Some fifty years ago now I read a wonderful book. It was called Ring of Bright Water and its author was Gavin Maxwell. The book, as I recall, was about otters. And although it was based in the rather cold and austere waters of Scotland, it was a lot about play.
Otters are irascible creatures. Maxwell said they “were extremely bad at doing nothing.” He recounted how they were obsessed with play. No unoccupied moment was wasted. They cavorted and indulged in spectacular demonstrations of exuberance.
And it seems that most, perhaps all mammals, indulge in play. Now obviously play appears to be a source of great enjoyment for those indulging in it – but could it have a greater purpose? Evidence suggest that play is indeed important to the development of many species, including humankind. In humans, studies show that play enhances both intellectual and social skills including memory, verbal ability, and interpersonal relationships.
It has been noted that whilst play is prevalent in the animal kingdom it is more intense and prolonged among the social animals. Research shows that play among such creatures as wolves, lions and chimpanzees helps the group bonding and enables the “pecking order” to be sorted without too much physical damage to the participants.
Some social animals indulge in play as a precursor to hunting. African wild dogs, for example, prior to hunting, will gather together sniffing one another and bounding about in energetic play. As time goes by the playing gets wilder and rougher. Finally as if they have egged each other on they gather together and set off in search of prey. (It may be reminiscent of scenes in the dressing shed before a football match!)
Obviously play is more often to be observed in the young.
The marvellous Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass wrote:
|There was a child went forth every day;
|And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
|And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
For the last century and a half the utility of play has been debated. Freud believed that play was a way of expressing socially unacceptable behaviours and as such play was therapeutic. The zoologist Karl Groos believed that play in both humans and animals was a way of preparing for survival in the adult world. But more recently play began to be associated with general learning capability. The great educator, Maria Montessori, recognised the value of play in learning. She suggested that “play is the child’s work”. The psychologist Jean Piaget whose major work was about the intellectual development of children pointed out that play was crucial to one of the phases of intellectual development that he called “assimilation”.
Whilst play is important in animals generally, because of the high brain capacity and the slow process of maturing to adulthood, in humans play probably assumes an even higher level of importance. In humans perhaps twenty five per cent of our lives are devoted to preparing for maturity. A good deal of that preparation is devoted to play. Play provides an opportunity for a wide range of experiential learning.
Play seems correlated with exuberance. The exuberant person, far from simply responding to the environment engages proactively with it. Such exuberance triggers exploration and imagination. Such people are not passive responders to their environments, they interact with it.
The Professor of Psychiatry at the johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Kay Jamieson, writes:
“Spirited play rewards exploration with pleasure, and propels young animals and children into more intimate and varied contact with their physical environment; play sees to it that necessary skills are acquired and a diversity of experiences is tried. Joyous states do other critically important things as well. They strengthen the bonds between members of a group and make more likely the group’s participation in shared activities that will benefit the group as a whole.”
She goes on to point out that the pleasure derived from playful activity has a far broader effect. Because of the mutual joy it creates it can fortify the ties between parent and child, teacher and student, leader and follower and lover and lover.
So what prompted me to write this essay extolling the virtues of play? Recently I read an article from The Times where it reported that in British children happiness is on the decline. The research was carried out by the Children’s Society and was funded by the Church of England. The report found that children’s happiness was diminishing and (among other things):
“…..children who embraced simple solutions and pleasures were the happiest. Those who chatted to their parents about problems, had good friendships, got plenty of fresh air by walking or cycling, played sport or read a good book, felt a lot better than those that did not. Having good relationships with their parents and siblings was the single most important ingredient of a youngster’s happiness.”
But as well as all that, Lucy Beresford, a psychotherapist who helped with the studies, said that the young people were paying a high price for their parents’ anxieties. She reported that almost all of the young people studied had issues with autonomy – ie that their parents were over-protective. Concerns about children’s safety were restricting their opportunities to play. As we saw above play is an important developmental activity and being deprived of appropriate opportunities to play would seem to have wide-ranging deleterious effects.
I have no wish to see children injured but I wonder what the cost is of restricting their play. I note with some alarm that many Australian schools ban “running-around” games like “tiggy” and “red rover” all at a time when there are increasing concerns about obesity and the lack of physical fitness of our children.
I was about six years old and on one dewy morning tried to master the “monkey bars” at my primary school only to slip off. The resultant fall caused me to fracture my right arm. In today’s context, on reflection there were two interesting outcomes. Firstly, my parents had not the slightest inclination to sue the school. Secondly, I had no urge to prevent my children playing on such apparatus or to set up a protest movement campaigning to banning them from schools.
Yet over the last couple of decades we have seen the removal of monkey bars, merry-go-rounds, climbing frames and such-like from our playgrounds.
