By Lauren Roberts

Regardless of how you believe humanity began years ago, I think we can all agree that man was much more primitive before than he is now. What was life like many years ago? There are scientists and archaeologists who speculate about what life was like but we don’t truly know because we weren’t there. My question is, how did humans learn many years ago? I propose that education during ancient times looked a lot like play. In an article posted on Psychology Today, an educational researcher at Boston College, Peter Gray, Ph.D. (2008) said, “Anthropologists have reported that the hunter-gatherer groups they studied did not distinguish between work and play…essentially all of life was understood as play.”

If all of life was play, then how did education, as it exists today, develop? There is clearly an innate drive in adults to teach their children everything they know. As language developed, stories were told and memorized to preserve the past. In addition, a set of rules was established and taught somehow.

Something happened and life stopped being all play. Work became a reality. Education looked different in every culture. In most cultures, early on, children were subdued by authorities until they submitted. Formal education was started in the United States by Christians who required their children to know rules and the scriptures well. Education was not established to take play out of children’s lives. However, as cultural pressure to prove self-worth increased, the amount of time for play decreased. Life began to look different, and “children became forced laborers.”

Peter Gray (2008) also said, “Play and exploration were suppressed.” In most cultures, willfulness, which began as a good thing, became a vice that authorities felt the need to beat out of children. Children became tools of gaining wealth because people started to realize they could gain more if children were working for them and if their will was suppressed with violence, they would become a source of more wealth.

So, education developed as being the children’s work. But the idea of learning through play kept trying to resurface. In Germany, Friedrich Froebel created kindergarten as a way of trying to get children out of the workforce and into a place of learning through play. He said, “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”

However, even with his invention, school developed back into laborious work for children. Today, when the impulse to play is still so strong in some children, they are no longer beaten, they are medicated (Gray, 2008). Thankfully, the innate desire to play has not vanished. Infants still learn about their world through play. They desire for their mom and dad to make them laugh and they develop well as a result of playing. So, what are the benefits of learning through play?

  1. Cognitive development. There is a chemical secreted in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which promotes the growth of brain cells. This chemical is released through play and exploration. Children learn well when they have short breaks for unstructured play time. In an article about the cognitive benefits of play, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. said, “Most play involves exploration, and exploration is, by definition, an act of investigation.” Children are natural explorers because they are born with a curiosity to figure out their world.
  2. Strengthens motor skills. When children play various sports or games with their peers, they use their bodies in new ways and develop their motor skills. Running, jumping, playing catch and riding a bicycle are all forms of play that help with gross motor skills. Stacking blocks, painting, putting beads on a string and puzzles help with fine motor skills. I even have some tunnels made out of parachute fabric that I put out in my living room for my two little kiddos. They crawl around in them when it’s rainy outside and they are in need of some indoor gross motor playtime.
  3. Encourages imagination. Imagination is apparently essential for all of life. Through imagination, we find satisfaction in life. We can see our destination and purpose in life through imagination and then we can do whatever it takes to get there. I feel that imagination is our form of play coming out in this modern world that we have created. You can foster imagination through the playful act of storytelling. Eugene Schwartz, director of teacher-education programs at Sunbridge College says, “It’s the one-on-one connection, the parent, and the child, with the story mediating, that takes us back to the archetype of all education, of all human relationships, in which the older generation passes on the wisdom to the next generation.”
  4. Developing communication skills. When we (both children and adults) play, we learn how to communicate with each other. Through trial and error, we can learn about those people around us. Through play, we learn about non-verbal communication, body-language, boundaries and conflict resolution. Sometimes, I feel like parents are even too involved in conflict resolution between children. As a parent, we should be there on the sidelines if they need help in these conflicts but I try to step back and watch how they choose to handle conflict on their own. Playing with others will help children learn to communicate with others which will also help them develop their language.
  5. Builds deeper relationships. This one is also for the adults. My husband and I make it through a lot of tough fights because we are both very playful. Sometimes when he is mad, I throw a rolled up piece of paper at him. Play encourages relationship reconciliation. Play in relationships says, I know there’s confrontation but I’m choosing you anyway. We model this for our children because we want them to learn that through play, they can create deeper and more meaningful relationships.

I believe play is devalued in our world today and maybe that’s why there’s so much chaos. Maybe there’s something about this playfulness component that needs to be brought back into our culture. Perhaps we would all benefit from learning through play, even as adults. An Irish comic dramatist, George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”