Albert Einstein? Neville V. Scarfe? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A marvelous quotation about play is attributed to the most brilliant scientist of the modern age, Albert Einstein:
Play is the highest form of research.
I would like to include this statement in a paper I am writing, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Sadly, quotations misattributed to Einstein are very common, and I fear that this may be another example. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. The following nearly identical remark appeared in a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” within the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press: 1
Playing is the highest form of research.
QI believes that he has located the most likely origin of this popular misattribution to Einstein. In 1962 the journal “Childhood Education” published an article titled “Play is Education” by N. V. Scarfe that contained the following passage: 2
All play is associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth.
The highest form of research is essentially play. Einstein is quoted as saying, “The desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of a vague play with basic ideas. This combinatory or associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought”
The careful reader will note that the quotation credited to Einstein was placed after his name and not before. The phrase “The highest form of research is essentially play” was not attributed to Einstein; those words should properly be credited to N. V. Scarfe who wrote the article.
One important mechanism for the generation of misattributions is based on the misreading of neighboring expressions. A reader sometimes inadvertently transfers the ascription of one statement to a contiguous statement. QI conjectures that the words of Scarfe have been re-ordered and reassigned to Einstein to yield the common quotation under investigation. This may have occurred through a multi-step process.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1971 a French periodical written in English called “France Actuelle” printed an instance of the saying credited to Albert Einstein in an article titled “From France to All of You a Joyful Toyful Christmas”. Einstein died in 1955. This was the earliest exact match for the modern quotation located by QI: 3
Listen to the late, great Albert Einstein’s blunt word on the subject: “Play is the highest form of research.”
In 2001 a Syracuse, New York newspaper reported on a learning center for children that had painted the quotation on a wall: 4
Words from Albert Einstein, painted in yellow script on a red wall, sum up the mission of – and your child’s experience at – the Discovery Center of The Southern Tier:
“Play is the highest form of research.”
Though the name implies something like a science museum, this Discovery Center more resembles the biggest, most elaborate playhouse a child could envision.
In 2009 a writer in the “Financial Times” of London employed the adage and credited Einstein: 5
Some might frown at the idea of a play funeral in the back garden but I take Albert Einstein’s view of the matter: “Play is the highest form of research”.
In conclusion, QI believes that this saying should not be ascribed to Albert Einstein. If one wishes to use a similar phrase then QI suggests using the maxim in the 1962 citation and crediting education researcher Neville V. Scarfe.
(Great thanks to Katie Bovee, Kat Caverly, and Andrew Old whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the very helpful librarians at the Jacksonville, Florida main public library and the Jackson Library of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
Update History: On March 4, 2015 Katie Bovee was added to the acknowledgements list.
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Page 482, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1962 November, Childhood Education, Volume 39, Issue 3, “Play is Education” by N. V. Scarfe, Start Page 117, Quote Page 120, Published Association for Childhood Education International, Washington D.C. (Verified with scans; thanks to Jacksonville, Florida public library) ↩
- 1971 December 15, France Actuelle, Volume 20, (Semi-Monthly Report of Modern France), Editor Stephen Laird, Article: From France to All of You a Joyful Toyful Christmas, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Published by Comité France Actuelle, (Private Association of French Businesssmen) Paris, France. (Verified visually; thanks to Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro) ↩
- 2001 January 21, Syracuse Herald American, Taking Play to a Higher Level Discovery Center: A Kid’s-Size Little City by Jeanne Albanese (Staff writer), Quote Page AA1, Syracuse, New York. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2009 July 18, Financial Times, Section: FT Weekend Supplement – House & Home, Spirit of Adventure by Jane Owen, Quote Page 7, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