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Learning about Play from Hunter Gatherers

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Video: Peter Gray Ph.D

Play as a Foundation for Hunter Gatherer Social Existence

Peter Gray, Ph.D., offers the thesis that hunter-gatherers promoted, through cultural means, the playful side of their human nature and this made possible their egalitarian, non-autocratic, 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 game like qualities. Their religious beliefs and ceremonies were playful, founded on assumptions of equality, humour, 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.

Read: Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence: Peter Gray

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"We humans were all hunter-gatherers until about eleven thousand years ago, when agriculture first began to become established in some parts of the world. We evolved, biologically, to meet the needs and conditions of our hunter-gatherer way of life. Some groups, in isolated parts of the world, managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into the twentieth century, and to some degree even until today, relatively unaffected by the modern world. Anthropologists have studied them and found that in some ways these different groups are remarkably similar to one another, regardless of which continent they live on or whether they live in rainforests or deserts. They live in small, mobile bands, which move from campsite to campsite as they follow the available game and edible vegetation. Within the band, they make decisions by consensus. They place particularly high value on sharing, equality, and individual autonomy. Their beliefs in autonomy and equality are such that they refrain from telling one another what to do, and this applies to children as well as to adults. The adults trust children�۪s instincts and judgments, and they do not try to direct children�۪s behavior. They also understand that children learn through their own, self-directed play and exploration, so they allow children, and even teenagers, essentially unlimited time for such activities. By observing hunter-gatherers, anthropologists have been able to see firsthand how children�۪s instincts to play and explore serve the function of education. The children eagerly observe and explore the social, biological, and physical world around them and play at the activities that are crucial to success in their culture. As they become adults, their playful hunting, gathering, tool making, hut construction, musical and artistic endeavors, diplomacy, and the like begin to take on productive adult forms but still retain their playful nature. In some of my writing, I have argued that Play as Preparation for Learning and Life is not only the means by which hunter-gatherer children educate themselves, but it is also key to understanding how hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarian values. Social play is necessarily an egalitarian activity in which sharing and respect for one another�۪s needs and desires are essential. By maintaining a playful attitude in all of their activities, hunter-gatherers essentially turn all of life into a cooperative group game."

Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests���often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave.

Even outside of school children today seldom play and explore without adult supervision, and are afforded few opportunities to control their own lives.

The result: anxious, unfocused children who see schooling���and life���as a series of hoops to struggle through. In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that our children, if free to pursue their own interests through play, will not only learn all they need to know, but will do so with energy and passion. Children come into this world burning to learn, equipped with the curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to direct their own education. Yet we have squelched such instincts in a school model originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth.

To foster children who will thrive in today's constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development. Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, and history, Gray demonstrates that free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient.

This capacity to learn through play evolved long ago, in hunter-gatherer bands where children acquired the skills of the culture through their own initiatives. And these instincts still operate remarkably well today, as studies at alternative, democratically administered schools show. When children are in charge of their own education, they learn better���and at lower cost than the traditional model of coercive schooling.

A brave, counter intuitive proposal for freeing our children from the shackles of the curiosity-killing institution we call school, Free to Learn suggests that it's time to stop asking what's wrong with our children, and start asking what's wrong with the system. It shows how we can act���both as parents and as members of society���to improve children's lives and promote their happiness and learning.