Thursday, June 03, 2010

Peter Gray - Play Makes Us Human

This was the first of six articles (at Psychology Today) by developmental and evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray on the importance of play in the evolution of human beings. These are old articles (from 2009) but I somehow had missed them. I'm posting the first one whole and linking to the next five.

These are important ideas in understanding who we are as human beings. Here are a couple of books on the importance of play in child development:

Product Image by Roberta M. Golinkoff

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Peter Gray
, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology and author of an introductory textbook, Psychology. See full bio. His blog at Psychology Today is Freedom to Learn: The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Play Makes Us Human I: Outline of a Ludic Theory of Human Nature

Play is the germ that grew to make us human.

by Peter Gray

I've been working lately on a ludic theory of human nature. In case you haven't studied Latin in a while (perhaps not since several lifetimes ago), I hereby inform you that ludic means playful. I'm calling my theory a ludic theory because if I called it a playful theory you wouldn't take it seriously. (I'm trying hard to ignore the fact that the only common English derivative of ludic is ludicrous.)

Heaven take pity on those few of us who try to take play seriously. It's hard to do. Play, by definition, is something that is not serious. I'm sure that's part of the reason why most serious scholars stay far away from the topic.

The great classic scholarly book on human play is entitled Homo Ludens, which means literally Man the Player. It was written by Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian, in 1938. It's a wonderful book and has inspired me greatly. But my own theory is quite different from Huizinga's.

Huizinga stated clearly that his is a cultural theory of play, not a biological theory. My theory, in contrast, is fundamentally biological, though it is also cultural, because, in matters of human behavior, biology and culture are inextricably entwined. Another big difference is that Huizinga tended to equate play with contest and to focus on agonistic, or competitive aspects of play, while I hold that play is fundamentally noncompetitive. I can understand how someone such as Huizinga, steeped in Western cultural history, might view play primarily as contest. In my theory, contest is a morphing of play with something that is close to the opposite of play--a drive to beat and dominate others. When we combine these two opposites, play becomes more serious (and thereby more acceptable to contemporary adults) and domination becomes more playful--not entirely a bad thing, but not the same as pure play.

In the remaining paragraphs here, I present a sketch of the ludic theory. In subsequent weekly posts I shall elaborate on specific aspects of the theory, presenting evidence along the way. [Some of what I shall present overlaps with ideas I published in a recent article-- Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence, in The American Journal of Play, 1 (#4), 2009, pp 476-522.]

The Limited Role of Play in Non-Human Mammals

In most non-human mammals, play occurs almost entirely among the young of the species and seems clearly to serve the function of skill learning and practice. As I have noted in previous posts, young mammals, in play, practice the very skills that they must develop in order to make it into adulthood and to thrive and reproduce. Predators practice predation, as when tiger clubs stalk and pounce on bugs, wind-blown leaves, and each other. Prey animals practice getting away from predators, as when zebra colts dodge and dart in their playful frolicking and endless games of tag. Young males of many species practice fighting, taking turns pinning one another in their species-specific ways and getting out of pinned positions. Young females of at least some species practice nurturance, in playful care of young.

Expansion of Play's Roles in Humans

We humans have inherited the basic youthful play characteristics of our animal ancestors, but in the course of our biological and cultural evolution we have elaborated upon them and created new functions. Playfulness in humans does not end when adulthood begins and it serves many functions beyond the learning of species-specific skills.

Play as a means of suppressing aggression and promoting cooperation.

Social play in all animals requires that all tendencies toward aggression and dominance be suppressed. This is especially true in playful fighting, which is one of the most common forms of animal play. The fundamental difference between a play fight and a real fight is that the former involves no intention to hurt, drive away, or dominate the other animal. A play fight between two young animals can only occur if both are willing partners. Anything that smacks of true aggression or tendency to dominate would cause the threatened animal to run away, and the play, with all its fun and opportunity for learning, would end. And so, in the course of natural selection, animals developed signals to let each other know that their playful attacks are not real attacks, and they developed, for purposes of play, self-restraints and means of self-handicapping to operate against any tendencies to dominate or hurt one another in play.

We inherited these play-enabling signals and restraints from our primate ancestors, and then--through both culture and biological evolution--we built upon them. We brought playfulness and signals associated with it (such as laughter) into adulthood, and we used them to promote ways of cooperating and sharing with one another that surpass those of other mammals.

I am going to argue, in my next post, that when we bring playfulness to bear in our social interactions we create a spirit of equality and personal freedom that allows us to overcome our equally human drive to dominate one another. Hunter-gatherer societies were especially successful in cultivating playfulness as a means of defeating aggression and dominance. Their way of life required close cooperation and sharing, of the sort that could easily be defeated by aggression and dominance. Their playful approach to social life apparently enabled them to survive, relatively peacefully, for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the invention of agriculture. In our culture today, play and humor are still forces for defeating aggression, dominance, and hierarchy, though we don't use them as effectively as hunter-gatherers did.

Play as a basis for art, music, literature, theoretical science, religion, and all that we call "higher culture."

Play, in any species, is done primarily for the fun of it, not to fill some felt survival need. A young animal or child playing may be learning, but it is not consciously learning; it is just having fun. I don't know if other animals have a perceptual sense of beauty, but it is easy to imagine how doing something just for the fun of it could, in humans, become doing something just for the beauty of it.

Play is also, by definition, creative. It is not an automatic response to demands from outside, but is creative behavior deriving from within. Moreover, play is representative. A play fight is not a fight, but it represents a fight. Playful predation is not a hunt, but it represents a hunt. In humans, the representative power of play grew immensely. Human children--and adults, too--can represent not just fights and hunts, but truly anything in play. Play thereby provides a foundation for all of imagination.

