Children, Mammals, and the War on Play

The human animal is, in my opinion, one of the most intricate and complex machines ever to exist.  Every time I step back and consider the manner in which the brain rewards certain behaviors and discourages others, and how it regulates and coordinates the behavior of simultaneously functioning systems to accomplish tasks, it boggles my mind.  The sheer unstoppable power of human ability is never more apparent to me than when I watch children play.

Play is an incredible mechanism that almost all mammals share.  If you get a moment, I highly recommend you get a hold of Stuart Brown’s book “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.”  In it, he outlines the countless ways in which play positively impacts human and non-human animals.  It is a way for them to flex, stretch, and grow their bodies and their minds.  Play helps animals practice skills that will later be essential for their survival and their ability to contribute to their respective communities.  Play even helps bond young animals to the adults in their lives, and helps form strong bonds between peers.  It is an all-encompassing yet subtle biological tool for the cultivation of healthy creatures.

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And despite all of the thousands upon thousands of years of unquestionably successful adults play has produced, despite all of the research and authorship that exists proving that play is potentially the most important aspect of healthy mental and physical development, humans have waged a war against it.  Play is under attack for one simple reason: it is fun.  In our modern societies, there is a unspoken dichotomy that exists between activities that are fun and activities that are not.  We tend to designate the things we want to do as secondary and wholly divorced from the obligations that we feel we have to do.  Play is what we do with our leftover time, and as people grow more and more concerned about money, prestige, and popularity, and a myriad of other societal expectation, it is gradually disappearing.

But this dichotomy demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of play.  We seem to think that humans want to play because it is fun.  But in actuality, play is fun because we need it.  The sensation of fun, namely the release of endorphins that make us feel happy and satisfied, is one of the brain’s ways of rewarding us and encouraging us to repeat a behavior.  When we play, we feel good because our bodies are hardwired to do everything they can to help us succeed.  It is no accident that jumping, sprinting, singing, laughing, reading, drawing, rolling, tussling, hugging, and spinning make children happy.  It is one of the single greatest evolutionary adaptation ever to happen to animals, and as such, it is self-defeating for us to attempt to do away with it.

Play cannot be replaced with heavy-handed approaches to preparatory learning.  Free play time and recesses cannot be shortened into non-existence because they, on the whole, are when the vast majority of real, essential, important learning happens.  Like foxes, when children tussle they learn to use their muscles and bend their bodies in new and dynamic ways.  Like cats, when children pause and watch, they learn to focus their minds and align them with their goals, and to hone in on relevant details.  Like squirrels, when children jump (and fall), they learn to assess and take acceptable risks based on their abilities and surroundings.  Like deer, when children sprint they begin to understand the outer limits of what their body is capable of, how to handle excitement and physical stress, how to work their lungs and their legs and their arms in tandem.

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As it stands, the obligations of adulthood are pushing farther and farther into the realm of children, and each inch these obligations gain is an inch of play that is lost forever.  Which is where we, as teachers, can make a difference.  Play more.  As some of the most influential role-models children observe in their early lives, it is essential for us to show not just what we need to do as adults to be accepted in society, but also what we need to do be happy and healthy humans.  If your students are in the mud, go get filthy.  If your students are in the water, go for a swim.  If your students are smashing little rocks with big rocks, go find the biggest rock you can lift and up the ante.

In short, we are the vanguard.  It is up to us to start pushing back on behalf of play.  There is no age at which humans no longer need to play, and anyone who tells you so is wrong.  The solution to being happier, healthier, more successful people isn’t to start adulthood earlier, but in fact the opposite.  The solution is make sure our childhoods last until the moment we take our last breath.  The key to us living fulfilled lives is to find a way to marry childhood and adulthood, to create contexts for us to both take care of our material needs and societal expectations while setting aside time for unfettered, carefree, and wholesome play.

If you have a son or daughter or a class of students in your care, take a moment to watch them play and really think about what going on beneath the surface.  Behind every giggle of delight, there is six million years of ecological fine-tuning.  With each jump,  children grow closer to realizing their full potential.  Every growl, every somersault, every foot-race, is a reminder that children are still animals and also so much more.  The moment that you feel that primal truth, that children need to play to survive, go to them and show them exactly how much play means to you.

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