Monday, April 26, 2021

Creating a "Rat Park" for Our Children

Our school is housed in lower level of the Fremont Baptist Church, a place that in non-plague times also opens its doors to several 12-step groups, one of which met early in the morning as I was getting ready for school. I tried to honor the "anonymous" part of AA and keep to myself, but I nevertheless became friendly with a few of the guys over the years and have taken part in many conversations about addiction.

The 12-step model is based upon the idea that alcohol and drugs (and gambling and sex and other things) are addictive and that any one of us could become an addict were we to systematically abuse them. We treat it like an incurable but controllable chronic disease and the kind of talk therapy offered by groups like AA is generally considered central to subduing addictive behavior. That is the prevailing societal idea, although I'm aware there are some who still consider addiction to be a weakness of character.

Some time ago, I read a fascinating article by Bruce K. Alexander, psychologist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. Much of our current thinking on addiction stems from rat studies in which rats were put in cages with the opportunity to imbibe various narcotic substances and in every case, every rat chose to do so, usually at an increasing rate until they died of their drug use. I've read of other experimental models in which these caged rats were given a choice between water bottles and water bottles laced with cocaine with similar results. And it was from these types of experiments that we came to the conclusion that some things are just inherently addictive and we are best advised to stay away from them.

As a young researcher, Alexander had taken part in some of these studies, but was dissatisfied with the experimental model. I mean, come on, rats in the wild are intelligent, social, active creatures. It only makes sense that if they are confined in a small cage with nothing to do but take drugs that's what they'll do. He and his colleagues decided to perform their own version of the experiment, but instead of isolating rats in solitary cages, they would build what they came to call "Rat Park," a place with plenty of space, things with which to play, plenty of tasty food, and, of course, other rats, including potential sexual partners. It was, in a word, a kind of rat paradise, and unsurprisingly, even when "addictive" drugs were available, the rats did not become addicted. Sure, they would sometimes have a go, but most often in a way that we would probably identify and "recreational," and there was nothing like the universal addiction that had resulted from the earlier studies.

Alexander went on to find ways to study humans, mostly by digging into the historical records surrounding people who had had their traditional cultures destroyed such as Native Americans, but his tentative conclusion is that addiction has less to do with the drugs or the humans themselves, and more to do with the cages, real or metaphorical, in which we find ourselves.

When I talk to addicted people, whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, Internet use, sex, or anything else, I encounter human beings who really do not have a viable social or cultural life. They use their addictions as a way of coping with the dislocation: as an escape, a pain killer, or a kind of substitute for a full life. More and more psychologists and psychiatrists are reporting similar observations. Maybe our fragmented, mobile, ever-changing modern society has produced social and cultural isolation in very large numbers of people, even though their cages are invisible!

Alexander points out that even in societies in which drugs and alcohol are not available, people who had been separated from their culture still exhibited many of the characteristic behaviors of mass addiction:

(P)eople stopped doing productive work and taking care of their families . . . idling away their time. Criminality and child neglect became problems, where they had not been before.

I've been living with this metaphor for awhile now and the more I think about it the more sense it makes to me. The mission of our little play-based cooperative school is to be a community in which we are raising our children together, a place with a thriving social and cultural life, a kind of "Rat Park" for children if you will, a place where we can play together. More than ever, I'm convinced that this is the way we should be doing it: that free play within the context of community is the cure for the dislocations and addictions of modern life.


Teacher Tom's Play Summit is nothing less than an attempt to bring the early childhood world together with the singular mission of transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. As I've interviewed our presenters, this idea of play within the context of community is a strong recurring theme, especially from indigenous educators. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? Together we can turn this world around.

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