• Pieter Derycke

Play and skill acquisition - part 2 - natural learning mode

This blog will briefly address the fact that play is the natural learning mode.

Music: Donovan Frankenreiter: Move By Yourself

We all know that children do not have to be taught how to move. Children learn to move by themselves, and while moving, they learn what works best. All they need is freedom and opportunity. This learning process is called play.

Children play because it is fun. But why is it fun?

“Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other young animals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. That, indeed, is the mechanism that natural selection has built, and we refer to the resultant behaviour as play. Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life skills,” but that would remove the lightheartednesss from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accepts play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.” [emphasis mine]

The quote above is from the highly recommended book ‘Free to learn’ by Peter Gray (p.156). Play is fun because it is useful, even more, it is essential to survival. That does not mean that animals play because they ‘know’ it is useful and essential. That’s the beauty of the evolutionary trick, it just made it fun, so young animals do it.

The goal of play is fun, the result is a skilled animal.

Another quote along the same lines can be found in the more academic book ‘Children and Nature, psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations’ (edited by Kahn and Kellert). Peter Verbeek and Frans de Waal cite Bernhard (1988):

“For young (human and nonhuman) primates, the learning activities of observation, imitation, exploration, and play are pleasurable and exciting, encouraging young primates to learn the exploitative skills that are necessary to survive and thrive.” (p. 10)

So, one part of the reasons why children play is to be good all round movers, natural movers. Because movement is life. Movement is the only way we can interact with others and with the world. Movement is the original reason for our central nervous system.

Movement may be the ultimate survival skill.

“Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.” Stuart Brown (in Play, p 5)

So play is the natural learning mode. If you want to learn more about it, the referenced books are useful places to start. I’ll rest my case for this part. In the next blog, we’ll look at some of the basic characteristics of play.