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[Guest post] What we see and what they say: What free-lists can reveal about observational methods o

This blog post is the second in a series outlining the presentations from our AAA panel All play and no work: (Re)defining play and work among hunter-gatherer children

Ethological methods — that is, systematic, quantitative measurements of behavior — have been influential in the study of children’s work and play across cultures, but especially in studies of forager childhood. The advantages are clear: comparability between different contexts and the ability to test hypotheses about patterns within (e.g. due to age, gender) and between populations (e.g. ecology, settlement patterns). Konner’s (2005) comprehensive “hunter-gatherer” childhoods model is largely based on studies using ethological methods. However, ethological methods face some significant limitations.

For one, there is the definition problem. Our data, as far as how well they describe behavior, are only as good (comparable, reliable) as our codes. As pointed out in our panel at the last AAA meeting — on which this post is based (yes, it has taken me since last November to finally write the blog post I promised Sheina I would) — what is categorized as “work” versus “play” can vary between observers, even if they are using the same coding scheme. This is because it is not always obvious when something is one or the other. Foraging can be fun, and even if the children produce some calories, they may be showing evidence of positive affect – one of the defining attributes of play. In my work, I chose calories produced as the feature that would determine whether I coded a behavior as “work” or “play,” even if calories that were produced from the activity were negligible (Figure 1).


Teen boys hunting rats. Photo by Dr Adam Boyette

 Even if we are reliable in our coding, we may be imposing a dichotomy upon a set of behaviors that may be better understood as a duality. Alyssa Crittenden (2016) uses the example of the Hadza children’s “game” of rembo to illustrate her point that, for these active young foragers, their behavior is often better described as “work-play.” In this active, social, child-only activity, the children delight in the capture of fallen weaver bird fledglings, whom they have ensnared using a sticky resin the children extracted and lathered on a floating log. Such a “work-play” duality as represented by rembo—lots of fun, and you get to eat—could be captured in non-mutually exclusive coding schemes, where coders might code both “work” and “play” based on some visible signals of “fun + calories.” This might lead to some important and interesting results showing how much forager children’s work is “playful” or how much of forager children’s play is productive, might help clarify some theoretically meaningful questions. For example, since Sahlin’s “The Original Affluent Society” there has been a popular conception of foragers as having fun even when (barely) working. However, we are still reliant on visible behavioral traits in coding.

 Fortunately, we can also ask our informants what they think, which provides an opportunity to contrast local ideas of children’s behavior with those we have imposed. In particular, when there is overlap between the researcher’s codes and what informants describe as typical child behavior, then we have identified shared concepts of behavioral development. Where there is not overlap, then we have identified something else revealing about cultural variation and, for those things informants mention that the researcher did not code, potentially important areas for future research. I conduced such a study and compared the frequencies of children’s behaviors based on my behavioral coding scheme with free-lists of responses to the question: What do children do?

 For this study, while I was following children around coding their behavior, I had my well-liked and insistently charming field assistant ask both Aka forager and Ngandu farmer adults (of whom he is one) to list as many activities as they could think of that are performed by male and female children of three locally recognized “stages” of development. My interest was in identifying trends in people’s associations with their cultural model of child development, because these stages correspond to our (i.e. Western academic) ideas of early, middle, and late (adolescence) childhood, and I was coding children’s ages based on these conceptions of “stages” as well. This way I could examine a developmental correspondence with my observations as well.

Additionally, I had a theoretical interest in the developmental trade-off between “work” and “play,” and at my field site, people did distinguish these concepts, having words for both (though there is some debate around whether “work” is cognate in Yaka, the language spoken by the Aka (Lewis, 2016)). So, I also asked my field assistant to have our informants state whether they thought each listed activity was “work,” “play,” neither, or both.

 With the help of Lucy McIvore, a Canbridge MPhil student at the time, we grouped the individual activities within each list into broader categories and matched those with my time allocation data codes whenever it was plentifully obvious that they were the same. While this does involve more coding by the researcher (and we’re trying to understand informant concepts), there were few ambiguous cases. When I compared the salience (the number of time each thing was mentioned weighted by how close to the top of people’s lists it tended to be) to my list of behaviors and their frequency (in terms of % of total observations) a number of compelling results were apparent.

