In matchups for speed and strength, humans finish far behind other species. For example, the average chimp is much stronger than your favorite linebacker; the whippet next door can embarrass any world-famous sprinter; a cold-blooded chameleon can catch four flies in three seconds, with its tongue; and an everyday housecat can outmatch any human’s reflexes. Princess will regard you with cold pity or contempt if you even try.
However, we humans have our own resources. In his readable book The Hand, the neurologist Frank Wilson describes how our remarkable opposable thumbs make it possible for us to hold a pencil and grip a screwdriver in a three-way “chuck.” No other primate can pluck a cashew out of cashew nut chicken with a chopstick, and when it comes to playing, our remarkable hands let us shuffle a pinochle deck, put top-spin on a tennis ball, thumb-flick a marble, finger “Yankee Doodle” on a tin flute, or paint “Nude Descending a Staircase” when we’re in an avant garde mood. Of course, we have one other advantage in these instances: our notable human hands pair up with our even more noteworthy brains.
Something special happens when you can demonstrate a principle physically—pairing up hand and brain. At The Strong National Museum of Play, where I work, we talk often about the special value of “hands-on” learning. Talk all you please about the mathematics of mechanical advantage, for example, but for long-lasting understanding, nothing beats lifting an un-liftable weight with the aid of a pulley. Socio-historical concepts, too, can become clearer with similar methods. Once with an exhibit on the history of bereavement, we found the need to instruct audiences in the idea of life expectancy. Formally defined, the concept is the “arithmetic mean survival-time of all the individuals in a cohort.” But, I wish you lots of luck getting that concept across to visitors who are otherwise delighted, engaged, and diverted by the busy museum’s sounds and sights. Instead in the service of interpretation, we constructed a tilt-able maze that invited players to navigate a ball bearing around historical obstacles chronologically arranged and labeled “Cholera Epidemic,” “Runaway Wagon,” “Explosion at the Factory,” “Civil War,” and so on. (It was really a scaled-up toy.) What prize did the device offer the soul travelling through the nineteenth century? Living to the ripe old age of forty eight! The kids who lined up to play this morbid game learned lasting lessons in history and basic math.
We think of our hands primarily as agents of our will. But our hands also feed information back. Frank Wilson describes our hands, and indeed our whole bodies, as “instruments of perception,” agents of the body/mind. As we touch, twist, turn, throw, catch, spin, swing, and accelerate our way through physical games, the act of play tunes our bodily instrument. We come to know the world that way, and we come to know ourselves better. We begin to know and trust our playmates and teammates too.
Alas, it’s the kind of learning our students miss when schools eliminate recess. Preparing for high-stakes testing often crowds out play time. Not so long ago, teachers opened the door, and we ran flat out to swing from monkey bars, clap out rhymes, hop on the hopscotch grid, and play crack-the-whip. We played tag and leap frog, and we wrestled and thumb-wrestled. (Those thumbs again...) Meanwhile, we learned and taught each other balance, rhythm, stamina, self-reliance, calculation, and cooperation—subjects for which no test can examine. We learned to negotiate and grit our teeth. But nowadays, physical games are often adjudged too risky for the school playground, though that’s just how kids blow off the pent-up steam that will otherwise whistle in their ears and keep them from learning in the classroom.
Recess has been declining as a feature of school life in the United States for about a quarter century now. Scholars have noted how the rich folklore streaming through old children’s games has begun to evaporate. But, when administrators see play as worthless lollygagging, and when risk managers regard recess as dangerous lollygagging, we lose more than our precious traditions. When schools curtail recess, they oblige kids to give up some freedom and autonomy—the very aspects of childhood that prepare them for an independent adulthood. Physical education classes, ruled and regulated by adults, though useful, cannot make up for the initiative and invention that kids experience in spontaneous, voluntary play.
As developmental evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray puts it succinctly, “kids are designed to play.” Play is important for its own sake, but it is important for learning too. So when our educational system undervalues kids’ bodily intelligence, physical talent, and human flair for cooperation, it’s a shame. And when recess disappears disproportionately in inner city schools, it’s a national scandal. The notion that educationally disadvantaged kids should be further deprived of the benefits of play is most pernicious. In this vast, doomed social-engineering experiment, school reformers have offered a false choice between academic rigor and social and physical fitness. Unsurprisingly enough, schools that abolish or curtail recess experience more behavioral problems, but the supreme irony is that these schools tend also to register lower scores on standardized tests. Keeping kids noses to the grindstone without respite just tends to grind them down. The nation will pay for devaluing play, and I suspect that we’re paying for it already in deficits in social cognition that are registered as high dropout rates and other notorious failures to launch.
We may yet have reason to hope for a different outcome, however. Eight states have passed legislation to require recess, and in response to parents’ urgent petitions, a few more are struggling to reinstate those active intervals that help children develop their bodies, minds, and social gifts.