Category Archives: play

Correlations, Structured Sport, and Play

A recent study about early participation in organized sport is getting some attention (at least on my twitter feed). The study claims to find a link between participation in organized sport in kindergarten and future class room behavior. They first measured the levels of participation in structured physical activities and self-regulation of children in kindergarten (indicated by teacher/parent reported classroom behavior). They then measured these again when these children where fourth graders. What they found was a correlation between those students who participated in sport as kindergarteners and those with better reported classroom behavior in the fourth grade.

These results are quite interesting; and I’m sympathetic to them. It seems like conventional wisdom that a child who at age four participates in organized sport will develop and learn effective ways of controlling his behavior—self-regulating—in ways that will be reflected in positive and healthy behaviors as the child grows into adolescence and beyond. It is one of the common reasons one hears for the value of sport; the character development argument. I think there is a lot of truth in this—as a fan of sport I certainly want it to be true.

I have, however, two worries about accepting the study’s conclusions.

1) Overstates the results

Anyone with a passing familiarity with social science knows to always keep in mind that correlation is not causality. The fact that the Boston Celtics might seem to always lose when the Van Allen radiation belt is in flux is a correlation; there is no causal relation, so I wouldn’t bet on it. {For this admittedly obscure reference check out this Cheers episode: (scan to 3:30)}.

The authors acknowledge this: “the correlational design of this study prevents us from inferring causality.”

The concern with correlation is that something else other than the indicated variables explains the outcomes. That is, is there something else besides the participation in sport that explains the later good behavior? Now social scientists have many tools at their disposal to deal with this kind of problem and to isolate the relationship between the studied variables.  The authors did “control for child sex, body mass index, locomotion, object control, cognitive ability, family configuration, maternal education, and family functioning.” In other words, these other variables do not appear to impact the association found, providing a high confidence that the association is something real. And, unlike the Celtics and the Van Allen belt, there are good reasons to think that physical activity and behavior are connected.

Nevertheless, I do think the study is missing (or at least didn’t pay enough attention to in the published article) the possibility of some kind of self-selection bias.

It might be that the kids that are involved in team sports in kindergarten are already good self-regulators or already have predispositions to be good self-regulators. The kids that aren’t as good self-regulators or lack a strong disposition for such behaviors probably didn’t participate in sport in the first place (or end up not participating for long). In other words, they select themselves out of the sample.

If this is the case (to be clear, I am not asserting that is), then the later good self-regulation might just be following from that predisposition, not from structured sport participation per se. If we are starting with a sample that is already predisposed to be good self-regulators, then it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that they become good self-regulators. And it hasn’t been shown that structured sport participation is doing anything to create that situation.

Though the authors control for many potential confounding variables, it was not clear how they controlled for this potential self-selection. To be fair, they do say they “included baseline measures of physical activity and self-regulation.” My complaint is that they don’t explain those baselines or discuss how they measured them, making it impossible to evaluate these controls.

One factor, however, that might point the way is that the study didn’t find the same level of association between later good behavior and participation in non-physical structured activities (e.g. music lessons or chess). There isn’t an obvious reason to think that children predisposed to be good self-regulators would be more attracted to physical activities, so this suggests there is something about the structured physical activity that is, at the very least, amplifying the self-regulator dispositions.

2) Policy Implications

The authors argue that their findings support policies that encourage and increase participation in structured sport (physical activities) in kindergarten. While I think it is, all things considered, better to have more participation in sport than less, I worry about policies (especially governmental ones) that would push more children in to sport.

This is where my concern about the potential self-selection bias has a practical side. If self-selection explains a significant amount of the link here, then pushing more children into structured sport won’t result in increases in positive behavior later on. Many children would be ‘encouraged’ to participate even though they would rather do something else (like chess, art, etc.). Further, there are possible negative effects of doing this. If the new participators are not good self-regulators and the sport itself, ex hypothesis, doesn’t lead them to be, then they might end up getting into trouble, getting labeled as problem kids, or seeing themselves as failures. Whereas, it might have been the case that they would have flourished if they had engaged in the activity of their preference.

Moreover, even if the worry about self-selection here is overblown, I am still not sure it is a good idea to encourage more participation merely to produce better behaviors later on. The children ought to be encouraged to pursue activities that they find intrinsic joy in doing. I would think any positive effects would diminish if the children do not enjoy the structured physical activity.

I am also concerned that these policy recommendations run the risk of reducing—even more than our culture already has—the opportunities for unstructured play. Such activities may or may not be correlated with better self-regulation, but they are important for other developmental needs (Cognitive Benefits of Play). For example, the capacities for imagination and creativity and the character trait of independence are developed or amplified in free, unstructured play. Certainly, they need structured, organized activities (both physical and non-physical) as well. But the trend of childhood in the US seems to be towards more and more structure at the expense free play.


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The Sports Ethics Show: Sport Studies Symposium 2015

The 4th annual Sport Studies Symposium was held April 24, 2015. In this episode, the symposium participants discuss the ideas raised by the papers given at the symposium. In the first part of the episode, Mike Perry and Shawn E. Klein talk with Matt Adamson, Stephen Mosher, and Synthia Syndor about the nature of sport studies,its past, and its future. In the second part, Shawn and Mike talk with Aaron Harper, Stephanie Quinn, and Zach Smith about legal realism and sport, sport in the ancient world, and theology of sport.

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The Sports Ethics Show: The Value of Play

This episode of The Sports Ethicist Show is the audio version of my talk “The Value of Play”. Recorded at The Atlas Summit on June 22, 2014, the full video (including a Q&A period) is available at and

The following is the description from The Atlas Society website:

Work and career are central values in Objectivism. Play doesn’t get a lot of focus in Ayn Rand’s fiction or in Objectivist philosophy. Play, though, offers many positive benefits and is a ubiquitous feature of human civilizations.

In this video, author  Shawn Klein presents an Objectivist conception of the value of play by way of answering the following questions. What role is there for play in an Objectivist life? Can play be a part of one’s central purpose? What is the relationship between the virtues (such as productivity and rationality) and play?

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Video: The Value of Play

This past summer, I presented my talk, “The Value of Play,” at The Atlas Summit. In the presentation, I discuss how play, properly understood, can and should be a part of a purposive and well-lived life.

Here’s the recording of the talk. (or go to youtube)

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The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits (review and announcement)

Broadview Press has released a 3rd Edition of the Bernard Suits classic: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. The new edition contains the illustrations from the original publication. Also, there is a new appendix on the meaning of play.

With this exciting news, I thought I’d repost a brief review I wrote of The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.

“The Grasshopper” is unique philosophy monograph. It is part narrative, part dialogue, part treatise. It is also humorous and easy to read. It, quite self-consciously, plays off elements from Socratic dialogues, the New Testament, and Aesop’s fables. Though I don’t agree with many of its philosophic conclusions, the work, overall, is successful at pulling all these elements off. That is, I enjoyed reading it and found it enlightening.

The main focus of the book is an extended discussion of the definition of the concept of “Game.” While in some ways, it is a meant as an answer to Wittgenstein’s famous claim that one can’t define “game,” it is more philosophically rich than that. Suits’ discussion is really more an analysis of the meaning of life. The Grasshopper’s main philosophical claim seems to be that in Utopia, all meaning in life would come from some kind of game-playing. By Utopia, he means a state of life where all activity is purely and totally voluntary and no instrumental activity is necessary. Suits argues that the only activities in such a utopia would games (or other forms of play).

I think Suits is wrong here, for several reasons. Without going into detail (I hope to write a long blog fleshing this out), his use of Utopia is irrelevant. The life he imagines here is impossible, and even if it were, such beings living that life would be nothing at all like human beings. So, whatever we might learn about such a utopian life is meaningless for the life human beings live. His accounting of play as “all of those activities which are intrinsically valuable to those who engage in them” is far too broad (This sweeps in things like one’s career) (146). His distinction between instrumentally and intrinsically valuable activities is too constrained and too sharp (it leaves no room for mixed activities or constitutively valuable activities). So while I agree that game-playing and more generally play itself are important, even central, aspects of human life, I disagree that is the only intrinsically valuable (whatever that means) human activity.

My main quibble (and it might be more than a quibble) with Suits’ definition of games is the idea that “the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favor of less efficient means” (54). It is a quibble if by less efficient he really means obstacle-making. I do think all games involve rules that place certain kinds of obstacles for the players to overcome, surmount, or play around. These obstacles often mean that only less efficient means for achieving the goals/ends of the games are available. So my concern is that the focus on efficiencies is non-essential. The essence is obstacle-making, not efficiency reduction–even if these end up being co-extensive. I am not sure they are co-extensive; hence, my concern that this is more than a mere quibble.

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The Sports Ethicist Show: Sports Studies Symposium 2014

A new episode of The Sports Ethicist Show is available!

The 3rd annual Sports Studies Symposium was held April 25, 2014. In this episode, the symposium participants discuss the ideas raised by the papers given at the symposium. In the first part of the episode, Mike Perry and Shawn E. Klein talk with Sean Beckmann and Kevin Schieman about the 10,000 hour rule and what distinguishes sport from other kinds of physical games. In the second part, Shawn E. Klein, Zachary Draves, Huston Ladner, and Carl Robinson discuss the relationship between sport and society, cyborgs, and the value of spectatorship.

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Filed under Conferences, Fitness, games, NASCAR, Philosophy, play, podcast, RadioShow, Sports Ethics, Sports Studies, wrestling

The Sports Ethicist Show: Work and Play

The error has been corrected! The podcast can be downloaded/listened to here:

The Sports Ethicist Show airs tonight at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

How should we understand the relationship between Work and Play? Are they mutually exclusive activities? What about professional athletes who appear to be play for work? Shawn E. Klein and Bobby Fernandez, of and California State University-Fullerton, discuss these questions and more as they build off their recent papers given at the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport conference in September.

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Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central): (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.

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Brief Review: Contemporary Athletics and Ancient Greek Ideals

Daniel Dombrowski’s book, Contemporary Athletics and Ancient Greek Ideals, is very interesting and covers a lot of good material in the philosophy of sport. He is clearly well-versed in Ancient Greek philosophy and the philosophy of sport. So there is a lot to be gained by reading this book.

Truth be told, however, I was a bit disappointed. I think, based on the title and the book descriptions, I expected to find much more in the way of Ancient Greek philosophy. There is a lot, so this might be an unfair criticism, but the focus is really on contemporary philosophers of sport and their theories. The Ancient Greeks are called forth to cast insight, background, and further elaboration, but they are not the focus. Nevertheless, I did learn a lot about the relevancy of the Ancient Greek ideas, particularly of Plato, to some of the issues that arise in the philosophy of sport.

Dombrowski’s discussion of Weiss, Huizinga, and Feezell is helpful and thorough. These are not mere recapitulations. He provides clear insight in to the theories of these thinkers and their impact on the philosophy of sport. He criticizes where he disagrees, though I would have preferred even more critical analysis (that said, this would have lengthened the book beyond the easily digestible size it is). The last chapter on process philosophy was less interesting to me and seemed somewhat misplaced in the context of the other chapters.

Overall, I definitely recommend this. It is not long, is clearly written, and it provides a good discussion of some of the major issues in the philosophy of sport.

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Brief Article Review: “‘And That is The Best Part of Us:’ Human Being and Play” by Drew Hyland

Drew A. Hyland, “’And That is The Best Part of Us:’ Human Being and Play”
Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 4:1, 36-49, (1977).

Drew Hyland sets out to present a rather unique conception of ‘play’. His notion is that play is a kind of “stance” or attitude of “responsive openness” (38). So play is not, on this view, a particular kind of activity. Almost any activity can be play or non-play; what marks the activity as play is the presence of this stance on the part of the participant(s). So a basketball game can be play or not, depending on one’s attitude. Going fishing, doing the dishes, or doing philosophy can all be play or not (on the latter point Hyland has an interesting discussion of Socratic philosophy as a kind of play).

What is this responsive openness? The openness is the heightened awareness of the environment/situation one is in. In playing chess, one is open by being acutely aware of the location of all the pieces on the board, their potential moves, and the time one has to move. The responsiveness is the willingness on the part of the participant to respond, appropriately, to what one is aware of in the environment/situation. One is responsive by responding to the opponent’s move of her bishop into a check of your king by moving the rook to block check. One fails to be open if they aren’t paying enough attention to be aware that his opponent is positioned to check your king and one fails to be responsive if he doesn’t appropriately move his pieces to prevent check.

Hyland argues that play and non-play exist across a continuum depending on the amount of responsive openness in the activity (39). All human activities have some measure of responsive openness: walking down a crowded street would be quite difficult if wasn’t aware of his situation and respond to the objects in it. But as this responsive openness is turned up, we move out of non-play and into play.

Obviously Hyland is not intending to draw any sharp distinctions between kinds of activities or between non-play and play. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how such a project will be successful. As Hyland notes, responsive openness on its own cannot mark out all and only play. There are other dimensions that need to be elucidated to identify more clearly what play is and what non-play is (even if it is along a continuum: even continuums can have demarcation points).

Much of the rest of the paper focuses on two issues. (1) He wants to incorporate the idea of a stance of play with a Platonic notion of striving for completion of self. (2) He contrasts the stance of play with what he calls the stances of mastery and submission. These are interesting, but I am not going to say much about them here.

One noteworthy aspect of his paper (especially for my research interest) is that Hyland doesn’t seem to see play as incompatible with productivity or compensation. He discusses, approvingly, a claim from Plato’s Laws that “the real opposite of play is neither work nor seriousness, but war” (44). Work it would seem, with the appropriate attitude or stance, is not incompatible with play. He doesn’t develop that here, but it is a difference between Hyland and other play-theorists such as Suits and Huizinga.

I do think there is something to this stance conception. One can bring an attitude of play to nearly any activity (e.g. cleaning your desk becomes a race against an arbitrary and artificial deadline). Nevertheless, as presented in this paper, it is far too sweeping to be satisfying for me.

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Brief Article Review: “Words on Play” by Bernard Suits

Bernard Suits, “Words on Play”
Journal of Philosophy of Sport, 4:1, 117-131 (1977)

In this classic article, Suits sets out to provide a “tentative definition of play” (117). After taking some humorous snipes at Wittgensteinians and Huizinga, Suits sets out to differentiate ‘play’ from other autotelic activities. Autotelic activities refer to those activities which are ends in themselves; that is, they are engaged in for no external reason or justification. The activity is its own justification/meaning/purpose. (It’s Greek, literally meaning self-end)

Suits assumes that play itself is a kind of autotelic activity and sets out to find the appropriate differentia that won’t include other activities that are thought to be autotelic: contemplation of the God and a cat chasing his tail (his examples).

His first task is to argue that ‘play’ and ‘autotelic’ are logically independent. This seems pretty straightforward. He then goes on to assert that “all instances of play are instances of autotelic activity” (119). I don’t think this is as straightforward or obvious. It may be true (though I am not so sure), but I think it needs an argument. This is more than a quibble because getting the genus correct here is essential. If there is play that is not (exclusively?) autotelic, then his differentia isn’t going to work properly to differentiate between the kinds of activities with which he (and other play scholars) are concerned. It will also generate problems when trying to apply the concept.

He also seems to be begging the question by separating out from his discussion some uses of “play”: such as uses of ‘play’ that appear to mean more like ‘perform’ or ‘participate’. Ultimately, I think he is probably correct in doing this, but I don’t think he can just do it without more of an argument.

Suits takes his main cue from Schopenhauer who said “the play of animals consists in the discharge of superfluous energy” (119). Suits modifies this, first, by analyzing superfluous and then energy. Superfluous isn’t quite right, argues Suits. Play, in humans, sometimes isn’t based on superfluous energy, but on using energy that ought to have been used for some other purpose. So, Suits sees this insight of Schopenhauer to be more about the use of energy that was committed (or ought to have been) to some other activity (something not autotelic).

The notion of ‘energy’ isn’t quite right either for Suits. Claiming that it is too narrow, he proposes ‘resource’. This subsumes energy, but also includes other resources besides energy that are relevant to human life (in particular, time).

He arrives then at his definition: “X is playing if and only if x has made a temporary reallocation to autotelic activities of resources primarily committed to instrumental purpose” (124).

This definition (and his whole project) rests on the dichotomy between autotelic and instrumental. It is built into his choice of the genus. The differentia of superfluous/redirected resources seems to rest on there being a sharp and clear difference between engaging in something autotelic and something instrumental.

There are a few main problems here. (This is not exhaustive, but my main issues)

(1) Is there a clear difference? Do all activities admit of being wholly autotelic or clearly instrumental? Most of activities seem mixed (is blogging on a subject matter one finds interesting autotelic? Or is the fact that one is trying communicate with others make it instrumental?)

(2) Are there really any autotelic activities beyond life itself? Suits examples (the Roman solider contemplating God or the tennis players) don’t help at all. In fact, they point me in the direction of thinking how meaningless the idea of autotelicity (outside of life) is.

(3) The analysis misses completely the idea of constitutive activities: one’s that are not merely instrumental and are treated as or are a part of one’s ultimate end(s). They are not wholly or purely autotelic because they are engaged in for purposes beyond the activity itself, but yet they are also pursued as ends in themselves. Consider helping a friend out of a jam of some kind. One does this as an end in itself: the helping of a friend doesn’t require any further justification than the friendship. At the same time, one does this activity for reasons beyond the activity itself: maybe to increase the closeness of the friendship, to be a better friend, to do the kind of things that one wants done to them, or because such help is seen as a part of one’s virtue or duty (or a way to increase one’s virtue or fulfill duty). Moreover, friendship itself does need a justification beyond itself. Without addressing this third (and I’d argue largest) category of activities, Suits arguments rests on a false dichotomy.


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