An article in The Weekend Australian a couple of years back stated:
“Last month the Queensland Department of Education upgraded the risk category of swimming lessons from medium to high, despite noting there has never been a single drowning in the history of the school swimming lessons program. Preliminary recommendations had proposed such a high level of qualification for supervisors that it put the program at risk, which would have exposed countless children to the real risk of growing up on an island unable to swim.”
Activities that previous generations of children enjoyed without a second thought – like walking to school on their own – are now seen as too risky and adults who permit them are seen as irresponsible. Some parents are afraid to let their children play unsupervised.
In a previous blog I quoted material from the Kidsafe website.
On their web site Kidsafe reported:
“More children die of injury than die of cancer, asthma and infectious diseases combined.”
“Each year about 250 Australian children (aged 0-14 years) are killed and 58,000 hospitalised by unintentional injuries – the kind often referred to as accidents.”
Journalist, Cassandra Wilkinson, writing in the Australian, countered the Kidsafe statement thus:
“In reality serious injuries from play are pretty rare. A 2009 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found the most common causes of child deaths were traffic accidents, drowning and assault. The most common causes of injuries were falls, road accidents, poisoning, burns and scalds, and assault. And while the number of falls is high the severity is usually not. According to the Australian Bureau of statistics 93% of falls were of 1metre or less, such as falling off chairs or out of bed.”
Tim Gill, British childhood play expert and author of the book “No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society” writes:
“Although there is a widely held view that children grow up faster today, in fact their lives are far more controlled than they were thirty years ago.”
“In this shrinking domain of childhood, our tendency to always view children as fragile, means we are not encouraging them to develop their natural resilience – learning to manage risk in an age-appropriate way.”
“This is not an unconditional plea for the deregulation of childhood: children want adults to help them stay safe, and of course we must accept that responsibility.”
“But rather than having a nanny state, where risk aversion dominates the landscape, we should be aspiring to a child-friendly society, where communities look out for each other and for children”
Penny Nicholls, from the Children’s Society in the UK said, “Over-protecting children carries different risks to under-protecting them, but it can still cause long-term damage to their well-being. If we continue to try and create a risk-free life for our children, it will be childhood itself that’s at risk.”
Gill argues that trying to eliminate risks from playgrounds have made them sterile and unattractive options for many children. He points out that in the last few years in the UK some 300 million pounds has been spent on high-tech safety surfacing in playgrounds. He argues that because 1 child dies every 3-4 years in a playground this is a disproportionate response. In the same time, over 2,500 children died in traffic accidents. He protests, logically, that if that investment had been made into traffic calming perhaps the lives of hundreds of children might have been saved.
In preparing this material I came across a little bit of research that was quite depressing. The research involved interviewing children about their desires and their fears.
The researcher reported, “‘Risky’ themes emerged, such as being afraid of strangers, kidnapping, road traffic and dark places. Children showed particular anxiety about strangers and kidnapping, even when playing in and around their home. These two risks were amplified above other perceptions of risk, even though they are the least likely to happen.”
The children in the study wanted to play outdoors but were too afraid to do so.
Because of these fears, our children are having their desires thwarted to play in the park, play cricket in the street, explore the local bushland, fish in the nearby creek, walk to school, run an errand for mum, and largely for the wrong reasons.
No matter how hard we try, and no matter how much we spend, we can’t eliminate the risks to our children. We should take what reasonable steps we can to protect our children but we can never eliminate all risk. And managing appropriate risk, rather than sheltering them from it, is perhaps one of the most important lessons we would want our children to learn. They are exposed to risks as adults and by then they normally don’t have parents who can guide them. (And maybe then they become victims and blame the state.) So when are they going to learn about life if we shelter them from every minor possibility of harm?
As I wrote in a previous blog:
“Our animal liberation activists have been berating us because we continue to pen chickens in restricted enclosures. If we continue to follow the dictates of the nanny state our children will fare no better”.
Have we all now as adults collectively forgotten the joys of play? Is it not worth some investment and perhaps a little risk to lead our children down this magical path of exuberance, fantasy and freedom?
Perhaps we could do a lot worse than listen to the words of this fabulous little poem by the American poet Delmore Schwartz.
“I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
As the boys who made the Hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too,
And I put it in along with everything
To make the grown-ups laugh whenever I sing:
And I sing : It is true; It is untrue;
I know, I know, the true is untrue,
The peach has a pit,
The pit has a peach:
And both may be wrong
When I sing my song,
But I don’t tell the grown-ups, because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up
And forgot what they knew
And they are sure
I will forget it someday too.
They are wrong. They are wrong.
When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold,
I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me,
I will always be new!”
[As an aside if you want to read a wonderful little parable about play get hold of a copy of the children’s book How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and illustrated by the fabulous Quentin Blake.]