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