#5. Play Is How Children Practice All Essential Human Skills
Think of all the abilities that comprise human nature. Those are what children play at.
In Letter #4 I introduced Karl Groos’s theory that the primary evolutionary function of play in young mammals is to provide practice in skills they must learn if they are to survive into adulthood and ultimately reproduce. In his book The Play of Animals, Groos (1898) supported his theory in part by pointing out that you can predict rather well what the young of any given species of mammal will play at by knowing the skills they must learn. For example, predatory animals play at predation and prey animals play at escaping from predators.
In his second book, The Play of Man, Groos (1901) showed how the practice theory applies at least as well to humans as it does to other mammals. He pointed out that young humans, having more to learn than other mammals, play more, and in a greater variety of ways, and over a longer period of development, than do other mammals. All this fits with the practice theory. Throughout the book, Groos categorized types of children’s play in ways that matched his understanding of essential human skills.
Here, I will not follow Groos precisely, but instead elaborate on extensions of his theory by posing this question and addressing it in a way that makes most sense to me: What are the skills that human beings everywhere must learn, and how do children learn them?
Think about our human ways of life, ways that identify us behaviorally as humans, no matter where we live, regardless of culture. Here is some of what I come up with.
Physical Body Skills
For starters, we are mammals, and like all mammals we have physical bodies that are not fully developed at birth and must be developed through experience. Our skeleton, musculature, heart, and lungs all need regular exercise to develop effectively.
How do children get that exercise? They get it in play, just as other mammals do. Children are not designed to lift weights or run around tracks or swim back and forth in pools or operate those silly machines in fitness centers. They are designed to chase one another around, laughing and screaming until their sides are splitting, fight playfully with one another, climb trees, leap from rock to rock, and on and on. That is how children throughout history have always acquired strength, stamina, and the ability to move gracefully and effectively in a wide variety of adaptive ways. Some of this play involves a degree of risk, so this is also how children develop an ability to handle risk, an ability we might call courage. Let’s call this vigorous physical play. We see such play everywhere except in some parts of our world today where children are over-controlled by adults.
Beyond the skills we share with other mammals are those that differentiate us from others, and these likewise require extensive practice.
We are the linguistic animal, the only animal with complex and flexible language that permits communication about anything and everything. Somehow, in our evolution, we took a track that depends on our ability to communicate all sorts of information and ideas with one another, not just about the immediate present but also about the past, future, far way, and hypothetical. How do children acquire this amazing ability?
Nobody teaches children their native language (though I can imagine some of today’s parents trying). Children learn it through their own efforts, through paying attention to the language around them and playing with first the sounds and then the symbolic representations.
As anyone who has watched a baby grow knows, the earliest language-like sounds—the cooing and babbling—occur only when the baby is happy. Such behavior is self-motivated, is not done to get something, has structure, and is creative, so it meets all the criteria of play described in Letter #2. With time, the babbled sounds increasingly resemble the sounds of the language the child hears.
By about one year of age the child's first words appear and may be repeated over and over, not to ask for anything, just to label things in a playful manner: doggie, da-da, ma-ma. Later, toddlers can be overheard talking to themselves (in what some researchers call “crib speech”), in ways that clearly sound like language practice. They say the same thing repeatedly, varying the way they say it a little each time, as if trying out various phrases or intonations. And still later, children talking with friends enjoy rhymes, alliterations, riddles, and puns, further playing with the structure and idiosyncrasies of their native language. They become little poets. Let’s call all this language play.
Skills at Building Things
We are the animal with opposable thumbs, the animal that builds things. As long as we have been humans, we have survived by building things—tools for hunting and gathering, shelters for protection from the elements, dugout canoes and the like for conveyance, decorations for attracting others, and so on. It is no surprise, therefore, that children everywhere, if they have ample freedom to play, play at building things. Researchers call this constructive play. What children build depends considerably on the culture, local environment, what’s available, and current fads. They may build sandcastles, tree houses, snow forts, towers from sticks or blocks, kites, or daisy chains. But in every case, they are exercising those opposable thumbs and the parts of the brain involved in planning a construction and carrying it out.
