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June 21st, 2022

“Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

We had seven puppies a while ago. As they grew and opened their eyes, they started playing with each other. Their mom suckled and licked them less and played with them more. They bit each other, pulled each other’s tails and seemed to be having a lot of fun.

When you leave small children to their own devices, you’ll see them doing something similar: they play. We take it for granted. They find things to do; they interact; they move around a lot.

When they grow up a little we expect them to stop playing and get serious. We send them to school, because this is where they get prepared for adult life. I find this quite unfortunate.

Our taming starts early, and gets extreme when we enter the schooling system. This is when we are expected to sit still and learn. Play is restricted to recess, where we are allowed to let off some steam so we can go back to sit and learn.

What we learn in these years goes way beyond the official Ministry of Education program. We learn important lessons that will allow us to fit in as good citizens in our civilised society. Among other things, we learn the following:

  1. Play is for children, and we should grow out of it.

  2. When we want to be moving about, we shouldn’t.

  3. What we want doesn’t matter.

  4. We shouldn’t/can’t follow what makes us curious.

  5. They (adults, teachers, experts) have the answers; we don’t.

Play prepares our puppies for adult canine life. We also play with them, and this prepares them for life among humans. Children’s play prepares them for life, too. They learn touch, texture, dexterity, communication, body-image, muscular control, balance, language, limits. They play with all the important materials that constitute human existence. They learn constantly and avidly. They learn effortlessly.

Play isn’t just a nice way to learn. It isn’t some seasoning we can add to the school program to make it more palatable. Play is the framework in which learning occurs.

We have distorted the idea of learning into a mere mental process. We have thus made it as difficult and unpleasant as possible. It’s a wonder we learn at all under these conditions. We seem to learn in spite of them, just because we’re designed to learn no matter what.

Learning means fiddling around with things we don’t yet master; making mistakes; trying and failing; experimenting with different options and variations, and finding out the ones that work best; not caring about results; inventing rules and breaking them; being silly. All of the above (coincidentally?) also constitute play.

Organised sports have nothing to do with play. It’s confusing that we use the same word for it. Professional footballers don’t play; they work hard, they must perform and deliver, they obey rules and pay a price for errors. This is not play.

I have a hypothesis. Leave kids to simply be in the adult environment, cared for but not restricted, supported but not schooled, and they’ll learn everything they need to know to have a prosperous life. They’ll talk, read and write, they’ll know the arithmetic they’d need to pay bills and deal with money, and they’ll learn the skills that they find interesting and attractive. And they won’t ever stop playing.

It’s just a hypothesis. But given that our civilised society seems to have reached a dead-end on this particular path we have taken, it may be the time to play with new hypotheses. Imagining a world without schools is one of my favourites.

Michael Landau

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