.
The closest thing to a Department of Play Studies is The Association for the Study of Play (TASP) an especially interesting multidisciplinary organization made up of play scholars from scores of colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. TASP publishes the peer-reviewed annual series Play & Culture Studies, and over the last four years many TASPians have contributed articles to The Strong’s quarterly American Journal of Play. For example, see Gordon Burghardt’s intriguing investigation into play in non-human species, even turtles! Or check out Thomas Henrick’s, “Play as a Pathway of Behavior.” In addition, several TASP scholars sit on the Journal’s editorial board, and in 2007 and 2011, TASP held its annual conferences at The Strong.
Recently, TASP scholars from many fields and several countries gathered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the organization’s 38th Annual conference. I carried away two strong impressions from the gathering, the first from the air. From 37,000 feet at sunset, New Mexico looked remarkably like the red planet, Mars. In the evening’s rosy light, the local Sandia mountains take on a pink cast—in fact Sandia means “watermelon” in Spanish. I expected to see one of the robotic rovers scuttling by as we landed.
But once on the ground the conference treated me and other participants to high level discourse. True to this year’s conference theme, “Play in an Era of Negotiation and Compromise,” Robyn Holmes, a psychologist interested in cross cultural research, showed how the spirit of cooperative play infuses education with good result on the island of Lanai. Sociologist Bill Corsaro discussed the delightful “approach-avoidance” maneuver that kids of many cultures use in their outdoor chasing games. Anthropologist Abby Loebenberg investigated “playground politics” and found that children’s pretend play doesn’t just ape adults’ roles. Biologist Rick Worch showed how the extraordinarily playful colobus monkeys of Uganda’s Kibale National Park initiate play and separate play fighting from threat. Fraser Brown, from Leeds University in Yorkshire (UK), detailed the shocking plight of neglected and play-deprived children in Romanian orphanages. And education professor Olga Jarret showed how American school districts deny recess to children in high poverty areas.
Their work, and that of the other scholars at the conferences, proves the importance of play and that studying it helps us to understand ourselves, and you couldn’t reasonably hope for a more satisfying blend of scholarship and advocacy for play than a TASP meeting. I’m looking forward to next year’s conference, which will be held in Delaware, and then to the one after that. Early in 2014 TASP will convene again at The Strong’s National Museum of Play, comprising once more, if only for a few days, a Department of Play Studies.