I recently had the pleasure of attending an incredible meeting called "Playing Into the Future -- Surviving and Thriving." The major theme of this international gathering concerned the importance of play for children and how we can create a future where play is valued and where every country and neighborhood upholds every child's right for freedom and a safe enough environment for playing, as they should (the full program can be found here and a lengthy resource list concerning the importance of play can be found here). Boundless inspiration came from about 450 delegates from 55 nations, including areas where children don't play because they're seriously ill, because their parents, families, or communities can't afford to allow them play because they have to work, or because there aren't any safe places to play. However, play is also severely curtailed in affluent areas throughout the world.
I was simply astounded that an organization such as Play Wales (there are many like it throughout the world) and these sorts of meetings are even necessary so that kids can be kids. The situation is so dire that there also is a United Nations Convention on the rights of the child. Every country in the world except for the United States and Somalia has ratified the convention. Article 31 is specifically concerned with play: children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.
My learning curve was vertical as a relative outsider who was there to talk about what we can learn about human play from what we know about nonhuman, animal play. After all, we are big-brained altricial mammals, born helpless and requiring extensive adult care, who learn a variety of skills through different sorts of play. Much of what applies to the social development of nonhuman mammals applies to us.
The study of play behavior in animals (see these books) tells us a lot about what human children need. Basically, we can learn about the various reasons why animals play (why it has evolved and develops as it does) including social development and socialization, physical exercise, cognitive development, and also for learning social skills concerning fairness and cooperation (see these resources). The basic rules for fair play in animals also apply to humans, namely ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you're wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play.
Play may also be important as "training for the unexpected." Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that play functions to increase the versatility of movements and to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this "training for the unexpected" we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations. Thus, play is comprised of sequences in which players switch rapidly between well-controlled movements similar to those used in "serious" behavior and movements that result in temporary loss of control.
In discussions at the meeting in Wales, I also made the point that there are far too many of us and in animals living in high densities where resources (for example, food and shelter) are limited, play usually decreases or drops out altogether. Mothers (or other caregivers) may stop their kids from playing to save energy compared to stress-free environments where play continues. While the imposition of these restrictions seems reasonable the extreme, some might say ludicrous, limits on play in human children are found not only in poor neighborhoods and countries but also in places where there are ample or more than enough resources. As I listened to paper after paper I also found myself worrying about the long-term effects of a non-playing generation(s): Can it be overcome? Will there be enough momentum so that different developmental pathways in which there is less play become patterns that evolve over time? How did it come to be that we don't let children be children? What right do we have to rob children of their childhood?
There are many reasons why children need to play (see here also), just as young animals need to play. We need free-ranging kids. They must be allowed to get dirty and learn to take risks and negotiate social relationships that might be complicated, unexpected, or unpredictable. I love the slogan of Play Wales, Better a broken bone than a broken spirit, attributed to Lady Allen of Hurtwood. We should all embrace it with all our heart.
As psychologist William Crain forcefully argues, we need to let children reclaim their childhood and let children be children.
Let's celebrate World Play Day every May 28. Indeed, let's make every day a child's play day.
Let's "re-wild" the children of the world. Let them play and let them have their childhood. Let them be the animals they have the right to be. Of course, adults also need to play more, but that's another story.
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