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The Need for "Wild" Play: Let Children Be the Animals They Need to Be

A new book shows that youngsters need to get "down and dirty" and play

This second edition of Bob Hughes's Evolutionary Playwork is an outstanding book that should be read carefully by anyone who's interested in play, and then read again and again. Its fourteen chapters, extensive reference section, and numerous figures provide the most comprehensive and up-to-date coverage of human play of which I am aware and a bonus is that the book is an easy read with minimal jargon. And, not only does Hughes cover vast amounts of material on the evolution and significance of play, he also makes practical suggestions that play workers will find invaluable. My copy is so marked up in various colors I've stopped highlighting and begun making marginal notes.

In July 2011 I had the honor and pleasure of presenting a keynote lecture at the 18th conference of the International Play Association (IPA) world conference called "Playing into the future—thriving and surviving" in Cardiff, Wales, and finally met Bob and many other wonderful people from all over the world working on many different aspects of play. My learning curve was vertical as a relative outsider who was invited to talk about what we can learn about human play from what we know about nonhuman animal (hereafter animal) play. After all, we're big-brained altricial mammals, born helpless and requiring extensive adult care, who learn a wide variety of skills through different sorts of play. Much of what applies to the social development of nonhuman mammals and other animals also applies to us.

When I was at the meeting in Wales and when I thought about it afterwards, I found myself simply astounded that an organization such as Play Wales (the organizers of the 2011 IPA meeting; there are many like it throughout the world) and these sorts of meetings are even necessary so that kids can be kids. The situation is so dire that there is a United Nations Convention on the rights of the child. Every country in the world except for the United States and Somalia has ratified the convention. This also astounded and embarrassed me; what in the world is wrong with educators in the U. S. A.? Why aren't teachers and parents outraged about this? Article 31 of the Convention is specifically concerned with play: Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.

So, what is "evolutionary playwork" and why is this book a major achievement? Hughes coined the term (pp. 43-44) "to re-emphasise that the growing body of scientific evidence confirming a direct relationship between play, evolution and brain growth, demonstrated that play work should never have been viewed either as a social engineering, a socialising or citizenship tool, but rather as comprehensive support for deep biological processes—expressed through mechanisms like adaptation, flexibility, calibration and the different play types—that enabled the human organism to withstand the pressures of extinction." Thus, "playwork was about helping the species to survive extinction and adapt to change, by ensuring that wild adult-free play in diverse environments was still a choice for its children." Play is essential for the psychological well-being of the child. To cut through the chase, as an evolutionary biologist, I see Hughes arguing that play is vital to thriving, surviving, and reproducing. And, with careful study, we can learn much about the evolution of play as a biological adaptation and that individual differences in play can make a difference in the quality of life that human and nonhuman animals enjoy.

My learning curve was also vertical while reading Hughes's book. There is so much in it I can only gloss much of its content and tease you into delving deeper. Hughes covers the history of the development of evolutionary playwork, various play types, stimulation theory and play deprivation, whether or not different play settings are actually working (some are but we can do much better) in terms of what Hughes calls "bio-outcomes (p. 324). Bio-outcomes include "an increase in brain size and organisation, an increased ability to roll with the punches, improvements in resilience and optimism, greater mental flexibility in problem solving, the development of cortical maps, and an increase in successful adaptive strategies ..."

Hughes also wants to know what we need to do in the future to make real play a reality, play that is not bounded by adult rules. I love how Hughes says it (p. 325): " ... if the activity is bounded by adult rules, if it is stiff, formalised and dominated by the need to score points and flatter one's ego, that is not play, it is something else." Play also has some risks attached to it. Hughes recognizes this and notes (p. 207), "Play, like life, is not safe, and if it is, it is not play." He also writes, "A broken arm now might save a life later." I always like to say play is fun but it's also very serious business.

As someone who's studied social play behavior in various animals I've had some, but not all that much contact, with those interested in human animal play. From time to time teachers and child psychologists ask me questions such as "What can we learn from the way in which animals play that will help us gain a better understanding of human play?" This is happening more and more as kids are increasingly pulled from the playground to their computers and other devices on which they can play a myriad of games. Social networks also get in the way of spontaneous social play and many people are rightfully concerned about what these means for the current and future well-being of today's youngsters.The study of play behavior in animals tells us a lot about what human children need.

Basically, we can learn about the various reasons why animals play (why it has evolved and develops as it does) including its vital role in social development and socialization, physical exercise, cognitive development, and also for learning social skills concerning fairness, cooperation, and moral behavior ("wild justice"; Bekoff 2008; Bekoff and Pierce 2009). For example, the basic rules for fair play in animals also apply to humans, namely ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you're wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play.

I agree with Hughes that human kids need to play and that they need to have fun while doing it. There are always risks but that's how survival skills are learned and polished. Along these lines I want to add a more comparative perspective than Hughes provides and mention a function of play that seems to be quite old evolutionarily, specifically, play as "training for the unexpected" (Spinka, Newberry, and Bekoff 2001). Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that play functions to increase the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this "training for the unexpected" we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations. Thus, play is comprised of sequences in which players switch rapidly between well-controlled movements similar to those used in "serious" behavior and movements that result in temporary loss of control.

Simply put, and I don't know anyone who would disagree (including perhaps even those who force kids to sit in front of their computers and don't support the U. N. Convention of the rights of the child) young children need to play just as young animals need to play. We need free-ranging kids and we need to allow kids to be the animals who they are. They must be allowed to "get down and dirty" and learn to take risks and negotiate social relationships that might be complicated, unexpected, or unpredictable. Play can be a very significant way to overcome the increase in nature-deficit disorder (a term coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods (see also) by getting kids outside and out into nature.

Near the end of his book and continuing on with his evolutionary arguments, Hughes writes (p. 385), "So my wild playing child, as a representation of everything human that has gone before, is as ancient and ageless as the land; the wise sage and the awe struck newcomer; the timeless survivor and the passionate explorer." And (p. 386), "It is vital that we understand that our children are our future, that without them we do not have one, and without 'wild' play neither do they. They need freedom and space, and both should be awarded freely and ungrudgingly, as a demonstration of our civilization." Oh my, how true this is. It's just what the doctor ordered! And adults also need to pay close attention these most important messages and play more.

I love the slogan of Play Wales, Better a broken bone than a broken spirit, attributed to Lady Allen of Hurtwood. We should embrace it with all our heart. And, we should all embrace Bob Hughes's new book and thank him for taking the time to write it. It will challenge some, be a "no-brainer" for others (let's hope most readers), and I'm sure it will get everyone talking about the importance of play, play, and more play. Can we ever play too much? I don't think so. Just do it!

Note: A version of this essay will appear in The International Journal of Play at a later date.


Bekoff, M. 2008. Animals at Play: Rules of the Game. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Bekoff, M. and Pierce, J. 2009. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. C., and Bekoff, M. 2001. Mammalian play: Training for the unexpected. Quarterly Review of Biology 76, 141-168.