The Play of Man

Introduction: The System of Play

Karl Groos

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WHILE many have undertaken, by various methods, to classify human play satisfactorily, in no single case has the result been entirely fortunate. Grasberger remarked, a quarter of a century ago, that a permanent classification of play had not up to that time been achieved,[1] and in my opinion the present decade finds the situation essentially unchanged.

Under these circumstances, I can hardly hope that my own classification will satisfy all demands, but I reassure myself with the reflection that absolute systematization is and must remain, in the vast majority of cases, a mere logical ideal. Yet even an imperfect classification may justify itself in two ways: it may be very comprehensive and practical, or its aptly chosen grounds of distinction may serve to open at once to the reader the inmost core of the subject under discussion. My special effort has been directed to the second of these uses, adopting as I do the conception of impulse life as a starting point; how far I may have attained to the first as well is for others to judge.

I consider the governing force of instinct as having been fully established in the study of animal play. In the book[2] which deals with this subject I reached the conclusion that among higher animals certain instincts

(2) are present which, especially in youth, but also in maturity, produce activity that is without serious intent, and so give rise to the various phenomena which we include in the word " play." I shall treat of the biological significance of this fact in the second, the theoretical section of this book. Here I confine myself to remarking briefly that in child's play (which, according to one theory of our subject, is of the utmost importance) opportunity is given to the animal, through the exercise of inborn dispositions, to strengthen and increase his inheritance in the acquisition of adaptations to his complicated environment, an achievement which would be unattainable by mere mechanical instinct alone. The fact that youth is par excellence the period of play is in thorough harmony with this theory.

An analogous position is tenable in the treatment of human play, although the word instinct, while generally applicable, is not universally so-a difficulty which is much more conspicuous here than in the classification of animal play. We lack a comprehensive and yet specific term for those unacquired tendencies which are grounded in our psycho-physical organism as such. The word instinct does not cover the ground with its commonly accepted definition as inherited association between stimuli and particular bodily reactions. Even the imitative impulse, which is responsible for the important group of imitative plays, is not easily included in this idea, because no specific reaction characterizes it.[3] It is safer, therefore, to speak of such play as the product of " natural or hereditary impulse," although even that is not entirely satisfactory, since many psychologists connect the idea of impulse with a tendency to physical movement. There are undoubtedly deep-rooted requirements of our nature which this definition does not include, and which must be given due weight in our study of play. Thus as Jodl, in agreement with Beatinis and others, maintains, every sensory tract has not only the ability to receive and act upon certain stimuli, but betrays itself originally through

(3) desire for their realization.[4] And if we keep in mind the tension toward special sensation, always present even in a state of comparative rest and distraction of the sense organ, as well as those external movements which are no longer the particular object of desire, we find ourselves still further from the narrow idea of instinct in relation to psycho-physical processes. In this dilemma we can only hold fast to the fact of the primal need for activity, which, while it can not, any more than the other, be included in the narrower use of the terms, has nevertheless an unmistakable relation to the life of impulse and instinct. And while it is true that mere intellectual fiat is not adequate to the establishment of such causal connections, one might be tempted, under the stress of dire need, to coin some such term as " central instinct," did not any added burden threaten to plunge the already over-weighted term into a very chaos of obscurity. The case is much the same, too, with other mental attributes. Who is to decide whether it is lawful to assume a universal "impulse to activity" (Ribot approaches such an assumption)[5] which may, according to circumstances, become now effort after emotional excitement, now desire for logical expression and the like? Or who shall pass on the legitimacy of a revival of the hereditary central impulse theory which directs attention not to external physical movement, but exclusively to such internal dispositions as are dependent on the psycho-physical organization? Should this latter view prevail, biological psychology will have before it the task of linking an ancient idea -- it was developed in Ulrici's Leib and Seele in 1866 --to the body of modern science.

As it is likely to be some time yet before scientific terminology shall have attained such clearness and perfection in a sphere by no means easily accessible, that we may count on banishing all obscurity, I must content myself

(4) with the term "natural or inherited impulse"[6] as the basis of my classification. In far the greater number of cases it is equivalent to simple instinct. But in the imitative impulse we have something which is analogous only to instinct, and in reference to the higher mental dispositions to activity, the term " impulse " must be expanded beyond its usual significance. I am well aware that my classification lacks precision, but I venture to think that it affords deeper insight into the problem than may be had by other means and that some aspects of the subject, not evident from other standpoints, may be brought out by this method of treatment.

The first important distinction made is that between the impulses by which the individual wins supremacy over his own psycho-physical organism without regard to other individuals prominent in his environment, and such other impulses as are directly concerned with his relations to others. To the first group belong all the manifold impulses which issue in human activity, those controlling his sensory and motor apparatus [7] as well as the higher mental dispositions which impel him to corresponding acts. To the second group we assign the fighting and sexual impulses, imitation, and the social dispositions closely connected with these. Each of these manifests its own peculiar play activity. Unfortunately, an adequate terminology here, too, is wanting, and as the opposites " egotism and altruism," "` individualism and socialism," are not admissible in our classification, it is difficult to designate the two groups with propriety. While awaiting better names for them, I am forced to the very unsatisfactory expedient of calling them impulses of the first order and impulses of the second order.[8] To denote the playful exercise of the first order of impulses, I shall use the expression " playful experimentation," which is already adopted in child-psychology, and also, by myself at least, in animal psychology.


As all further subdivisions will be effected without difficulty in the course of our investigation, I add here only a brief note on the general characteristics of the playful exercise of these impulses. The biological criterion of play is that it shall deal not with the serious exercise of the special instinct, but with practice preparatory to it. Such practice always responds to definite needs, and is accompanied by pleasurable feelings. The psychological criterion corresponds with it; thus, when an act is performed solely because of the pleasure it affords, there is play. Yet, the consciousness of engaging 'in sham occupation is not a universal criterion of play.


  1. L. Grasberger, Erziehung and Unterricht im klassischen Alterthum, Wfirzburg, 1864, vol. i, p. 23. See also Colozza's compilation Il Guoco nella Psicologia e nella Pedagogia, Turin, 1895, p. 36.
  2. Die Spiels der Thiere, Jena, 1896.English translation by E. L. Baldwin. D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1898.
  3. This is a modification of my former view. For particulars, see the section on Imitative Play.
  4. Jodl, Lehrbuch der Psychologie, Stuttgart, 1896, p. 425.
  5. He speaks (Psychologie des Sentiments, Paris, 1896, p. 195) of an instinctive impulse "à depenser un superflu d'activité." If, as I believe, this does not mean actual superfluity (Spencer's "surplus" energy), then it must refer to our natural impulse to seek action and experience. See also Paolo Lombroso, Piacere di esplicare la propria activita (Saggi di Psicologia del Bambino, Turin, 1894, p. 117.)
  6. Acquired impulses are all developed from natural ones.
  7. In Ribot's classification these impulses become instincts belonging to the second group (Psychologie des Sentiments, p. 194).
  8. The terms " private "and " public " (or 'º social ") are used by Baldwin, Social and Ethical Interpretations, section 30, to cover a similar distinetion. The terms "autonomic " and "socionomic " impulses would possibly answer.-ED.

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