Editorial : Play’s the Thing

What has made homo sapiens the dominant animal on the planet? Some would say it is speech, which has enabled us to share complex communications and outwit other animals. Some would say it is the thumb’s opposition to the fingers, enabling humans to develop skills and create artefacts. Others would point out the size of humans’ brains – though dolphins’ are just as big. It has also been argued that the ability to lie has made the difference, as it implies the capacity to imagine alternative options and to perceive oneself as separate from others, leading humans on to be able to plan and develop faster.This month we are claiming that play is what makes the difference. There are other animals which play – lion cubs pouncing on their mothers’ tails and young polar bears play-fighting, for example. But no animals continue to play throughout their lives in the way that humans do.

Maintaining youth is called neoteny. At the beginning of their lives young chimpanzees develop at much the same rate as human babies, but after a year and a half the speed of their learning slows down, while humans carry on. We now expect a high proportion of the population to carry on learning formally into their early twenties before taking on productive responsible roles in society.

Studying is of course a sort of work, but so is play as far as a toddler is concerned. It is a question of learning skills, picking up knowledge and gaining understanding by experimenting, observing, testing things out to see what the consequences are, looking for patterns, consistencies and causal chains. There is risk involved, and there can be pain, from which we learn. For the little child, one stage is seeing what everything tastes like; for the student, it is trying out all the experiences which university life has to offer.

Ideally, we never stop playing and learning, even into old age. Many old people have learnt the workings of the internet or computer games. It is not true that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. It depends on the individual, and on the circumstances.

It is said that children learn very fast before they go to school, and again on entering work after leaving school, but that while at school, they plateau. Is this a matter of the natural patterns of learning, or does the formal schooling system actually limit learning? Our contributors this month clearly believe that free play is vital to children’s development and well-being, and that the role of adults is to respond and enable, not to channel or constrain.

In playing we can all try to improve our skills, test our abilities, learn how to relate better to others (perhaps in a team), obtain a deeper self-understanding, and achieve satisfaction on accomplishing something new. For some people, in the arts for example, playing is work. For others, work is something which has to be done to gain the resources to have opportunities to play, and there is a distinction between the two. If, like Jack, we only work and cease to play, the quality of our lives is diminished, and there is a serious risk of dullness. But homo sapiens is a restless, curious, enquiring, aggressive yet social animal, who uses playing to learn and to keep on learning. It is why we are top dog.

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