This week’s article summary is The Play Deficit.
While anyone over 35 is often guilty of remembering his/her childhood in an idealistic version of what really happened, this article captures today’s educational and family reality—namely, kids have less and less free, unstructured play time and consequently miss out on opportunities to learn the important skills that enable us to appropriately interact socially.
The author is an evolutionary psychologist (in my next life, this will be my job!), and he gives the natural selection explanation of why play is so important for animals and humans. As he points out, however, animals mostly play to hone their instincts; while human need to develop instincts too, we also need to learn and practice the mores/norms unique to each culture.
Earlier this week, Maryellen, Carli, and I had a UED parent meeting/discussion of the dos and don’ts of empowering children at home and in the classroom. I wish I had read this article before the meeting because it captures what’s so needed at school and at home: more free time for kids to be kids and to work through and develop the ‘emotional intelligence’ inter- and intra- personal skills we talked about last week.
I definitely remember as a kid having much more freedom and latitude than I gave to my kids—and yes, as the article below attests, there were some dangerous situations my buddies and I had to worm our way out of. One time, we snuck into an abandoned military base looking for remnants of weapons, ammo, etc. and we got caught by a security guard. (I still haven’t told parents about this ‘arrest’.) Other times we had to figure out how to play a baseball game with only 6 players total (no hitting to right field, batting team provides the catcher except when there’s a play at the plate when the pitcher covers). Early every winter we had to determine if a nearby small pond was frozen enough for us to skate on (for some odd reason we had the smallest kid in our groups inch his way across the pond—with a hockey stick as his life preserver: if he got across, we were good to go!).
While we probably can’t go back to giving kids that much latitude, as the article recommends, play—at all ages—it essential to learning!
When I was a child, my friends and I had two educations.
We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education.
We played in mixed-age neighborhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learned in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learned in school.
For more than 50 years now, we have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play. The first half of the 20th century was the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. But, beginning around 1960, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. The effect has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.
Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.
The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.
In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.
Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.
Learning versus playing is a false dichotomy we have fallen prey to: when in fact playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.
The young of all mammals play. Why? Why do they waste energy and risk life and limb playing, when they could just rest, tucked away safely in a burrow somewhere? Play came about by natural selection as a means to ensure that animals would practice the skills they need in order to survive and reproduce. To a considerable degree, you can predict how an animal will play by knowing what skills it must develop in order to survive and reproduce. Lion cubs and other young predators play at stalking and pouncing or chasing, while zebra colts and other prey species play at fleeing and dodging.
Humans, having much more to learn than other species, are the most playful of all animals. Human children, unlike the young of other species, must learn different skills depending on the culture in which they are developing. Therefore, natural selection in humans favored a strong drive for children to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play.
For more than two decades now, education leaders in the US have been urging us to emulate Asian schools — especially those of Japan, China, and South Korea. Children there spend more time at their studies than US children, and they score higher on standardized international tests. What we don’t realize, however, is that educational leaders in those countries are now increasingly judging their educational system to be a failure. While their schools have been great at getting students to score well on tests, they have been terrible at producing graduates who are creative or have a real zest for learning.
Unfortunately, as we move increasingly toward standardized curricula, and as we occupy ever more of our children’s time with schoolwork, our educational results indeed are becoming more like those of the Asian countries. One line of evidence comes from the results of a battery of measures of creativity — called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) — collected from normative samples of US schoolchildren in kindergarten through to 12th grade (age 17-18) over several decades. Scores have been declining since the mid-80s.
You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun.
To have a happy marriage, or good friends, or helpful work partners, we need to know how to get along with other people: perhaps the most essential skill all children must learn for a satisfying life. Most play is social play. Social play is the academy for learning social skills.
The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learned a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.
Watch any group of children in play and you will see lots of negotiation and compromise.
The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practice that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important.
So, play teaches social skills without which life would be miserable. But it also teaches how to manage intense, negative emotions such as fear and anger. Researchers who study animal play argue that one of play’s major purposes is to help the young learn how to cope emotionally (as well as physically) with emergencies. Juvenile mammals of many species deliberately and repeatedly put themselves into moderately dangerous, moderately frightening situations in their play. Depending on the species, they might leap awkwardly into the air making it difficult to land, run along the edges of cliffs, swing from tree branch to tree branch high enough that a fall would hurt, or play-fight in such a way that they take turns getting into vulnerable positions from which they must then escape.
Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it. Such play must always be self-directed, never forced or even encouraged by an authority figure.
Children also experience anger in their play. Anger can arise from an accidental or deliberate push, or a tease, or from failure to get one’s way in a dispute. But children who want to continue playing know they have to control that anger, use it constructively in self-assertion, and not lash out. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates. There is evidence that the young of other species also learn to regulate their anger and aggressiveness through social play.
In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practice adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimization, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.