Fun, beauty, creativity, representation, imagination--these are the essences of art, music, literature, theoretical science, and (I will argue two weeks from now) religion. These activities, which characterize our species everywhere, make us human. They all originated biologically in play. Play is the biological germ, which we inherited from our animal ancestors, which grew in us to make us human.

Play as a basis for productive work.

In animals, play is quite separate from productive behaviors. Playful predation and real predation are two different things. But in humans playfulness can blend with productivity. When productive work is suffused with the qualities of play--that is, with freedom, creativity, and imagination--we experience that work as play. Hunter-gatherers had a genius for keeping their productive work within the realm of play. In our culture today, those people who have the most freedom of choice and opportunity for creativity within their work are most likely to say they enjoy their work and regard it as play.

Play as a basis for education.

This final point, drawn out, provides the most direct and clear functional line between animal and human play. But education in humans is far more than learning in other species. We are the cultural being, and education is the passing of culture from generation to generation. In previous posts I have already written about play as a vehicle for children's education, but I will have more to say in a future post about the ways by which animal play was modified, in humans, to become such a powerful force for education.

Here are the remainder of the articles in the series.

Play Makes Us Human II: Defeating Dominance and Achieving Equality

We human beings have two fundamentally different ways of governing ourselves in social groups. One is the method of hierarchy, or dominance, or force. The other is the method of play. In this essay I explain how hunter-gatherers employed play and humor to keep order and maintain their highly egalitarian, highly cooperative mode of existence. We have much to learn from them. Read More

Play Makes Us Human III: Play Is the Foundation for Religion

Some people would take offense at the idea that religion is play. Religion, they would say, is sacred, and play is trivial. How can the one be lumped with the other? But regular readers of this blog know that I regard play as the highest form of human activity, so I am not demeaning religion when I describe it as play. ... I have two main points to make in this essay. The first is that all of religion has its roots in play. ... The second point is that religion functions best when it does not stray too far from its playful origins. Religion that has lost its playfulness can be dangerous. Read More

Play Makes Us Human IV: When Work Is Play

One of the first and most often reinforced lessons that children learn in school is that work and play are opposites. Work is what one has to do; play is what one wants to do. Work is burdensome; play is fun. Work is essential; play is trivial. But when we leave school and go on to the "real world," at least some of us, the lucky ones, discover that work is not the opposite of play. In fact, work can be play, or at least it can be imbued with a high degree of playfulness. . . . When work is play, it is humanizing. Read More

Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Play

My reading about life in many different hunter-gatherer cultures has led me to conclude that their work is play for four main reasons: (1) It is varied and requires much skill and intelligence. (2) There is not too much of it. (3) It is done in a social context, with friends. And (4) (most significantly) it is, for any given person at any given time, optional. Let me expand on these, point by point. Each point is relevant to our lives, today. Read More

Play Makes Us Human VI: Hunter-Gatherers’ Playful Parenting

Our society's concepts of raising and training children assume a dominant-subordinate relationship between parent and child. The parent---or teacher or other parent substitute---is in charge and is responsible for the child's actions. The child's primary duty, at least in theory, is to obey. This approach to parenting seems so natural to us that it may be hard to imagine an alternative. Yet, in the context of our long history as a species, it is new. It came with agriculture, which first appeared about 10,000 years ago. Before that, we were all hunter-gatherers. Here I describe the approach of hunter-gatherers to parenting, which is founded on concepts of freedom, equality, and trust. Read More

Here are some additional articles by Gray on the importance of play.

Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Play: A Modest Proposal

Because neighbors don't know one another as they once did, parents' fears of "strangers" in the neighborhood has helped to cause a sharp decline in children's free outdoor neighborhood play. Here is a proposal for bringing neighbors together and creating safe, neighborhood play-and-learning centers that everyone can enjoy. We may actually do this, as a pilot project, in a neighborhood already selected. Please read on, and supply your ideas for improving the project. Read More

Pushing Competition and Damaging Health: Making Play Offensive

If American football were a food additive or a drug, it would be banned by the FDA. Or, if financial interests prevented its banning, its package would at least carry a surgeon general's warning: Football causes brain damage. The evidence that football causes brain damage is now indisputable. But the deleterious effects of our strong focus on winning go beyond football and brain damage. The compulsioin to win, in general, may be bad for our health. Read More

The Biological Distinction Between Play and Contest, and Their Merging in Modern Games

In nonhuman animals, play and contests are sharply distinguished. Play is cooperative and egalitarian, and contestests are antagonisitic and aimed at establishing dominance. Hunter-gatherer humans accentuated play and avoided contests in order to maintain the high degree of cooperation and sharing that was essential to their way of life. In our society, with our competitive games, we often confound play and contest. What might be the consequences of this for children's development? Read More

Some Lessons Taught by Informal Sports, Not Taught by Formal Sports

Imagine an old-fashioned sandlot game of baseball. A bunch of kids of various ages show up at the vacant lot. They've come on foot or by bicycle. Someone brought a bat and ball (which may or may not be an actual baseball), and several came with fielders' gloves. They decide to play a game. ... The lessons intrinsic to this kind of game are the lessons intrinsic to real life: (1) There is no real difference between your team and the other team. (2) To keep the game going, you have to keep everyone happy, including those on the other team. (3) You and the other players have to make the rules yourselves, and you have to change them as conditions change. (4) Conflicts are settled by argument, negotiation and compromise, not by appeal to a higher authority. (5) Playing well and having fun really ARE more important than winning. Read More

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