Play and the Pedagogic Third


David Mathew, PhD

Abstract (or, The Game’s Edited Highlights)

The psychoanalysis of children emphasizes the importance of symbolic play and fantasy, during which the child can use games to resolve or master conflicts that might otherwise be passively endured. This exploration argues that analogous results might emerge from play that engages adult learners. However, where play helps children define roles and the acceptance of rule-regulated behaviour, for adult learners the subject is more complex. We consider to what extent an adult learner is addressing desires, which cannot be satisfied, because they are too threatening for him/her to recognize, and desires, which cannot be satisfied in reality and which are represented symbolically in play as an alternative.

Introduction (or, The Rules of the Game)

It was the contention of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein that “children become acquainted with reality through the deprivations which it imposes on them,” and that they “defend themselves against reality by repudiating it” (Klein, 1926).  Nearly a century later, there does not seem much with which to disagree; furthermore, Klein’s formulations might be adapted to a higher education setting with little difficulty.

Let us change the word children for the word learners (who might also be children, of course, although we will think in terms of adults for this exploration). If we consider “reality” to be a state of knowing (of having learned), the two statements collide to create a certain “irrational logic,” with each statement seeming to contradict the other and then making something new out of the collision. If learners become acquainted with a state of knowing through the deprivations that it imposes on them, then we must surely examine what deprivations these might be and how they are manifest. If, on the other hand, we apply our syntactic substitution to the second phrase, learners defend themselves against a state of knowing by repudiating knowledge or awareness. In Klein’s original, the two statements do not so much oppose as problematize one another; but when we shift the emphasis to higher education, the picture is arguably more troublesome still. A learner must endure the deprivations inherent in the pedagogic transaction and must also protect him- or herself against the learning process by denying that it even exists.

Naturally, there are other areas of life where these characteristics would fit equally as well. One might be in the shuttle between frustration and jubilation that is part of the dream. Another is in the network of pleasures and inconveniences that constitutes the practice of play. To wit: a person must endure the deprivations that are part of playing and must inure him- or herself to the practice of playing by insisting (both consciously and unconsciously) that play itself does not exist. And what better way of making the artifice of play vanish than by making what is negotiated in the game appear “real” to all concerned?

Serious Games (or, Who Wants to Play Soldiers?)

In one theoretical construction, in order for play to be valid, it must become serious – as it is for schoolchildren, for example, playing soldiers in the playground or for adults engaged in (and learning from) quests in mythological settings, while sitting around a table with dice to roll and cards to read. Arguably, one way of making a game more serious is to make it aggressive or combative. Equally as arguably, we might appraise the possibility that an adult learner, by engaging with combative play, is addressing desires that cannot be otherwise satisfied, given that they are too threatening for him/her to recognize; alternatively, the unconscious burden for such an adult learner might be desires that cannot be satisfied in reality and which are represented symbolically in play as an alternative.

Needless to say, such views will not be without their detractors. In A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, for example, Charles Rycroft defines play as an activity “engaged in for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives without reference to serious aims and ends, typically contrasted with work or the performance of other socially or biologically necessary acts” (Rycroft, 1995, p. 134, emphasis in original). This delineation notwithstanding, Rycroft goes on to acknowledge some of the weightier applications of play that brings us close to our higher education learner. “Being an activity which in some senses doesn’t count (being “pretend” or “pretend real”), and in which the actions are “acting” and not actual, censorship, inhibition, and guilt are in partial abeyance; as a result, play affords evidence of wishes, anxieties, etc., which are otherwise repressed” (Rycroft, ibid.).

It soon becomes obvious that while drawing comparisons between learning and playing, we are also studying learning as playing, and, by extension, playing as learning. Where higher education might applaud erotetics, a child might enjoy guessing games. Where higher education might encourage learning strategies that involve repetition and roles of domination (however transactional), play reveals the pleasure in pattern-recognition and in recovering from a fall or a scraped knee, only to continue the game. By considering the two spheres side by side, we might view what play can teach us about forming notions of identity in an educational milieu. If we accept that through play the behaviour of others can be observed and social rules can be learned, we might float the possibility that for some learners it is the very destruction of social rules that is at the root of any game.

