Children Play At The Skills They Need Most For Survival

Peter Gray, Psychology Today

Abridged version for Into the Wild Wood Forest School Blog

Varieties of Play Match Requirements of Human Existence

From an evolutionary perspective, the main purpose of play is education. Play is nature's way of ensuring that young mammals will practice the skills they need for survival. You can predict what a young mammal will play at by knowing what it must learn. Young carnivores, such as lions and tigers, play at stalking, chasing, and pouncing. Young zebras and other animals that are preyed on by lions and such play at running, dodging, and escaping. Young monkeys play endlessly at chasing one another and swinging from trees.

Young humans--who have far more to learn than do the young of any other species--play in far more ways than do the young of any other species.

The varieties of play described below are not exclusive categories, the play observe in children is likely to combine more than one of these types, but you will recognise the range of types of play.

We should not take for granted the extraordinary value play has to the developing child.

Locomotor play

All, or at least nearly all, young mammals engage in locomotor play, such as playful running and leaping, and young humans are no exception. People everywhere must learn to control their own bodies, to move quickly and effectively through space, to avoid falls, and to recover from falls that inevitably occur.

Toddlers spend an average of six hours a day at playful walking, walking for no other purpose than the fun of it. In the process they become experts at the universal human skill of two-legged walking. After walking comes running, jumping, climbing, swinging... and all sorts of other ways of experiencing the thrill of movement.

Children, and adults too, do all this for no other reason than fun, but in the process they acquire skills that may save their lives many times in the future.

Rough and tumble play

Overlapping with locomotor play is rough-and-tumble play, playful chasing and fighting, which we also share with other mammals. Like all mammals, we are physical beings that need fit bodies for life's work and emergencies.

Rough-and-tumble play builds strength, coordination, and endurance. Children chase one another around, wrestle or play at sword fighting, to happy exhaustion, many times per day if they have the opportunity. Nothing is more fun that that!

Play fighting is sometimes confused with real fighting, but for anyone who looks closely the distinction is clear. In fact, it is not unreasonable to say that play fighting is the opposite of serious fighting. In a real fight the purpose is to hurt the other person, in a play fight the purpose, is to go through fighting motions without hurting the other person or making them want to leave. Some researchers have argued that a major function of play fighting is to help children learn restraint.

Language play

We are the linguistic animal, and so we have language play that teaches us to talk. Nobody has to teach language to young children. They learn it on their own, through play.

Language play begins with cooing and then babbling, this only occurs when a baby is happy; it is not done to get something, but purely for its own sake which makes it play.

With time, the babbled sounds come increasingly to resemble the child's native language, and by about one year the child's first words appear and may be repeated over and over in a playful manner.

As children grow older they begin to play with words, phrases and questions, they do not always ask questions to get information; but rather, as a playful way of practising the skill of being able to ask questions and elicit responses from adults around them. These exchanges can be frustrating or fun, depending on whether we take them as serious questions or recognise them as linguistic play.

Exploratory play

We are Homo sapiens, the wise animal, who makes sense of the world, and so we have exploratory play, which combines playfulness with curiosity to help us understand our surroundings.

Newborn babies, even on their first day out of the womb, look at patterns that are brand new to them in preference to patterns that they have already seen earlier in the day. Within a few weeks, babies start putting things within their reach into their mouths. Like puppies, they examine things orally, by mouthing them. By about 5 or 6 months of age, they transition to the uniquely human way of examining objects, with hands and eyes together. Put a novel object in reach of a 6-month-old and she will pick it up, hold it before her eyes, look at it, squeeze it, rub it, turn it over, pass it from hand to hand, shake it, pound with it, and act on it in various other ways that seem well designed to learn about its properties.

We come into the world as little scientists, pre-programmed to try to understand everything around us. Nobody has to tell us to explore and learn about our environment; we do it naturally, all our lives, in increasingly sophisticated ways, unless someone turns it into work by trying to make us do it.

Constructive play

We are the animal that survives by building things, including shelters, tools, devices to help us communicate, and devices to help us move from place to place and so we have constructive play, which teaches us to build.

