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  • Foto van schrijverPieter Derycke

Notes & Quotes – Better a broken bone than a broken spirit!

This summer I read Bob Hughes’ ‘Evolutionary Playwork’. Those who know me, understand that the title alone makes me excited. It has the words ‘evolutionary’ and ‘play’ in it… And it was well worth a read. I’ll share a few passages and just add some of my thoughts (hence, the title of this kinds of blogs).

music for today: Nubya Garcia live!

First, the book is written for playworkers, people working on playgrounds, supervising and stimulating play after school. But I think most of it is certainly worth reading for people working with children tout court: teachers, supervisors, youth sports trainers, and yes, for the interested parents.

If you’re reading this and don’t know why play is important, especially for a physical therapist, let me quote a few interesting passages:

“Play is evolution's gift to those species that manifest it, simply because it enables them to not only adapt their brains as they play into adolescence and adulthood, but it also enables them to create, that is, construct and organise a brain that is created specifically for the world the child is in as it plays - a brain that may, for example, anticipate change, the need for adaptive potential, a flexible self, a migratory self.” (p. 11)

“What is acquired through play is not specific information, but a general mindset towards solving problems that includes both abstraction and combinatorial flexibility.” (p. 134)

“Because play is the art of the experimental - because it is non-detrimental, because it is the mode of the explorer, because it allows for endless repetition and variation, because you can't fail and because it can be fun, and certainly interesting - so it is the tool human beings have evolved to embark upon a journey of breaking out of their hermetic bodily package and establish links with others.” (p. 256)

Yes, play makes us flexible and adaptive human beings, physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. It prepares us for the complexity of the world, for the challenges ahead, and stimulates creativity for all aspects of life. This is exactly what I want for my patients! (Go and read some of my other writings for more on this.)

A major theme in the book is the tension between being an adult responsible for play, and the need for children to play without adult interference. There are many reasons for this (read the book, or read Peter Gray’s ‘Freedom to Learn’.). One considerable aspect of this is the importance of risk in play. On multiple occasions, the author uses the following mantra, which I like a lot:

“Play, like life, is not safe, and if it is, it is not play!” (p. 207)

Risky play makes you good at handling hazardous situations. Only thinking about it is not sufficient, doing and acting is where the learning happens:

“This is why risk is such a vital component in authentic play. It is the potential or reality of the negative - fear, fright, pain - that encourages the child to risk assess and apply a degree of caution to unknown experiences.” (p. 158)

“One is tempted to ask, why children seem to need to interface with the world in ways that are risky? To the evolutionary playworker, the answer is obvious, 'How else can they learn to survive life in such a hostile place, of they do not explore it and experiment with it?” (p. 79)

Children don’t want to experience pain, so they’ll assess the risk, judge the situation and act accordingly. And yes, sometimes (often?) there will be some pain, falls, bruises and scratches. I wrote a blog on why this could be very important...

But the author brings up a certain Lady Allen with a truly wonderful quote:

“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” (p. 162)

I’d like to end with two ancestral and evolutionary inspired passages:

“Not only are the outcomes of playing a miracle, the effects of playing are too. I makes us feel good, happy, at one, excited, not just in a fairground way, but as if all our ancestors are joining in. For unlike most of what we do, play is something we have always done, the laughter of new brain growth and increased flexibility echoing through primeval forests, in caves, across savannas, on cold ice and hot sand, in sierras and underground.” (p. 17)

And here the author quotes Stevens and Price (2000):

“When a child enters a play space she brings with her, in a manner of speaking, a crowd of people from her past. What evolutionary playwork has recognised is that as well as her modern self, she brings the hunter-gatherer, the primate and the reptile from her ancestral past too. The play space is crowded with this menagerie, each member of which has a right to have her needs addressed and, if possible, to have her play needs fulfilled.” (p. 104)

Give your hunter-gatherer self, your inner primate, reptile and fish a treat and check out the inspiring book.




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