Importance of play: Learning from kindergarten and Bonobo apes

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, October 2012.

In Robert Fulghum’s poem, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten,” he writes, “Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday school.” In our attempts to make sure that no child is left behind or to qualify our child for the right pre-school to ensure eventual college and professional success, have we created a society where these lessons from the sandpile are no longer learned?

Later in the poem, he writes, “Live a balanced life – Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.” Of those qualities of a balanced life, how many are emphasized in our society, whether with children or adults? How many children draw, paint, sing, dance, and play on a daily basis? How much do we emphasize work over the other qualities of the balanced life? 

Any responsible parent, teacher or adult would emphasize work over the other more frivolous activities because work is how one will get ahead. At younger and younger ages, we emphasize work over play: children attend training sessions with personal trainers rather than playing in the front yard or at the park; children go to a tutor or sit with flash cards to memorize math problems rather than reading baseball box scores to become familiar with numbers. Is this emphasis on work – a product of our evolved society – how we were meant to develop?

In a short talk to TEDx Long Beach, evolutionary anthropologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo speaks about the bonobo ape society in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

She compared the bonobos to humans in terms of evolution and play, and suggested ways in which human society can learn from the bonobo society. She said:

“Play is not just child’s games…play is foundational for building relationships and fostering tolerance. It’s where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience, and it’s all about the generation of diversity: diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, and diversity of connections. When you watch bonobo play, you are seeing the evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance, and ritual. Play is the glue that binds us together.”

These are essentially the same things that Fulghum mentions in his ode to kindergarten. If play is essential to the development of relationships, tolerance, trust, creativity, resilience, and diversity, are we short-changing our youth by emphasizing work and not play? What will society be like if these attributes are not developed fully in the population because of the lack of play? Is slightly better academic performance worth the lack of development of these soft skills? In terms of professional success, aren’t these the attributes that most employers seek, as opposed to high GPAs or test scores? Don’t most employers want an employee who is tolerant, trustworthy, creative, and resilient?

The early emphasis on work has led to children who do not know how to play. Several basketball coaches and parents have read my articles and emailed to tell me that when they open the gym for their players and encourage them to play, the players do not know what to do: they struggle to make their own teams, create their own rules, decide on their own games, and more. I teach a soccer activity class at my university which is essentially a show up and play class, and the college students need me to make teams, decide on the game, determine the rules, and more. These are things that we did in 1st grade without any trouble because we were allowed to play freely, make our games, pick our own teams, create our own rules, settle our own disputes, and more. By emphasizing academic achievement at the expense of play, are we moving society forward or retarding development?

In his new book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argued that non-cognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, and grit – the types of skills that play develops – are the keys to achieving success. Izquierdo added, “Play is our adaptive wild card. In order to adapt successfully to a changing world, we need to play….Play is not frivolous; play is essential.” Has the world ever changed as much as rapidly as it has in the last decade? Is our de-emphasis of play preparing our children for this ever-changing world? If a group of 6th graders or undergraduates cannot choose teams or decide on the game form, how can we expect them to navigate the world successfully, regardless of GPA or SAT or the name on a diploma?

The lack of play has other obvious consequences. Approximately one-third of the American population is obese and two-thirds are overweight. In children in the U.S., 17.1% are obese and 33% are overweight (Flegal, Carroll, Ogden, & Curtin, 2010). A series of studies have shown that children with poorer motor skills are more likely to be overweight or obese as adolescents. Therefore, developing motor skills in children may be one important way to fight the obesity epidemic. Izquierdo and Fulghum reference dance and play, which would be two ways to develop better motor-skill coordination.

An interesting study by LeGear and colleagues (2012) in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that the motor skill competence of kindergartners was generally low, but their perceptions of their skills was high. This is likely due to the age, as kindergartners generally have not started to use social norms for comparisons to determine their skill levels, as do adults, and children of this age are unconcerned with making mistakes. Children at this age tend to see effort and skill as the same thing: trying something means that they are good at it regardless of competence. This makes for a tremendous opportunity for the development of motor skills at this age before children become self-conscious and aware of their low competence. Increasing play would be a natural way to develop better motor skill competence with these children.

I listened to a dissertation proposal about a movement integration program in elementary schools (3rd-5th grade). Children are so physically inactivity that there is a movement to introduce academic lessons that incorporate physical activity, like teaching addition and subtraction with children jumping up and down as many times as the correct answer. While this may be a needed intervention, should it be? Shouldn’t the real intervention be to increase play in children, especially those in kindergarten and below?

If children grow up playing and moving, and develop better motor skill competence as a consequence, these children may be more likely to remain physically active. By remaining physically active, they may engage in more play, whether by playing games at recess, dancing, playing organized sports, or other forms of play. By engaging in more play, the children will be following the evolutionary path described by Izquierdo, and will be living Fulghum’s balanced life. Isn’t that how we should define success for our children?

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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