 For example, for Aka females, activities regarded as “play” by my informants in their lists and by myself in my observations were more salient and frequent than those regarded as “work” among the youngest age group (4-6 years old). In middle childhood (7-12) and adolescence (>12), “work” activities were more salient and more frequent. This is consistent with a number of empirical studies (including my own, Boyette 2016) suggesting girls give up play for work earlier than do boys.

 In addition, it was clear that we agreed about food preparation and gathering (either as work or play, or both) as the most important activities performed by Aka girls throughout childhood. These were both observed most frequently and were the most salient. Food preparation play and work were listed and observed among the youngest girls.

 It stands out, though, that, according to my categories, gathering as work was also very frequent among Aka girls in early childhood, but it was not in the top rankings among my informant’s responses. This contrast raises the question: Do the Aka not tend to consider young girls’ foraging as “work,” even if it might be productive? Our informants did name “imitate adult work” (or unspecified “Work pretense play”) as a salient activity, which is consistent with this idea. Other work my team and I are doing right now suggests that foraging “for real” requires knowing how to “walk in the forest,” which young children do not know how to do (even if they can be “productive”).

 There are other insights gained from this. Unsurprisingly, among the observed behaviors there are more activities derived from Western academic ideas about play, such as “object play,” “exploration play,” and the lumping category of “Other” play and “’Other’ work (play)” (that is, pretense play in imitation of other work that I did not otherwise categorize). At the same time, there were “activities” that I did not consider worth recording that were highly salient. Notably, “Sex” and “Flirt/Seek Sexual Partner” were highly salient activities for adolescents in my informants’ responses. While I was not considering these activities in my study of work and play, the Aka clearly consider them to be important parts of being a teenager. Moreover, while most of our informants considered flirting to be “play,” nearly all of those who mentioned sex called it “work,” consistent with Barry and Bonnie Hewlett’s ethnographic work on sex among the Aka (2008).

 In conclusion, the distinction between work and play can be theoretically useful and defined etically, captured in our categories, and the concepts may also be distinguished by our informants, as can be seen in their languages (as is the case among the Aka – although the work of Jerome Lewis carefully qualifies the distinction for the BaYaka groups, of whom the Aka are one). However, as we can see here, any boundary between them is going to be perpetually fuzzy and there will not be perfect overlap between categories imposed by researchers and those seen as significant by our informants—or even between those of two researchers at different field sites or at different points in time.

 In the end, to quantify behavior, we must code, and we must keep as close to our questions as possible, so that when we are interested in “play,” we are coding, at the very least, when children approximate “play” – even if it is also “work.” Interview methods, like the free-list method described here, can help us validate our approach and/or identify new research directions (e.g. how concepts of reproduction become identified as “work” during development).

 Ultimately, there must be an evolutionary reason why we (humans, in general) can and do distinguish the two sorts of behavior, but the difference between individual behavioral acts is likely only visible in the nervous and endocrine system of the individual playing/working (e.g. it could be visible in differences in the level of motivation or affective state, or chemical signals of arousal) and is thus unapproachable through the sorts of methods typically employed by field anthropologists.


Boyette, A. H. (2016). Children’s Play and Culture Learning in an Egalitarian Foraging Society. Child Development, 87(3), 759–769.

Crittenden, Alyssa N. 2016. “Children’s Foraging and Play among the Hadza: The Evolutionary Significance of ‘Work Play.’” In Childhood: Origins, Evolution, and Implications, 155–71. University of New Mexico Press.

Hewlett, Bonnie L., and Barry S. Hewlett. 2008. “A Biocultural Approach to Sex, Love, and Intimacy in Central African Foragers and Farmers.” In Intimacies: Love and Sex across Cultures, edited by W.R. Jaukowiak, x-y. NY: Columbia University Press.

Konner, Melvin. 2005. “Hunter-Gatherer Infancy and Childhood: The !Kung and Others.” In Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods: Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives, edited by Barry S. Hewlett and Michael E. Lamb, 19–64. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.

Lewis, Jerome. 2016. “Play Music and Taboo in the Reproduction of an Egalitarian Society.” In Social Learning and Innovation in Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers: Evolutionary and Ethnographic Perspectives, edited by Barry S. Hewlett and Hideaki Terashima, 147–58. Tokyo: Springer Japan.


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