About 6 million years ago, human and chimp lineages split. We evolved to excel at hunting, gathering and communication. We have an incredible ability to empathise with others and to delve into our own brains to discover more about ourselves. We live long and fulfilling lives after raising children – so we are born not just to reproduce. Although this sets us apart, it is very easy to forget that we are animals. We unconsciously evaluate other people’s scent. We experience rapid reactions to threatening situations without having to think. We crave fat and sugar because our bodies have not evolved to acknowledge the over-supply of food in the developed world.
A cornerstone of our animal nature is our need for play. Play is necessary if children are to be creative and inventive. It reveals boundaries – physical and social, and is vital for learning. Play teaches children to be responsible, to take risks and to understand consequences.
When I see my children, Ivy (5) and Albie (4), playing with their toys and games, I notice that most of them have outcomes that have been predetermined by adults. They keep putting together the jigsaw, but the resulting picture is always the same.
I want my children to become more creative and more intelligent than me. I know their world will be more complicated and challenging than mine is. I have been excited, and felt liberated, while filming Project Wild Thing, to discover that there is no point in telling my children how to play. If I do, they will not evolve to do it differently. When they play with their box of wooden blocks, they create things that I could never imagine. Albie made a helicopter with 5 square pieces of wood. There is no instruction manual for that.
I interviewed play expert Bob Hughes to find out more about the power of play. He said:
“If we expect not to become one of many extinct species, we need to be ready for the unpredictable. Children need to have diverse experiences and to know about what’s around them.”
Bob views children as “lone organisms on a hostile planet in the middle of nowhere”, and that is essentially what they are. Play teaches them how to cope with that, and how to adapt to new situations. Bob, and many expert play workers, encourage free, undirected play. It leaves children alone to become more inventive. At first, when I tried to sit and watch the children play without interrupting them, I found it extremely difficult. The temptation to tell them what to do is almost overwhelming. Perhaps that is because the TV, and newspapers are full of parenting advice – so we increasingly feel that there’s a ‘right way’.
But the outcomes of leaving them alone have been amazing to watch. I would encourage all parents to give it a go. I am not recommending handing over the box of Lego and heading off to the pub. Not for too long, anyway.
In the animal world, play is vital for establishing your role in the group. Jaak Panksepp is a neuroscientist and neurobiologist who discovered laughter in rats. This was one of the first times that an animal was shown to enjoy play. Jaak believes that although humans and animals have similar basic tools for living, humans are the most sociable mammal and therefore need play the most keenly for their survival. He has shown that play is far more than a random occurrence. Children need and crave it. Play, he thinks, accelerates the evolution of language and our ability to be empathetic and flirtatious. Many studies have shown that often, people who show violent tendencies have played less during childhood. Children need play to become fully human.
The more physical the play, the more that is at risk and the more that can be learned. So where better to play than outside? With sticks and stones of all shapes and sizes that can become flutes, horses, wands, telescopes… I can’t think of any more. But I want my children to be able to.
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