Archive for April 2nd, 2012
The authors review several case studies of children engaged in rule-governed play and conclude that the process of learning rules—and of breaking them and making new ones—promotes what they call gamesmanship. They link the development of gamesmanship to the theory of Machiavellian intelligence, which considers social interaction primary in the evolution of human intelligence. They also question the benefits of adult-managed child play and assess the impact it may have on the ability of children to develop gamesmanship.
Evolutionary psychologists generally agree that human intelligence is profoundly social. Humans have survived because they shared food, defended against predation and aggression, and made groups responsible for the care of infants and toddlers.1 These activities required forging bonds with conspecifics, reading the intentions of others, creating allies, convincing others to follow along, and so on. Students of human behavior refer to these skills and habits collectively as Machiavellian intelligence.
Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults. This article documents these historical changes and contends that the decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people. Play functions as the major means by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health. Key words: anxiety; decline of play; depression; feelings of helplessness; free play; narcissism; psychopathology in children; suicide.
Hunter-gatherers promoted, through cultural means, the playful side of their human nature and this made possible their egalitarian, nonautocratic, intensely cooperative ways of living. Hunter-gatherer bands, with their fluid membership, are likened to social-play groups, which people could freely join or leave. Freedom to leave the band sets the stage for the individual autonomy, sharing, and consensual decision making within the band. Hunter-gatherers used humor, deliberately, to maintain equality and stop quarrels. Their means of sharing had gamelike qualities. Their religious beliefs and ceremonies were playful, founded on assumptions of equality, humor, and capriciousness among the deities. They maintained playful attitudes in their hunting, gathering, and other sustenance activities, partly by allowing each person to choose when, how, and how much they would engage in such activities. Children were free to play and explore, and through these activities, they acquired the skills, knowledge, and values of their culture. Play, in other mammals as well as in humans, counteracts tendencies toward dominance, and hunter-gatherers appear to have promoted play quite deliberately for that purpose.
For the past forty years, the Sudbury Valley School has been proving that the human instincts for self-education can provide the foundation for education in our modern society. At this school, children and adolescents explore, play, and converse as they please–without adult direction or prodding–and then graduate and go out into the world as successful adults. I have spent a good deal of time observing Sudbury Valley to understand how students learn there, and I have also surveyed the anthropological literature to understand how hunter-gatherer children and adolescents learn. This research has convinced me that Sudbury Valley works so beautifully as an educational institution because it replicates those elements of a hunter-gatherer band that are most essential to self-education.
From an evolutionary perspective, the normal social play of children involves kids of various ages. Our human and great-ape ancestors most likely lived in small groups with low birth rates, which made play with others of nearly the same age rare. Consequently, the evolutionary functions of children’s social play are best understood by examining play in groups that include children of different ages. The author calls this kind of play “age mixed.” He reviews the research on such play, including his own research conducted at the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts where students from ages four to about eighteen mix freely. He concludes that age-mixed play offers opportunities for learning and development not present in play among those close in age, permitting younger children to learn more from older playmates than they could from playing with only their peers. In age-mixed play, the more sophisticated behavior of older children offers role models for younger children, who also typically receive more emotional support from older kids than from those near their own age. Age-mixed play also permits older children to learn by teaching and to practice nurturance and leadership; and they are often inspired by the imagination and creativity of their younger playmates.
We adults flatter ourselves when we think that we are the best models, guides, and teachers for children. Children are much more interested in other children than in us. Children are especially interested in, and ready to learn from, those others who are a little older than themselves, a little farther along in their development, but not too far along. Children are drawn to older children, and older children are drawn to adolescents. Adulthood is too far off to be of much concern. That is why age-mixing is crucial to children’s self-education.
In my two just-previous posts I focused on the value of age-mixed play. I described how younger children are lifted up in such play to do things that they couldn’t do just with age-mates; and I described how age-mixed play is often more creative, less competitive, and more conducive to experimentation than is same-age play. Now I complete this series on age mixing by describing some ways, beyond play, by which the presence of older and younger children promotes self-education. As before, my examples come mostly from observations at the Sudbury Valley School, where the students, who range in age from 4 through high-school age, mingle freely all day long.
When we see that children everywhere are required by law to go to school, that almost all schools are structured in the same way, and that our society goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such schools, we tend naturally to assume that there must be some good, logical reason for all this. Perhaps if we didn’t force children to go to school, or if schools operated much differently, children would not grow up to be competent adults. Perhaps some really smart people have figured all this out and have proven it in some way, or perhaps alternative ways of thinking about child development and education have been tested and have failed.
If we want to understand why standard schools are what they are, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight. They are, instead, products of history. Schooling, as it exists today, only makes sense if we view it from a historical perspective. And so, as a first step toward explaining why schools are what they are, I present here, in a nutshell, an outline of the history of education, from the beginning of humankind until now. Most scholars of educational history would use different terms than I use here, but I doubt that they would deny the overall accuracy of the sketch. In fact, I have used the writings of such scholars to help me develop the sketch.