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. People in a democracy are free, yet they must follow rules, cooperate with others, respect differences among individuals, and recognize that their own needs and rights are no more valuable than are those of every other person. How do children acquire such values and learn to live by them?

One thing we can be certain of is that children do not acquire such values in schools, at least not in the schools that most people know. People acquire values by actually experiencing those values, in real life settings, and seeing that they work. In schools children experience dictatorship, not democracy. Children are required by law to be in school, and while there they must follow rules that they have no voice in creating. They may be required to memorize something about democratic values as part of a civics lesson, but they do not experience those values, so the lesson may seem cynical. They may, if they are lucky, experience compassion from kind teachers, but that is benevolent dictatorship, not democracy.

Children cannot acquire democratic values through activities run autocratically by adults. They can and do, however, experience and acquire such values in free play with other children. That is a setting where they are treated as equals, where they must have a say in what goes on, and where they must respect the rights of others if they wish to be included. In previous essays I have argued that play is nature’s way of promoting children’s reasoning (12/04/08) and physical skills (01/01/09). Now I argue that play is also nature’s way of teaching children how to get along with one another democratically.

As I pointed out in my essay on the definition of play (11/19/08), play is not random activity. It always has structure, and that structure can be specified in terms of rules. Even the most informal kinds of play are structured by rules. For example, children in rough-and-tumble playfighting abide by rules about what kinds of blows are permissible. An overriding rule of such play is that you don’t really hurt the other person. Little children playing make-believe establish elaborate sets of rules specifying what roles each person plays, how they play them, and what props each may or may not use. Researchers who study such play have noted that more time goes into articulating and negotiating the rules than into actually playing. Formal games, like baseball, have official rules, but in pickup games the players always modify the rules to fit their unique needs and desires—“Any ball hit into the mean neighbor’s yard is an automatic out.” All such rules, which specify how play is to proceed, might be referred to as game rules.

But above the game rules lies a higher set of rules, which apply to all social play. These are the rules that make social play possible. These are rules about how to play with other people. To distinguish them from the game rules, I’ll call them the meta-rules of social play. These rules are also, in essence, the principles of democracy. In brief, here they are, stated as well as I can at this moment:

1. All players must have a voice in choosing, making, or changing the game rules.

2. To the degree possible, without violating the game rules or infringing on other people’s rights, everyone in the game must be allowed to play in their own way, to express their own individuality.

3. All players must be treated respectfully, as equal to everyone else.

In social play these rules hold sway not because anyone preaches them as moral principles, but because the pragmatics of play require them. If people violate such rules—or violate them too egregiously—the game falls apart. Let me explain.

Play, by definition, is optional. It is something people choose to do, not something they have to do. The most fundamental freedom in any form of play is the freedom to quit. Everyone implicitly recognizes that. If someone is forced to stay in a game, then that person is not a player but a victim. This freedom to quit is the driving force that makes social play necessarily democratic.

In play, as in the rest of life, there are always some people who would like to dictate the rules. Suppose bossy Betsy, in a game of “house,” tells Jill and Jamie just what roles they must play, what props they must use, and how they must act in their make-believe game. Jill and Jamie, even if they are smaller than Betsy, may have other ideas of how they want to play. If Betsy sticks to her guns and insists on having it all her way, Jill and Jamie will quit. They’ll go and do something else. Betsy, left alone, has learned a valuable lesson. Next time she won’t be quite so bossy. She’ll make suggestions, but be willing to compromise.

Similarly, bully Benjamin, in the baseball game, may insist on doing all the pitching for his team, arguing (correctly, let us assume) that he is the best pitcher. But three other players on his team also want to pitch. They want to so badly that they may quit if not allowed a chance. If Benjamin doesn’t agree he may lose half his team and the game will be over. Even moderately sophisticated players understand all this implicitly. Nobody has to actually threaten to quit; everyone knows that to keep a game going you must keep others happy. That is why everyone has to have a say in the rules and all other decisions. That is also why everyone must be treated respectfully and equally. The equality of play—like the equality of all democracy—is not the equality of sameness. It is, rather, the equality that comes from respecting equally the differing needs and desires of diverse people.

Notice that in the pickup game of baseball the goals of keeping the game going and keeping people on both teams happy trump the goal of winning. The players may say that their goal is to win, and indeed the players may cheer every time their team gets a hit or scores a run, but if you look closely you will see that the real goal is not winning. The real goals are to play well, to have fun, and to keep the game going by keeping everyone happy. You don’t always use your best pitcher if others want to pitch. You pitch softly to little Nicky, who is a novice, because you know he would have no chance and no fun if you pitched hard. You pitch hard to big experienced Henry, partly because you want to get him out, but also because you know that a soft pitch would insult him. In real play, unlike in Little League Baseball or other adult-directed activities, each player must attend to the psychology of all of the players and play in ways that please them. That is the route to keeping the game going and to having fun.

I don’t want to over-idealize children. Not all children easily learn the lessons of democracy through play. Not all play is completely democratic. Bullies persist, and so do patsies. But social play, more than any other force we know of, helps people overcome their bullying and helps the patsies become more assertive.

How sad it is that children today have less opportunity for true social play, unsupervised by adults, than we did when we were children. Not only does this loss contribute to the epidemics of childhood obesity and depression, but it also, I fear, is making it harder for children to grow up with a full appreciation of democratic values. In play we learn how to negotiate our needs, as equals, and to treat others as equals. In play, no matter what our age, we learn that we are the adults; there is no higher authority to turn to who will solve our problems. And that, really, is the hard lesson of democracy.


See new book, Free to Learn


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