What the Scientific Method and Play Therapy Have in Common
Play is the best way we—not just children—learn.
Posted April 3, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In the course of play therapy, there are outcomes which are not only not goals but which are almost never achieved: complete insight, resolved problems. It is unlikely that any physiologic or temperamental tendencies are significantly changed. It is unlikely that the therapy has prevented the need for help again in the future. Yet the client has freely explored problems and their relationship with emotions. The client has developed a working insight of reaction patterns blocking constructive engagement with the surrounding world. The client has learned experientially new, more satisfying and beneficial methods of facing difficulties.
Overall the child client has, with no little help from an interactive process involving emotional responsiveness and cathartic expression, become increasingly independent, confident, and mature in navigating existential suffering and behavioral responsibility or interpersonal communication, bonding, and meaning-making. Not only play therapy but play, generally, is a powerful activity—often undervalued in today's world.
Many do not realize that "the scientific method," as we know it today, came from studies of children at play. In the early 1900s, scientists were engaging in collective self-analysis, reconsidering and consolidating scientific methods. A convenient subject, it was taken for granted that children were merely young humans developing toward adulthood and that by studying the ways they naturally behave, interact, and learn, we could learn something potentially valuable about adults.
In his book, How We Think, American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey described subjecting "a complete act of thought" to careful analysis by observing the process of childhood learning. Dewey's description became the dominant prescription for a scientific method of learning in the modern world.
Upon completing one study of children at play, Dewey (1910) drew broad, brief, and astute conclusions on the basis of his observations, which have stood the test of time as an indelible description of not only the way that children play but the way that children learn, and not just the way that children learn but the way that humans learn, and not just the way that humans learn but the way, perhaps, that we best learn:
Upon examination, each instance reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct elements and steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief. (p. 72)
Dewey had not so much intended to standardize the scientific method as to describe the way that people, especially children, go about solving the problems of everyday life, with, by the way, the implication that good scientists were essentially engaging in methods of learning on a more sophisticated adult scale that originated in the same basic learning methods they had mastered in their childhoods.
A few years later, in The School and Society (1915), Dewey revealed new insights about the role of spontaneity in teaching and learning. By observing what he called "the free play of the children’s communicative instinct," he concluded that teaching and science had a great deal to learn from the spontaneous and playful behavior of children. He believed that the spontaneity of free play and free expression, including the not-so-simple learning process of talking things out, is crucial to scientific progress because he had clearly observed, through many years of careful study, the formative role of such playful and communicative spontaneity in the multi-faceted learning processes of children.
Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston, New York, Chicago: D.C. Henry & Co.
Dewey, J. (1915). The school and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.