Otto Weininger contends that part of an “educator’s task is to understand the importance of play and provide ample opportunities for play” (Weininger, 1982, p. 117); and although the author is referring to children, the comment works as well for an adult learner. Indeed, he is almost anthemic in his rallying of support for the subject, stating that “play is no less than a survival skill for the human species; to play is not only to learn, but to learn to survive” (ibid.). “Play provides the opportunity for the child to explore different aspects of his world, to repeat and practise strategies that work for him, and gradually, through play and teacher guidance, to seek out new projects and situations to investigate” (ibid., p. 118).

In all of Weininger’s expositions, we might transpose the concept of play and that of learning in a higher education setting. Thus, if learning is a serious business, so is play; nor can one be removed from the orbit of the other – they exist in symbiosis.

Play as Exploration (or, Exploration as Play)

 Sigmund Freud tells us that play

appears in children while they are learning to make use of words and to put thoughts together. This play probably obeys one of the instincts which compel children to practise their capacities. In doing so they come across pleasurable effects, which arise from a repetition of what is similar, a rediscovery of what is familiar, similarity of sound, etc., and which are to be explained as unsuspected economies in psychical expenditure. It is not to be wondered at that these pleasurable effects encourage children in the pursuit of play and cause them to continue it without regard for the meaning of words or the coherence of sentences.  (Freud, 1905, p. 128)

This is in line with some of the views of Donald Winnicott, who states that “it is not possible for a child … to get meaning out of a game unless first of all the game is played and enjoyed” (Winnicott, 1977, p. 175).  In addition, it is only in the midst of enjoyment – even if the game is combative – that anxiety might be contained; and Winnicott believed that playing (and thereby enjoyment) was vital to one’s emotional well-being.

What is interesting about Winnicott is that he does not cease the conversation about play in the childhood years. Winnicott’s sense of playing extends into adult pursuits such as rich conversation, arts and sports; or into any activity, we might conclude, that involves a keen interest, an “aliveness” – and a combined sense of creativity and discovery. It might not need to be said that these descriptors – interest, creativity and discovery – might also be present in any definition of learning. To this list we might add the concept of belief. Be the adult’s game intellectual, physical or even sexual, it runs the risk of crumbling to nothing if the participants fail to believe in the roles assigned, or if the link between our play and our critical acumen is worried too hard. As Freud continues:

This play is brought to an end by the strengthening of a factor that deserves to be described as the critical faculty or reasonableness. The play is now rejected as being meaningless or actually absurd; as a result of criticism it becomes impossible. Now, too, there is no longer any question of deriving pleasure, except accidentally, from the sources of rediscovery of what is familiar, etc., unless it happens that the growing individual is overtaken by a pleasurable mood which, like the child’s cheerfulness, lifts the critical inhibition. (Freud, 1905, pp. 128-9)

Memory Games (or, Playing Polo)

When I was a boy my family home was on a long suburban street around which many other children of a similar age lived. We had areas of green on the street and parks nearby. It was perfectly normal for half of the neighbourhood’s offspring to be outside in the evening, particularly in the summer; and one of the games we played was called “polo.”

One child stood on the curb on one side of the road and asked people to choose their own (secret) examples from a particular named category – say, "colors" or "TV programs." Everyone else, on the other side of the road, would each pick an answer and one person, as captain, would shout out all of the team’s answers (so, "red, green, purple, orange and blue"). The first person would select one of the answers, and as soon as he did so, he and the child whose original choice it had been started running. The objective was for both children to run across the road and back to their starting places before the other one had managed to do the same, shouting “polo!” (for some reason) on arrival. Whoever was first back to base was the winner and selected the next category to discuss.

Apart from being a game of physical expenditure, polo was also a memory game, in the sense that one tended to recall the typical answers of certain people for categories that had come before. If you could be certain that a child who was slow at running always answered “drainpipes” when the category was clothes, there was a good chance that you could stay in control of the game and remain the questioner.

