Friday, April 12, 2024

An Unplanned (and Unimaginably Cruel) Cultural Experiment

A friend who works with young children recently texted me with questions about why I thought kids today seem more anxious than in the past.

There are a lot of theories. Some blame screen-based technology, especially smartphones. Some blame the media. Some blame bad parenting. Some environmental toxins. Some blame a society that has gone off the rails. One of the most credible theories, however, is that our children are suffering from a deficit of good, old-fashioned play, and anxiousness is a symptom.

Most of the leading thinkers on play (e.g., Peter Gray, Jonathan Haight, Lenore Skenazy, Stuart Brown, Alfie Kohn, Maggie Dent) are convinced that this documented decline in childhood play is a direct cause of this documented increasing childhood anxiety. At one level, this remains theoretical, however, because no one has ever conducted play-deprivation studies on our own species. It's been demonstrated in rats and other mammals -- less play leads to more anxiety. But since it would be an unimaginable cruelty to perform experiments of this type on human children (not that animal research isn't just as cruel), we don't have, and probably never will have, the kind of direct, experimental link to human behavior that we would like. 

As neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp says, however, "I do suspect we are currently in an unplanned cultural experiment of that kind."

So while we bicker around the edges about things like the impact of smartphones and video games (which may just as easily be a form of self-medication) we, as a society, performatively scratch our heads as our children find themselves in childhoods in which play has been replaced with longer school days, shorter recesses, homework, sports teams, and all manner of after school and weekend enrichment programs, all supervised and controlled by adults. Rare is the contemporary American child who plays even a fraction as much as children from past generations.

So why would lack of play lead to anxiety?

There are a large number of theories for the widespread existence of play throughout the animal kingdom, humans included: to burn off excess energy, to destress, to practice skills and train muscles that will be necessary for adulthood, to create social bonds, to spur cognitive or language or moral development, all of which are probably part of the answer to a big question: why did play evolve in mammals, birds, reptiles, and even insects? 

Of course, it's not a stretch to connect missing any of this to increased anxiousness, but it's probably best explained (and predicted) by what is referred to as "training for the unexpected," a hypothesis proposed by researchers Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and Marc Bekoff. 

In his new book, Kingdom of Play, science writer David Toomey offers a number of examples of animals that seem to surrender control or self-handicap while playing. A prime example comes from the work of Newberry with piglets. "When the piglets played, they often ran about . . . Running had an obvious adaptive advantage: it would be good practice for escaping a predator. But at no particular time and for no apparent reason, one piglet would suddenly stop running and perform a flop-over." 

So how is this training for the unexpected? "(W)hile running, free-ranging animals are likely to stumble, slip, fall, or collide with something. Spinka, Newberry, and Bekoff knew that the piglet flop-over was not good practice for escaping a predator in an idealized environment. It might, though, be good practice for recovering from a fall in a real one. Natural selection might have developed a means for animals to learn to recover balance by evolving in them a desire to put themselves in situations where they will be thrown off-balance. "We hypothesize," they wrote, "that a major ancestral function of play is to rehearse behavior sequences in which animals lose full control of their locomotion, position, or sensory/spatial input and need to repair those faculties quickly." 

Spinka and his colleagues believe that this self-handicapping is not just an essential feature of play, but it's most essential feature. In other words, play has evolved to allow us to prepare for handling the unknown and unexpected slings and arrows of life itself. No wonder that children who have been deprived of play feel anxious. They've missed out on the training.

When we watch young children play, we see this self-handicapping all the time. I've often watched children, for no apparent reason, like those piglets, throw themselves onto the ground, only to get back up and keep running. Even while engaged in such mundane activities like moving from point-A to point-B children inject self-handicapping play into their efforts. They pause to swing on a tree branch. They spontaneously or run up or roll down a hill. They balance on curbs, skip, walk backwards, dance, and otherwise do all kinds of things to make the seemingly simple journey from here to there more difficult and unpredictable than it objectively needs to be. A child might choose to pretend to be a baby, temporarily sacrificing walking and talking. Costumes restrict movement. And self-regulated rough-and-tumble play (the most universal form of play throughout the animal kingdom) always includes self-handicapping of all kinds in order to ensure the safety and enjoyment of everyone no matter their age or ability.

It's from playing in this way, according to Spinka and his colleagues, that animals practice for surviving in an unpredictable world. This is why play is such a prevalent feature of life itself, and is likely why a lack of play leads to animals that are overly anxious about their ability to deal with a life of unknowns.

The evidence for play deprivation being at the root of increased childhood anxiety is far stronger than for, say, video games, yet we continue to subject children to our unplanned and cruel cultural experiment in human play deprivation. Instead of heeding the clear results, we're drugging our children and shaming them for their use of smartphones, because to blame a lack of opportunities to play would mean a major, and likely disruptive, re-evaluation of modern childhood, which is to say, all of society.

We are also, right now, as a society, wondering why so many young people are lonely and angry. Back in the 1960's clinical psychologist Stuart Brown was part of three studies into the backgrounds of violent men. "What struck our separate research teams as unexpected," he wrote, "was that normal play behavior was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, anti-social men regardless of demography." Again, popular culture would have us blame smartphones, video games, and the internet. Dr. Brown was so alarmed by his findings that he devoted the next 50 years to the study of and advocacy for childhood play.

It's past time that the rest of us take play deprivation seriously. And the first step is to, right now, take the children in your life outside and leave them alone to flop and fight and run. No one knows what to expect from tomorrow. Play is how we get ready for that.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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