Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Are Joy and Delight the Meaning of Life?

The boys were playing together on and around the swings. One of them was pumping himself higher and higher while the other, laughing wildly, was lying on the ground beneath his friend. With each pass of the swing, the boy on the ground barely escaped being kicked, a fact that clearly thrilled him.

I wasn't worried about their play. It was clear that they were both hyper-focused on no one getting hurt, yet as I stood nearby chatting with them and snapping photos it occurred to me that this was exactly the sort of behavior that causes some adults to conclude that young children, without the firm, guiding control of adults, will, in their careless ignorance, kill themselves. Or at least severely injure themselves by engaging in what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be pointless, reckless behavior.

The Theory of Evolution would seem to suggest that pointless, reckless behavior reduces an individual's chances of survival, which means they will ultimately be less likely to procreate and pass along the pointless-reckless genes. As I watched these boys joyfully engaged in this game that would be banned on most other playgrounds, I knew I was watching them play, which is, by definition, pointless (at least in the moment) and often hazardous. As I cast my eyes around the rest of the playground, I spied a half dozen other kids engaged in pointless, if not hazardous, pursuits. How did this apparently non-adaptive, entirely voluntary behavior, play, survive in the evolutionary sense? 

And it's not just humans. Dogs and cats play. All mammals play. Birds play. Reptiles play. Even octopuses, a phyla that diverged from our own some 670 million years ago, are known to play. Indeed, it seems that the drive to play may be as universal as reproduction and respiration. So even though purposeless, open-ended, sometimes reckless behavior seems to indicate that play would be non-adaptive, the long arc of evolution suggests otherwise.

Charles Darwin, the first evolutionary biologist wrote, "Natural selection is . . . purposeless. It has no intention, and no objective . . . (it) includes no necessary and universal law of advancement or development." In the concluding paragraph of On the Origin of Species, he writes that all life forms are even now "being evolved," which is to say that evolution is open-ended. As science journalist David Toomey puts it in his new book Kingdom of Play, "(I)f you could distill the process of natural selection into a single behavior, that behavior would be play. Alternatively, if you were to choose an evolutionary theory or view of nature for which play might seem to be a model, it would be natural selection . . . Life itself, in the most fundamental sense, is playful."

Different species play in different ways, of course, but among the most commonly found forms of play is exactly what these boys were doing: putting oneself in awkward or precarious situations and then recovering from it. Play fighting is the classic, nearly universal, example, but things like this, lying under a swing, escaping the danger, then doing it again, is found in every vertebrate and even, as octopuses could attest, at least some invertebrates. In the end, it would not surprise me at all if some day we were to conclude that play is a characteristic of all life, perhaps even including the kingdom of plants. (And if you think this is a bridge too far, I point you to Robin Wall Kimmerer's magnificent Braiding Sweetgrass or Peter Wholleben's book The Hidden Life of Trees.)

There is a great deal of speculation, but we are far from fully understanding why play -- purposeless, open-ended, and voluntary -- is so essential to life itself, but watching these boys, I see joy, I see delight, I see animals engaged fully in this moment in time. And it makes me wonder if the reason play has not just survived, but continues to thrive, over billions of years of evolution, is exactly this: joy and delight. One might even conclude that this is the purpose, if not the meaning, of life.


Last chance to join the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course, Creating a Natural Habitat for Learning. This course is designed to help you figure out how to transform your classroom, home, or playground into the kind of open-ended, child-led environment that puts curiosity, self-motivation, and teamwork at the center of learning. In my decades as an early childhood educator, I've found that nothing improves my teaching and the children's learning experience more than a supportive classroom, both indoors and out. This course is for educators, parents, and directors. Group discounts are available. You don't want to miss this chance to make your "third teacher" (the learning environment) the best it can be. Registration is closing at midnight tonight (April 3). I hope you join us! To learn more and register, click here.

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