While keeping this memory to hand, let us also consider a sagittal plane as a metaphor for the pedagogic procedure. A sagittal plane is an anatomical plane that divides the body into left and right sections. In polo, as in play in general – and certainly as in learning – as the learner and the educator move deeper into the waves that surround the other participant, it will likely become clear that there is not so much a sagittal plane between the two symbiotic halves as there is a working creative relationship that resembles those waves themselves, churning and restless and rarely still, created by them.  Earlier in this exploration we discussed the fact that two pieces of information that seem at odds with one another might clash and create a third possibility; and the idea of what I have called the pedagogic third is where I would like us to conclude this exploration.

The Pedagogic Third (or, Odd One Out)

In “The Analytic Third: Working with Intersubjective Clinical Facts,” Thomas Ogden sets out “to illustrate some of the ways in which an understanding of the interplay of subjectivity and intersubjectivity influences the practice of psychoanalysis and the way in which clinical theory is generated” (Ogden, 1994, p. 62). As he opines further: “one can no longer simply speak of the analyst and the analysand as separate subjects who take one another as objects. The idea of the analyst as a neutral blank screen for the patient’s projections is occupying a position of steadily diminishing importance in current conceptions of the analytic process” (ibid.).

It is my contention that a similar relationship and phenomenon exists in the pedagogic transaction, which leads to the creation of the pedagogic third. Here, the learner and the educator are employed in the manufacture of a figure that exists primarily on the unconscious intrapsychic level. This pedagogic third is not the learner and not the educator; nor is it a notional middle point between the two (even if such a middle point were possible to identify). The pedagogic third is a brand-new character in the game, shared by the two protagonists in a symbiotic fashion that is beneficial to both parties. The fact that this pedagogic third might be created as much by what would be regarded by poor or combative behaviour as by sound academic progress should not be ignored.   

Summary (or, Playtime’s Over, Back to Lessons)

Where play is a child’s natural mode of self-expression, and to a large extent facilitates the acquisition of a sense of identity, the idea of play for an adult is (for many) something of which to be wary. Adult learning is but one way of holding onto a sense of play that might otherwise become an ossified remnant in the learner’s creative store. Where a child at play can use symbolic games to resolve conflicts that are otherwise passively endured, he or she is also learning about roles and the acceptance of rule-regulated behaviour. At the same time, the adult learner might learn via a period of conflict or combat, during which what I have called the pedagogic third is created for both parties to share.   What the child at play and the adult learner have in common might be the sense of unwanted desires. Desires that cannot be satisfied because they are too threatening for the child to recognize in him- or herself, or desires that cannot be satisfied in reality are represented symbolically in play. Equally, these same unwanted desires might find a harmless and productive channel in higher education.


Freud, S. (1905). Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume VIII. Trans. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.

Klein, M. (1926). The Psychological Principles of Early Analysis. In: Love, Guilt and Reparation. London: Virago Press, 1988, pp. 128-138.

Ogden, T. (1994). The Analytic Third: Working with Intersubjective Clinical Facts. In: Subjects of Analysis. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., pp. 61-96.

Rycroft, C. (1995). A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. London: Penguin.

Weininger, O. (1982). Out of the Minds of Babes. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Winnicott, D.W. (1977). The Piggle: An Account of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of a Little Girl. New York: International Universities Press.


David Mathew, PhD, works in the Centre for Learning Excellence at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, and as an independent researcher and writer. His wide areas of interest include psychoanalysis, language, linguistics, distance learning, prisons, applications of care and anti-care, anxiety and online anxiety. He is the author of Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety (Karnac Books) and The Care Factory (Cambridge Scholars). With approximately 600 published pieces to his name, including a novel based on his time working in the education department of a maximum security prison (O My Days), he has published widely in academic, journalistic and fiction outlets. He is the author of four full-length works of fiction (three novels and a volume of short stories) and three further books (two novels and a volume of short stories) have been commissioned by Montag Press. In addition to his writing, he edits the Journal of Pedagogic Development, teaches academic writing, and he particularly enjoys lecturing in foreign countries. For leisure, he enjoys time with his wife and dog and listening to music.


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