Skills at Imagination and Hypothetico-Deductive Reasoning
We are the animal that is capable of imagination, so we can think of things we have never experienced. Imagination allows us to think about tomorrow, plan, invent. Imagination provides the foundation for what logicians regard as our most advanced way of reasoning—hypothetico-deductive reasoning. If this were true, then what else must also be true? Children exercise their capacity for imagination continuously in all sorts of play, as almost all play has an element of imagination. But they exercise it especially in the kind of play researchers call fantasy play, or sociodramatic play when more than one child is involved. In such play children imagine scenes and play out roles. They may imagine they are superheroes, or mommies and daddies, or that there is a troll under the bridge (the kitchen table). “Oh, if there’s a troll under the bridge, we better give it a cookie, so it doesn’t eat us,” says one four-year-old to another. That’s hypothetico-deductive reasoning, and little children practice it regularly in play.
Skills at creating and following rules
We are the animal that creates and follows rules. We can’t behave just according to our instincts and whims (we risk being called an “animal” if we do), but must abide by the norms, traditions, and laws of the society in which we live. As I pointed out in Letter #2, all play has rules in the sense of guidelines or boundaries one must stay within, so in all play children practice the art of inhibiting impulses and abiding by rules. But such practice is clearest in games with explicit rules, sometimes called formal games. Here the rules are made most clear, and violations are regularly called out. In our culture such games are usually competitive. These are games like Candyland, chess, dodge ball, and baseball. Hunter-gatherer cultures reportedly don’t play competitive games, but they play cooperative, dance-like games with formal rules. Children in all cultures learn to abide by rules through play. They also learn to create and modify rules in play, and they discover that the purpose of rules is to make the game fair and fun, which ideally is also the purpose of rules in the long-term game we call life.
Of all the skills we humans must learn, perhaps the most crucial is how to get along with other people. We are a social animal, through and through. We depend on others for essentially all the necessities of life. For as long as we have been humans, we have lived in cooperative social groups, and without such cooperation we could not survive. We need to know how to make friends, keep friends, attract mates, and work effectively with others at most life tasks. And so, natural selection endowed children with an especially strong drive to play with other children. This is social play. Social play is not really a separate form of play, but an aspect of play that cuts across all the others.
No matter how else children are playing—whether it is rough and tumble, or linguistic, or constructive, or fantasy, or a game with rules—children everywhere want most to play with other children. In their DNA, they know that no matter the difficulties, the most important thing they must learn is how to get along with peers. Social play always involves negotiation and cooperation. You must decide together what and how you will play, and you must coordinate your efforts, cooperatively, throughout play. None of this can be taught; it must be learned through experience, and that experience, for children, is play.
What I have provided here is a list of some of the defining characteristics of human nature and how they are developed through play. As Groos pointed out, such characteristics are instincts, in the sense that they are inborn tendencies, but to be effective each of these instincts must be developed, refined, and adapted to the realities of the local environment through experience, and that experience, for children, is play. There is no substitute. Natural selection provided us not only with the instinctive tendencies that make up human nature, but also with instincts to play at each of them so we can become good at them. If we want children to reach their full human potential, we must accord them lots of freedom and time to play.
Please feel free to comment, with any questions or thoughts you have about this letter. I will read all comments and reply if I have something useful to add.
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Thanks so much for this, Peter.
Musing on the essential skills, I wonder whether we're witnessing the species generating a new one that doesn't fit into any of the categories above, perhaps fueled by AI. I've no idea what it may look like, but it feels as if there's something just round the corner that will make the industrial revolution pale into insignificance. So the new kids on the block may need not just another kind of skill, but a whole new category of skill to manage their future.
I think 'play' is also where we learn to bend/break rules too.