Thursday, June 13, 2024

Play Allows Us to Direct Our Own Evolution

Ethologists are zoologists who study the behavior of animals in their natural habitat. They study orcas in the ocean, not Sea World. They study cheetahs on the savannah, not in the zoo. This makes sense. When we study animals in captivity most of what we learn is how that species responds to captivity. As writer and filmmaker Carol Black points out in her brilliant essay
A Thousand Rivers, much of the data we collect on human learning has come from studies of children in schools, which is to say, children in captivity.

This question of "captivity" hangs over much, if not most, of the so-called science of learning. After all, virtually all of our children spend most of their lives in the captivity of schools. It's uncomfortable to think about, but it doesn't require a cynic to recognize that schools and prisons have a great deal in common. The inmates are under constant supervision by superiors who are empowered to punish them if they step too far out of line. Their daily schedules are proscribed. They spend most of their time indoors. They cannot leave or opt out or choose to do something other than what they're required to do.

We try to make ourselves feel better about it by telling ourselves the story that it's a benign captivity, one that is "for their own good," but there is no doubt that if left to their own devices, most of our children would choose to spend their time playing, preferably outdoors. In other words, they would choose the opposite of captivity, which is liberty. We all would.

From the perspective of ethology, the only way we will ever understand human learning is to study humans who are at liberty, which is to say, while at play.

There can be no doubt that this urge to play is an adaptive trait, one that is essential to human survival. As journalist David Toomey puts it in his new book Kingdom of Play:

At present, evolutionary biologists do not know that a master gene enabled and orchestrated play, much less which master gene. Neither do they know where or when play began. They have no map, no cladogram, depicting the evolution of all animal play. But they know that play has a history stretching back hundreds of millions of years, and that its roots, that hypothetical suite of master genes, may be older still. Play has endured the formation and reformation of continents, three ice ages, and two mass extinctions. So they — and we— can be certain of one aspect of play. Whatever its adaptive advantages, they are worth the trouble. Nature takes play seriously.

Since we have, for better or worse, chosen to raise our own young in captivity, if we are to likewise take play seriously, we are best served by turning to ethologists, who, as Toomey puts it, "believe that innovative play might be a means by which an animal gains a measure of control over its own evolution."

Evolution is generally thought about in terms of random genetic mutations and law of the jungle consequences, and that obviously still plays a significant role, but it seems that the existence of play allows us to consider evolution from a new perspective. Looked at this way, we see that evolution takes place as a process of living things playing with their environment. When they learn something from their play that enhances their life — e.g., makes it easier to get food, more likely to reproduce, or simply brings joy -- they then teach what they’ve learned to others through role modeling. Over time, natural selection favors those who are best able to take advantage of this learning, so they are the individuals whose genes are the ones that are more likely to be passed along to future generations. And those are the genes, whether or not we know exactly which ones they are, that favor play.

For anyone versed in classic evolutionary theory, this is a bit mind-blowing. After all, this means that animals, through play, are capable of liberating themselves from the forces of natural selection, and to at least some degree direct them. But this kind of liberty is not possible for an animal held in captivity.

Modern school thwarts play. Indeed it often punishes play. Schooling replaces our children's natural urge to direct their own learning through play with a curriculum that determines, in advance, what they will learn, how they will learn it, and according to what schedule. As Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years, tells us in our conversation about "liberation pedagogy" on Teacher Tom's Podcast, "A system that determines what you will learn kills curiosity" and curiosity is the driving force behind play. And as Denisha tells us, "Play is freedom. Play is liberation."

In the early years, many of us strive to create programs that free children to play, to provide them with a natural habitat for learning. This means that we are in the vanguard of understanding human learning. We are the "ethologists" specializing in our own species because we are among the few who live amongst free humans. There is a societal tendency to pat us on the head and patronizingly praise us for doing "such important work," but what they mean, most of the time, is that they're glad we're willing to muck around amidst the pink eye, diaper changing, and temper tantrums, so they don't have to. But this is simply evidence of how little we, as a culture, understand about learning, and it explains why they're unwilling to listen to us when we tell them about play and liberation.

It's from this perspective that we can see that it's not just our children we keep in captivity, but also ourselves. We live in a world that doesn't understand play at all, that denigrates it, that commodifies it, that relegates it to recesses, weekends, and two-weeks of paid vacations.

When I'm with liberated children, however, I find myself, for a time at least, swimming with the orcas, running with the cheetahs, and playing with the children. I'm liberated. And I know that I am in my natural habitat. 


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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