Although play begins earlier and continues throughout life, Latency-aged play is unique because during this phase of development cultural games, which continue to influence development throughout adolescence and adulthood, are learned and played.
“When they’re at recess, I can’t stop them from playing,” said one elementary school principal. Indeed, play is a major preoccupation that consumes huge chunks of the child’s physical and mental energy and time. Why? Not because Mom or Dad says, “Go out and play. I’ll call you when dinner is ready.” The romanticized sense of play as random, carefree activity is far removed from its purposeful, psychically-determined nature. Children play endlessly because they need to, constantly working over and assimilating experiences too overwhelming for their immature psyches to digest and integrate quickly. Adults have more mental resources available to cope with the pressures of everyday life. Hence, they play less. This basic urge to repeat is an attempt at mastery, fueled by a need to wash away the pain and discomfort of being in a world that is often incomprehensible and overwhelming.
Four-year-old Susan was jabbed twice by a “mean” nurse at her pediatrician’s office. Upon returning home, she rushed to her dollhouse and assaulted her favorite doll with an imaginary needle. “Don’t cry, you bad girl. This won’t hurt you.” Eight-year-old Matthew’s play was generated by a fantasy, not a real event. In the dual roles of announcer and basketball star, racing about the Madison Square Garden court that was his driveway, he repeatedly exclaimed to the imaginary audience, “And Kobe scores again! The World Championship is his!” Never mind that most heaves didn’t reach the basket, or that he was barely able to dribble. In the world of play, his painfully small stature and lack of skills (when compared to adults) vanished when he crawled inside Kobe Bryant’s skin and soared to a slam dunk.
Like almost everything else, as we develop, play changes from phase to phase. Infants and toddlers play at mastering separation fears and practicing physical skills. Mother’s uncontrollable absence or presence is evident in the peek-a-boo game. When Mother covers her face, her infant experiences anxiety. Laughter and relief are evident when she suddenly uncovers her face. Toddlers develop their emerging motor skills by running and jumping, riding tricycles, building towers and destroying and building them again, and scribbling endlessly. Most toddler play is boring for adults because of its repetitious nature, but is a source of endless pleasure for the child.
Play during the preschool years is highly idiosyncratic, based on individual fantasies, but the themes involved are very consistent. They are based on a growing awareness of the relationship between Mom and Dad and the differences in size and power between adults and children. Feeling small and powerless is compensated for in preschoolers play. For example,
First child: “Let’s play house. I’ll be the mommy. You’ll be the daddy. You be the child.”
Second child: “I don’t want to be the child. I want to be the mommy.”
First child: “You can’t. This is my game.”
Third Child: “I don’t want to be the baby, either.”
First Child (acting as mother): “June (the first child’s real name), finish your dinner. If you don’t finish your dinner you don’t get any dessert.”
Second Child (acting as father): “Do as your mother says. If you don’t finish your dinner, you can’t watch TV tonight.”
Third Child (reluctantly playing the child): “I don’t like you. You are mean to me. When I grow up, I’m going to make you finish everything on your plate, even spinach.”
The basic anxiety is “I’m small and don’t have any power.” The play expresses the desire to be big, in control, and do what adults do. The basic desire to be big and powerful lends a charming quality of triumph and naïve invincibility to the play. For example,
First Child: “I’m Superman. You can’t hurt me.”
Second child: “Oh, yes I can. I’m Batman. He’s stronger than superman.’”
Why the Nature and Form of Play Changes in Latency
With the onset of Latency, play changes dramatically because of a combination of maturational, social and psychological factors. Physical growth is slow and steady, and coordination abilities increase by leaps and bounds. The newly acquired abilities to read, count and write, and to relate independently to peers, allows play to occur in forms that were not possible in earlier years. Last, but not least, the emergence of an organized conscience during Latency is reflected in ever-present rules and punishments that become an integral part of organized games for the rest of life.
No longer is play based on individual fantasies, as it was during the preschool years. In Latency, games are learned from peers, who in turn learned them from those who came before them; in other words, they are reflections of the culture. Each culture across the world uses play to forge cultural identity, norms and values. Millions around the world who watched the World Cup in South Africa were participating in the emergence of a world culture that was based, in part, on skills, capacities and forms that first emerged during Latency.
The dynamics of Latency-aged play are focused on the fear of dealing with one’s own with the conscience―that powerful, new inner voice that is equipped with the ability to punish through the painful emotion of guilt. There is safety in numbers. The solution is to be part of a group that shares the anxiety and follows rules to the letter. Examples of Latency-aged play are kickball and Monopoly. Kickball, a popular game on the playground, which is similar to soccer and baseball, requires physical coordination and the ability to relate to teammates. Interlocking roles, such as pitcher, batter, and fielder are required, as are opponents. All aspects of the game are governed by rules and punishment—three strikes and you’re out, three outs and your side loses its turn.
Willingness to tolerate frustration and control impulses is implicit. Monopoly requires the ability to read and knowledge of mathematics as well as sophisticated concepts such as saving, selling and buying, and trading. Once again, rules are everywhere. Take your turn; pass GO and collect $200; go directly to jail; do not pass GO; do not collect $200.
Think about major league baseball, NFL or college football, soccer or any other organized sport. All are based on the same factors and determinants that characterize Latency-aged play. Adults continue to play games that were first learned in Latency. Although the form of organized games does not change significantly after Latency—adolescents and adults continue to play baseball, checkers, and Monopoly—the reasons why adults play change dramatically, reflecting the major developmental preoccupations and challenges of adolescent and adult life.
For a detailed discussion of the nature of play in adulthood, see my ebook entitled, Playtime for Grown Ups
Computer games have become a major focus of play for children and adults. They are not different from older, more conventional forms of play in that they are competitive, rule-ridden, and full of punishments. In some games, the computer itself is the enemy, while others are meant to be played by two or more players competing against each other. The internet and the computer have revolutionized the platform on which games are played, but cannot change the basic structure of play or the dynamic psychological needs that are expressed and gratified through play.