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 ....

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 ...

Play Makes Us Human III: Play Is 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. ...  

Play Makes Us Human II: 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.

Play Makes Us Human I: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature

I've been working lately on a ludic theory of human nature. In case you haven't studied Latin in a while, I hereby inform you that ludic means playful. I'm calling it a ludic theory because if I called it a playful theory you wouldn't take it seriously. ... My theory--which I outline here--is that play is the germ we inherited from our ...

The Headman Was a Woman: For Batek, Nurturance = Leadership

Tanyogn was the kind of person who would be an asset to any community. She was intelligent, energetic, hardworking, a skilled debater, and most of all extraordinarily caring of all people around her. Among the hunting and gathering Batek...

Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy

We value democracy. As citizens, we want our children to grow up holding and abiding by democratic values. We know that democracy is not easy. Democracy implies freedom, but it also implies responsibility. The balance between the two is delicate and takes wisdom that can only be gained through practice. . . .  How do children acquire such values ...

Rousseau’s Errors: They Persist Today in Educational Theory

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is known as the "back-to-nature" theorist in education. He is referred to frequently in education texts as the originator of child-centered, natural means of education. I have been writing about children's natural means of education; so you might assume that I would be inspired by Rousseau.  But...

Minimally Invasive Education: Lessons from India

Ten years ago, on January 29, 1999, Sugata Mitra, in India, initiated a remarkable set of observations of children's self-directed learning. On that day, he turned on a computer that he had installed in an outside wall of the building where he worked, a wall that faced one of the poorest slums in New Delhi, a community where most children are illiterate.... 

How to Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Intervene

My soul has been stirred by many of nature's wonders... But, of all of nature's scenes that I have enjoyed and pondered, none have enthralled me more than those of children playing--playing on their own, without adults guiding or interrupting them. My words are poor substitutes for the actual scenes, but let me try to convey two examples that have moved me 

The Value of Play IV: Nature’s Way of Teaching Us New Skills

Play is nature's way of assuring that young mammals, including young humans, will practice and become good at the skills they need to develop in order to survive and thrive in their environments.  In this essay I explain how the "triviality" of play suits it for its serious educative purpose.

Value of Play III: How Children Confront Life's Challenges

Children's extraordinarily powerful drive to play did not come about to provide them with "recess" or "recreation." It came about for a far more serious purpose. It came about to help them survive. ...  Children play at the realities of life.  ... The most dramatic evidence I know of concerning children's drive to embrace even the worst horrors ... 

The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning

All cats bark. Muffins is a cat. Does muffins bark?  Piaget believed that children under about 11 years old could not solve problems like this because they lack the capacity for counterfactual reasoning. But an experiment conducted in England showed that even 4-year-olds could easily solve such problems in the context of play. How ...

The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights

To understand play's many purposes, it is useful to think deeply about what play is. In this essay I argue that play is activity that is (1) self-chosen and self-directed; (2) motivated by means more than ends; (3) guided by mental rules; (4) imaginative; and (5) conducted in an alert but non-stressed frame of mind.

Chasing Games and Sports: Why Do We Like to Be Chased?

The three-year-old squeals with almost unbearable joy as she flees from the terrible monster, in the form of her father or big brother, who threatens to catch her and eat her for breakfast. The 22-year-old quarterback experiences a similar thrill as he twists, turns, and dashes around one monstrous defender after another on his way to the goal line. Why is this ...

Reasons to Consider a Less Selective, Less Expensive College

Elite colleges have for many become prohibitively expensive.  But there are other reasons, too, for choosing a less selective school.

“No Child Left Inside”: Poor Solution to a National Problem

On Sept. 18, the US House of Representatives passed its version of the "No Child Left Inside" act. I share all of the expressed concerns of the Coalition that is pushing for this legislation. But...

The Varieties of Play Match Requirements of Human Existence

Pay is nature's way of ensuring that young mammals will practice the skills they need for survival. Young carnivores, such as lions and tigers, play at stalking, chasing, and pouncing. Young zebras and other animals that are preyed on by lions and such play at running, dodging, and escaping. Young humans ...

Why We Should Stop Segregating Children by Age: Part III

We adults flatter ourselves when we think that we are the best models, guides, and teachers for children. Children are much more interested in other children than in us. Children are especially interested in, and ready to learn from, those others who are a little older than themselves, a little farther along in their development, but not too far along.

Why We Should Stop Segregating Children by Age: Part II

When children who are all nearly the same age play a game, competitiveness can interfere with playfulness. This is especially true in our current culture, which puts so much emphasis on winning . . . In contrast, when children who differ widely in age play together, the focus shifts from that of beating the other to that of having fun.

Why We Should Stop Segregating Children by Age: Part I

One of the oddest, and in my view most harmful, aspects our treatment of children today is our penchant for segregating them into separate groups by age. We do that not only in schools, but increasingly in out-of-school settings as well. In doing so, we deprive children of a valuable component of their natural means of self-education.

The Natural Environment for Children’s Self-Education

Young people's instincts to play and explore, and thereby to learn, evolved in the context of the hunter-gatherer band. Here I describe the ingredients of the typical hunter-gatherer band that seem most crucial to self-education and show how those ingredients also exist at a modern school designed to enable self-education.

Forces Against Fundamental Educational Change

Many people today recognize the educative value of free play and exploration, regret that children are provided relatively little opportunity for such activities, and believe that children's willfulness is a positive force for their development, education, and enjoyment of life. Yet schools continue on, as before. In fact, they become worse....

A Brief History of Education

If we want to understand why standard schools are what they are, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight. They are, instead, products of history. Schooling, as it exists today, only makes sense if we view it from a historical perspective.

Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley

The Sudbury Valley School has, for the past forty years, been the best-kept secret in American education. ... Professors of education ignore it, not out of malice but because they cannot absorb it into their framework of educational thought. . . . To understand the school one has to begin with a completely different mindset from that which dominates current educational thinking.

Children Educate Themselves III: The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers

Our human instincts, including all of the instinctive means by which we learn, came about in the context of a hunting-and-gathering way of life. So: How do hunter-gatherer children learn what they need to know to become effective adults?

Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids

Have you ever stopped to think about how much children learn in their first few years of life, before they start school, before anyone tries in any systematic way to teach them anything? Next time you are in viewing range of a child under the age of about five years old, sit back and watch for awhile. You're in for a treat.

Children Educate Themselves I: Outline of Some of the Evidence

As adults we do have certain responsibilities toward our children and the world’s children. It is our responsibility to create safe, health-promoting, respectful environments in which children can develop. It is our responsibility to be sure that children have proper foods, fresh air, non-toxic places to play, and lots of opportunities to interact freely with other people across the whole spectrum of ages. It is our responsibility to be models of human decency. But one thing we do not have to worry about is how to educate children. ... 

Learning Requires Freedom

Everywhere we turn these days we find pundits and politicians arguing for more restrictive schooling. Of course they don’t use the word “restrictive,” but that’s what it amounts to. They want more standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school years, more sanctions against children’s taking a day or two off for a family vacation.

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