Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a story in the media about the crucial importance of play to human development. And not just any play. It must be unstructured free play with no rules, no coaches and no adult input.
The evidence is clear. According to evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray it was clear to our distant ancestors without them realizing it. It was clear to psychologist and philosopher Karl Groos who systematically studied play and published a seminal book called The Play of Man in 1901. It is clear to child development psychologist Alison Gopnik who reports that 1-year olds play like little scientists. It is clear to psychobiologist and “rat tickler” Jaak Panksep. It is clear to neuroscientist Sergio Pellis. Play is so widely acknowledged as a universal human activity critical to development that it is widely studied and researched at the highest echelons across multiple disciplines.
But instead of rejoicing over what science has revealed schools are eliminating what little of it remains. Parents have to petition for this critical human activity to be permitted at school. Lawmakers in Florida have proposed a law that would guarantee a paltry 20 minutes of recess for elementary aged students.
This makes no sense. It is time to fully embrace the overwhelming evidence that play is crucial to human development so it can be properly applied at school. Ignoring the science is akin to teaching students that the sun revolves around a flat earth. Denying play is like denying nutritious food.
A Sudbury school embraces the science naturally because it creates an environment where students are free to play as much as they want. For those who are new to the Sudbury model take a moment to consider how much young people love to play and ask yourself whether this activity should be eliminated or given the opportunity to flourish – science has given us the answer. Before embracing a “middle ground” one might contemplate that the opposite of eliminating unstructured play is the Sudbury environment where unstructured play is unlimited. Science tells us that rather than debating the benefits of unstructured play we should simply acknowledge it as conclusively beneficial and debate instead whether there are any benefits to restricting it.
[M]y mind was absorbed only in play, and I was punished for this by those who were doing the same things themselves. But the idling of our elders is called business; the idling of boys, though quite like it, is punished by those same elders, and no one pities either the boys or the men.– The Confessions of Saint Augustine (401 AD)