The intelligence of play

August 14, 2013 by Georgie Hodgson


“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”
? Plato


The intelligence of play is to keep playing throughout life.
Children love to be outdoors in their natural environment. They love to be in the fresh air and sunlight, barefoot and naked, surrounded by trees and flowers, playing in the water and hearing the birds and the wind. It is so very important to allow our children to have the freedom to learn through play. Children are naturally interested in their surroundings and without this driving curiosity, without this innate need to explore and understand what the environment provides, children would fail to thrive and learn. As parents, it is vital that we recognize the role of curiosity in shaping our children’s lives.
We as humans make sense of the world through play and we naturally want to try and understand everything around us. If children are free to play, they cultivate an engagement with the world. It develops calmness, awareness, self-understanding, skills, confidence, curiosity and flexibility to handle stress and they learn the necessary skills of human beings everywhere – physical skills, linguistic skills, intellectual skills and social skills.

During key periods of development, play appears to be a major designer of the brain. It is interesting to know that the more intelligent a species is, the more they play and the more skillful players in nature have larger and more intricate brains.
Play, if you like, is nature’s way of ensuring that young mammals will practice the skills they need for survival. Young lions and tigers play at stalking, chasing and pouncing and young monkeys play at chasing each other and swinging from trees. However, we humans have more to learn in our sophisticated world and therefore play in far more ways than do the young of any other species. The point is that the universal forms of play seen in any culture, such as rough and tumble, loco motor play, language play and pretend and social dramatic play, match the varieties of skills that human beings everywhere must develop to survive and thrive, if we let them get on with it.
Child rearing is a continual test of our ability to trust. And it is this unlearning that is necessary for us in order to listen to our instincts as parents, so that we can trust ourselves and let our children guide us. Our anxiety for children to know certain things at specific ages is an enormous obstacle to trusting and allowing their natural development. Interestingly enough, language is the hardest thing to learn and children do it all on their own and the speediest learning in humans occurs in the youngest years, when children generally play all day.

So you might ask – what kind of play is so effective in growth and learning? The simply answer is: self-initiated and self-directed play and our adult intervention might actually get in the way. Because of our obsession to see children reach certain stages of development at a particular age, it is incredibly hard for us not to become involved in influencing how and what they are learning. Thank goodness for the hunter-gatherers and the great anthropologists such Jean Liedloff who have studied various nomadic and hunter-gatherer tribes. They can help us refer back to and unlearn our obsession with early development and conditioning of our children. The freedom that the hunter-gatherer children enjoy to pursue their own interests comes partly from the adults understanding that such pursuits are the surest path to education. Occasionally an adult might offer a word of advice or demonstrate how to do something better, such as how to shape an arrowhead, but such help is only given when the child desires it. It is remarkable to think that our instincts to learn and to contribute to the community evolved in a world in which our instincts were trusted – we don’t have to tell or encourage a child to do this, children will do it naturally because there is nothing they desire more than to grow up and to be like the successful adults around them.
Performance research has uncovered profound similarities between what athletes call the ‘zone’ and authentic play. Many athletes have said to be in a trance like state when winning a race or performing at their best. This is most likely because they have tapped into their ‘animal brain’ and allowed their natural ability to take over without thinking about it.
And that’s the point; you don’t need to think about how we train or condition our children to learn because they will do it naturally, in their own way and in their own time. So let’s kick off our shoes, run around naked with our children, feel liberated and perhaps we can learn something ourselves as nature does its wonderful thing.


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