Koach Karl finishes up this great article on "Play"
Why would such an enriching activity as play also be a source of so much anarchy and fear? Sutton- Smith found one possible answer by reading Stephen Jay Gould, the author and evolutionary biologist. The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ‘‘possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.’’ Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ‘‘the key is flexibility.’’
What Gould called quirkiness, Sutton-Smith called play. ‘‘Animal play has been described by many investigators as fragmentary, disorderly, unpredictable and exaggerated,’’ Sutton-Smith wrote, and ‘‘child play has been said to be improvised, vertiginous and nonsensical.’’ The adaptive advantage to a behavior that is multifaceted, then, is that pursuing it, enjoying it, needing it to get through the day, allows for a wider range in a play-loving person’s behavioral repertory, which is always handy, just in case.
Playing might serve a different evolutionary function too, he suggests: it helps us face our existential dread. The individual most likely to prevail is the one who believes in possibilities — an optimist, a creative thinker, a person who has a sense of power and control. Imaginative play, even when it involves mucking around in the phantasmagoria, creates such a person. ‘‘The adaptive advantage has often gone to those who ventured upon their possibility with cries of exultant commitment,’’ Sutton-Smith wrote. ‘‘What is adaptive about play, therefore, may be not only the skills that are a part of it but also the willful belief in acting out one’s own capacity for the future.’’
It’s a pretty idea, the notion that play gives you hope for a better tomorrow, but science demands something a little less squishy. Science demands that if there are important long-term benefits to play, they must be demonstrated. That is why studies of play-deprived rats are so fascinating; they offer objective evidence that in at least some animals, insufficient play can have serious consequences.
Even when science suggests certain answers, however, it cannot easily make the leap from young rats to young humans, nor tell us much of anything about how those young children should behave. What if all the things we hope children derive from free play — cognitive flexibility, social competence, creative problem-solving, mastery of their own bodies and their own environments — can be learned just as well by teaching these skills directly? What if the only clear advantage to the vanishing 20-minute recess is that it makes kids less restless in class, something that can be just as easily accomplished by a jog around the all-purpose room?
Which brings us back to wondering what would be lost if the Cassandras are right, whether children would suffer if free play really does turn out to be a thing of the past. It seems almost ludicrous to ask such a question. Of course play is good for something; it is the essence of good. Watch children at play, and the benefits are so obvious: just look at those ecstatic faces, just listen to those joyful squeals. Stuart Brown alluded to it in his library talk last month. ‘‘Look at life without play, and it’s not much of a life,’’ he told the audience. ‘‘If you think of all the things we do that are play related and erase those, it’s pretty hard to keep going.’’ Without play, he said, ‘‘there’s a sense of dullness, lassitude and pessimism, which doesn’t work well in the world we live in.’’
In the end, it comes down to a matter of trade-offs. There are only six hours in a school day, only another six or so till bedtime, and adults are forever trying to cram those hours with activities that are productive, educational and (almost as an afterthought) fun. Animal findings about how play influences brain growth suggest that playing, though it might look silly and purposeless, warrants a place in every child’s day. Not too overblown a place, not too sanctimonious a place, but a place that embraces all styles of play and that recognizes play as every bit as essential to healthful neurological development as test-taking drills, Spanish lessons or Suzuki violin.
Check back next week for another great article.