October 2, 2013, 4:56 pm
Filed under: brave new world, chronotopes, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

HAVANA—Children play in the Plaza Vieja, 1998.
© David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos

Over the past 50 years children in the western world – at least –  have seen their time allotted for play significantly reduced by marmy homework scolds and, in parallel, have suffered increasingly from neuroses like anxiety and depression: there is a link argues Peter Gray in his article The Play Deficit (which you can read – linked below).

Gray lays out further deleterious effects from lack of play some of which I highlight in the excerpts pulled below, including lack of empathy, bullying, passivity and fear, unfocused anger etc.

He describes how extant hunter gatherer groups who allow their children to play nearly exclusive of any other activity from the ages of four to 19 develop egalitarian, mutually beneficial tribes.

I could never argue for playing until the age of 19; the thing that freed me most in my life was – and is – education: reading, studying, writing. But still, play is waning and the kids are unhappy and we should do something about it.

Here is Peter Gray:

I don’t want to over-idealize children. Not all children learn these lessons easily; bullies exist. But social play is by far the most effective venue for learning such lessons, and I suspect that children’s strong drive for such play came about, in evolution, primarily for that purpose. Anthropologists report an almost complete lack of bullying or domineering behaviour in hunter-gatherer bands. In fact, another label regularly used for such band societies is egalitarian societies. The bands have no chiefs, no hierarchical structure of authority; they share everything and co-operate intensively in order to survive; and they make decisions that affect the whole band through long discussions aimed at consensus. A major reason why they are able to do all that, I think, lies in the extraordinary amount of social play that they enjoy in childhood. The skills and values practiced in such play are precisely those that are essential to life in a hunter-gatherer band. Today you might survive without those skills and values, but, I think, not happily.


Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it. Such play must always be self-directed, never forced or even encouraged by an authority figure. It’s cruel to force children to experience fears they aren’t ready for, as gym teachers do when they require all children in a class to climb ropes to the rafters or swing from one stand to another. In those cases the results can be panic, embarrassment, and shame, which reduce rather than increase future tolerance for fear.

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