In constructive play a child strives to produce some object that they have in mind. A child making a sandcastle, or creating a spaceship from blocks, or drawing a giraffe, is engaged in constructive play.

In many cases the objects built in constructive play are miniature or pretend versions of "real" objects that adults in the culture build and use. Hunter-gatherer children make small versions of huts, bows and arrows, nets, knives, slingshots, musical instruments, rafts, rope ladders, mortars and pestles, and baskets in their play.

Through constructive play children become good at building, and by the time they are adults they are making well-crafted, useful versions of the real things.

Pretend and sociodramatic play

We are the imaginative animal, able to think of things that are not immediately present, and so we have fantasy play, or pretend play, which builds our capacity for imagination. In this type of play children establish certain propositions about the nature of their pretend world and then play out those propositions logically. In doing so they are exercising the same capacities that allow us, as adults, to think about things that are not immediately present, which is what we all do when we plan for the future and what scientists do when they develop theories to explain or predict events in the real world.

We are an intensely social species, requiring cooperation with others in order to survive, and so we have many forms of social play, which teach us to cooperate and to restrain our impulses in ways that make us socially acceptable. The social form of pretend play in which children engage in elaborate joint pretend ventures and enact roles and scenes that they make up together is called sociodramatic play.

In sociodramatic play children are doing much more than just exercising their imagination. As they enact roles, they are exercising their ability to behave in accordance with shared conceptions of what is or is not appropriate.

If you are the mummy, or the daddy, or the pet dog in a game of house, then you must behave in accordance with the players' shared understanding of how mummies, or daddies, or pet dogs behave. You cannot behave impulsively; you must think about what you are doing to be sure it will be acceptable. Play is an exercise in self-control which is perhaps the most important general function of all sorts of human play.

Children in sociodramatic play are also practicing the art of negotiation.

As they decide who will play what roles, who will get to use which props, and just what scenes they will enact and how, the players must all come to agreement. Indeed, a basic rule of all social play is that everyone must agree. Anyone left unhappy by a decision will quit, and if everyone quits there will be no game. Since the motive to play is strong, the motive to keep the other players happy is strong. That is true of all social play, but it is especially apparent in the negotiations that are observed in sociodramatic play.

Keeping our companions happy, so they stay with us and continue to support us through life, is surely one of the most valuable of human survival skills, and children continuously practice that skill in social play.

Games with explicit rules

We are the rule-abiding animal, able to keep contracts and follow explicit, socially agreed-upon rules, and so we play formal games, which teach us to follow explicit rules.

All play to some degree involves rules. Rules in the minds of the players give structure to any form of play. In play fighting, for example, a basic rule is that you don't really hurt the other person--you don't kick, bite, or scratch, and if you are the larger and stronger of the two you don't use your full force. In constructive play a basic rule is that you must attempt to depict some object that you have visualised in your mind; you don't just scribble or pile blocks randomly. In sociodramatic play a general rule is that you must act in accordance with shared understanding of how the person or animal you are pretending to be would act. The rules in all of these forms of play are mostly implicit; they are understood but unstated. In formal games the rules are explicit, meaning that they are clearly stated, in categorical terms, in a way that makes it possible for observers to agree on whether or not the rules have been followed. All competitive games have such rules, as they are necessary to make the competition fair. Human beings everywhere must follow explicit as well as implicit rules to function socially, these crucial social skills are exercised in formal games.


When children are free to play, have sufficient time to play, and have playmates of a range of ages with whom to play, they play in all of these ways. In doing so, they learn all of the basic skills that are required of human beings everywhere--physical skills, linguistic skills, intellectual skills, social skills, self-control, and law-abiding skills.

We cannot teach any of these skills to children. All we can do is provide the conditions in which they can teach themselves, using the joyful, playful means designed by evolution. Our job is to make sure that children have lots of time and and opportunity to play. They'll take care of the rest.

Link to complete article

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College,

Author of Free to Learn This is a fantastic book which will give you a greater understanding of children's drive to play, the purpose of play and how we can facilitate play.

Article First Posted Oct 2008 : Psychology Today


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