The Importance of Play in Childhood

by Alex Webster, Adapted from Peter Gray

I am so pleased to be here at the end of another successful year, watching our new graduates and their families taking the next step on their journey of learning. It has been such a joy getting to know these kids and parents over blog617the last few years, enjoying their unique contributions to our classrooms, our co-op, and our organization, and playing together.
I’d like to take this opportunity to say a little bit about the importance of play.

All mammals play when they are young and those that have the most to learn play the most. Carnivores play more than herbivores, because hunting is harder to learn than grazing. Primates play more than other mammals, because their way of life depends more on learning and less on fixed instincts than does that of other mammals. Human children, who have the most to learn, play far more than any other primates when they are allowed to do so. Play is the natural means by which children and other young mammals educate themselves. In hunter-gatherer bands, children are allowed to play and explore in their own chosen ways all day long, every day, because the adults understand that this is how they practice the skills that they must acquire to become effective adults.

The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practiced by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.

All young children are creative. In their play and self-directed exploration they create their own mental models of the world around them and also models of imaginary worlds. Adults whom we call geniuses are those who somehow retain and build upon that childlike capacity throughout their lives. Albert Einstein said his schooling almost destroyed his interest in mathematics and physics, but he recovered it when he left school. We can’t teach creativity, but we can extinguish it through schooling that centers not on children’s own questions, but on questions mandated by a curriculum that pretends as if all questions have one right answer and everyone must learn the same things.

Even more important than creativity is the capacity to get along with other people, to care about them and to co-operate effectively with them. Children everywhere are born with a strong drive to play with other children and play is how they learn social skills, and practice fairness and morality. Play, by definition, is voluntary, which means that players are always free to quit. If you can’t quit, it’s not play. All players know that, and so they know that to keep the game going, they must keep the other players happy. The power to quit is what makes play the most democratic of all activities. When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. Each player must recognize the capacities and desires of the others, so as not to hurt or offend them in ways that will cause them to quit. Failure to do so would end the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs. The most fundamental social skill is the ability to get into other people’s minds, to see the world from their point of view. Without that, you can’t have a happy marriage, or good friends, or co-operative work partners. Children practice that skill continuously in their social play.

In play, children also learn how to control their impulses and follow rules. All play has rules. A play-fight, for example, differs from a real fight in it has rules. In the play-fight you cannot kick, bite, scratch, or really hurt the other person; and if you are the larger and stronger one, you must take special care to protect the other from harm. While the goal of a real fight is to end it by driving the other into submission, the goal of a play-fight is to prolong it by keeping the other happy. The art of being human is the art of controlling impulses and behaving in accordance with social expectations.

As our graduates move on to kindergarten and then to elementary school, junior high, and high school, I want to tell their parents not to forget that play is essential to kids learning to be human, and that play can also help adults be more creative, flexible, and happy. Whatever you take from your time at Yikes Tikes!, I hope the greatest part is the ability to play.


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