The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise
in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard
questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and
tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person
experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others
and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in
narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to
play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an
authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children
there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.
In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental
disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our
children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not
less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite
direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less
opportunity for free play.
I recently took part in a radio debate with a woman representing an organisation called the
National Center on Time and Learning, which campaigns for a longer school day and school year
for schoolchildren in the US (a recording of the debate can be found here). Her thesis —
consistent with her organisation’s purpose and the urgings of President Barack Obama and the
Education Secretary Arne Duncan — was that children need more time in school than currently
required, to prepare them for today’s and tomorrow’s competitive world. I argued the opposite.
The host introduced the debate with the words: ‘Do students need more time to learn, or do
students need more time to play?’
Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my
debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according
to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed
activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation
is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should
be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important
of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children
need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.
I’m an evolutionary psychologist, which means I’m interested in human nature, its relationship
to the nature of other animals, and how that nature was shaped by natural selection. My special
interest is play.
The young of all mammals play. Why? Why do they waste energy and risk life and limb playing,
when they could just rest, tucked away safely in a burrow somewhere? That’s the kind of
question that evolutionary psychologists ask. The first person to address that particular question
from a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective was the German philosopher and naturalist Karl
Groos. In a book called The Play of Animals (1898), Groos argued that play came about by
natural selection as a means to ensure that animals would practise the skills they need in order to
survive and reproduce.
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