10.0366 computers and play

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 28 Oct 1996 22:04:29 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 366.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (44)
Subject: computers and children's play

>From the Independent on Sunday for 27 October 1996, "Britain", p. 5,
two stories by Clare Garner that tell a story about how we perceive
the consequences of technology.

In "You can't play tag on a computer. Or hopskotch. Or skipping. So
kids are getting lessons in forgotten playground games", the author
describes a project at the Saracen Primary School, Hamilton Hill,
Glasgow. The head teacher, Evelyn Gibson, explains that "With videos,
computers, CDs, and other advances, children just have to plonk
themselves down and be entertained.... At the moment children become
bored in the playground, which leads to mischief or rough acts, and
can end in tears." So she cut the lunch-break to 20 minutes, but is
now attempting to resurrect traditional games, in essence to attempt
to teach children how to play, to draw them away from imitating the
characters they encounter on their computers at home.

As the article notes, many child-psychologists object to the notion
that play can be taught. Among them is Iona Opie, whom many Humanists
will know from the many books about and collections of children's
literature she wrote with her husband Peter. "Nobody knows
more about children's games than Iona Opie. And nobody is more
appalled by the Saracen project," writes Garner in "'I never played
kiss-chase and I had quite a normal sex life'". "'Children have got
the instinct for making fun,' she says. 'They always do it [play],
I'm absolutely certain, unless someone has gone round injecting them
with some deadly dope.'" So the problem lies, Mrs. Opie says, in our
failure to recognise that all around us children are at play. She
does not slam computers, as the Saracen teachers do, but sees them as
"the Nineties equivalent of marbles and fivestones". 'Do not
interfere!' is her message, even in the face of boredom. "You've got
to experience boredom and getting out of boredom on your own
initiative. You've got to get into mischief and out of mischief.
This goes on all your life." Indeed....

If only "mischief" were as serious as it gets. If only computers were
entirely to blame. Two reflections: how difficult it is to face
problems squarely; what software truly adequate to a child's
inventive genius for play might look like. The first is, I'd guess,
an unsolvable problem coterminous with life, but the second is a
fascinating problem for research. Does anyone know what is happening
in that area, and how designers of scholarly software might benefit
from its findings?


Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer
King's College London / Strand / London WC2R 2LS
+44 0171 873-2784 / Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk