Skills of play and work

“Between play and work: Developing professional skills and attitudes through construction toys”, presented in: Artefacts Meeting, Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris, 8-10 October 2017.


In line with the Artefacts meeting call to explore the body culture of technology, this paper will discuss how construction toys have been developed and used as a testing ground for gestures, skills and professional attitudes necessary during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in increasingly industrialised European societies.

Play has been defined as a “free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly” (Huizinga, 1950). Roger Caillois (1958) advanced this definition by concluding that play is best described by six core characteristics: that it is free, separate from the routine of life, uncertain, unproductive, governed by specific rules and involving imagined realities. Within his framework, he made one further distinction: between Paidia or uncontrolled phantasy in spontaneous play activities, and Ludus, which requires effort, patience, skill or ingenuity.

Construction toys, such as building blocks made of various materials, may be problematized within the conceptual space defined by Caillois and can be described as hybrid artefacts, gravitating ambivalently between free play and systematic work. Typically, construction sets are accompanied by booklets including extensive and detailed instructions on what to build. Playing with construction toys is a systematic pursuit, involving patience, manual dexterity and attention to detail, as well as perseverance. By looking at descriptions and images of play activities with construction sets, we will explore how craftsmanship and engineering draw on skills learned by children during play, in their dialogue with materials, in the discipline of following or remaking rules. What are the values and tacit knowledge residing in the intermediary space between this type of play and work, and what are the consequences?