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Gwen Gordon Headshot

Restoring the Playground

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My dog Macy is normally a pretty happy-go-lucky mutt. On our daily walks she greets every stranger like they're her long lost buddy -- all wags and kisses. That is unless she finds something more interesting... like a dead bird. Then sweet, loving Macy, with the rotting carcass in her mouth, turns into the devil dog from hell. Her eyes squint, her hackles rise, and she skulks stealthily past strangers as if they're all potential bone thieves.

Frankly, I can relate. There are days when I prance into the world wagging my tail and others when I slink back ready to defend my bone. Sometimes all it takes to make me snarl is a hint of fear and that fateful possessive pronoun, "MINE!" With a big appetite and a little insecurity the whole world can look like a pack of bone thieves.

Apparently Macy and I aren't alone. According to attachment theory, a prominent framework for understanding social and emotional development, the basic sense of security established through key relationships in the first few years of life becomes our lens for seeing the world as a whole. If our caregiver gives us consistent emotional support, we're likely to develop a secure base and grow up seeing a world full of adventures, opportunities, and playmates -- a playground. But if the support is unreliable we're likely to see life as a perpetual test where we have to continually earn our security and approval -- a proving ground. And if, in a more extreme case, our caregiver is unsafe or absent, we're likely to see a world that can't meet our needs and is full of threats -- a battleground. On a playground we share our bones and see what cool games we can invent with them. On a proving ground we polish and display them so everyone can see how big our bones are, and on a battleground, well, we've got a bone to pick and... you got a problem with that?

World views and attachment styles aren't just limited to individuals. Just look around. Extreme economic disparities, rigid hierarchies, inadequate social programs, and rampant corporate greed are all the stuff of proving grounds, while extreme surveillance practices, massive military budgets, and perpetual wars belong to battlegrounds. Our society has strayed so far from the playground that it seems like childish, wishful thinking to even imagine life could be play.

But not only is it possible, there are healthy, happy societies living on playgrounds right now. Though it's easy to dismiss hunter-gatherers as primitive people too ignorant to stay put and settle the land, according to evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, these societies are exceedingly peaceful, egalitarian, and cooperative... not to mention playful. Their playful approach to government, religion, productive work, and parenting are all well-documented. Incidentally, since hunter-gatherers don't have many personal possessions, they also don't have much use for the perilous possessive pronoun, "mine." In other words, they make no bones about sharing.

Every society started as hunter-gatherers. That means we all had happy, secure childhoods. So why are we behaving like grumpy, insecure mutts and threatening to destroy the planet? Author and scientist Jared Diamond echoes the basic ideas of attachment theory by suggesting that our violence and greed stems from our relationship to the Earth (aka Momma). In other words, the more hospitable the terrain and the more readily the Earth provides for our needs, the more peaceful, and playful the culture becomes. In more treacherous terrain where Momma is less bountiful and accommodating we learn to fend for ourselves... and get a little edgy. We grow and raise our own food, producing surpluses, instituting property, ownership, competition, caste systems, and eventually, "guns, germs, and steel." Presto, battleground!

But we can't blame it all on Mom. After all, we chose to leave her lap and explore a wider world, which according to psychologists is actually a sign of healthy development. For some reason, though, we didn't just differentiate from the Earth like a secure toddler would have, keeping our lifeline to mom intact. Instead we acted more like a rebellious teenager on a rampage, pushing her away violently and abusing her continually. Drunk on our newfound power and independence, we separated not just from the Earth but also from each other, and eventually from ourselves. Hidden under our species bravado is a pervasive, profound insecurity. Now we're anxious and lonely, popping Prozac and maxing out our credit cards.

World views are powerful self-fulfilling prophecies. Seeing the world as a battleground makes the world dangerous. While we think we're being responsible by preparing our children for the challenges of the "real" world and protecting them from danger, we're actually increasing those challenges and perpetuating that danger. We rush our baby Einsteins to the proving ground as quickly as possible to give them a head start then anxiously bubble wrap and park them in front of video games where they're out of "danger" but are becoming obese and depressed at epidemic rates. Then we whisk them to school where recess has been eliminated and arts programs have been cut, where they get assigned hours of homework and are forced, starting in kindergarten, to sit still and take standardized tests. Obama's "race to the top" has become a race 'til you drop and otherwise happy, healthy children are being bent and broken to become provers and battlers. It's gotten so bad that the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling the decline of play-time a national crisis.

We now know unequivocally that play is critical to our health and well-being throughout life. And many of us recognize how the proving and battle ground are killing us and destroying the planet. Our world views are in a standoff. On the one hand, we're clear cutting playgrounds faster and earlier than ever. On the other hand, emboldened by the data, parents, educators, and child advocates are rising up in record numbers to protect children's free play time.

But wait, there's a third hand. Ironically, as quickly as we're whisking our kids off to the proving ground, we adults are clamoring in record numbers to get to the playground. We aren't willing to work 60-hour weeks and squeeze the juice of life into weekends and short, unpaid vacations anymore. We're leaving our cubicles and our suburban kitchens and we're heading to maker spaces, neo-tribal festivals inspired by Burning Man, pervasive games that turn whole cities into playgrounds for a day, public pillow fights, and flash mobs. We're making uncommissioned, anonymous street art, turning parking lots into soccer fields, and painting hopscotch courts on crosswalks, and filling potholes with miniature gardens.

The signs are everywhere. Play is bursting through the cracks in the proving ground like wild dandelions in spring.

And it's happening none too soon. The playground is our true habitat. Within it we become truly human, without it we perish... and take a whole lot of other species down with us. Perhaps the most important project of our time is to restore our own habitat, to wake up to our deep need for the unbridled joy, freedom and fullness of play... and take it seriously. We can stop rushing around on the proving ground like a head with its chicken cut off, take a deep breath and feel. Then, moment by moment, we might begin to notice just how safe and secure we actually are. The present moment is the only real door to the playground. Last one here is a rotten egg!

Macy may never give up her bone willingly and it would be pure foolishness for me to attempt to take it away from her, but what I can do when she gets "that" way is to give her as many bones as she can handle, then wait patiently with the rope toy until she realizes that she'll never be able to eat them all, there will be plenty whenever she wants them, and that it's just a heck of a lot more fun to play tug-of-war than it is to be at war with the world.

Perhaps, like the excellent Momma she is, that's exactly what the Earth has been doing with us.

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