November 2, 2014 at 12:28 pm #43255
note: this is about play amongst children, but I feel it applies to qigong and tai chi PLAYERS as well as meditators. If too goal driven, rather than playing with Self-exploration, your Qi will be forced and the practice will dry up. – Michael
Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor and author, gave this talk at TEDxNavesink.
Good afternoon. I’m a researcher who studies play from a biological evolutionary perspective. I’m interested in the reasons why play came about in the course of natural selection. I’m interested in the evolutionary function of play.
So I’m going to start with animals. Young mammals of essentially all species play. In play, they develop fit bodies, they practice physical skills that are crucial to their survival, and they also practice social and emotional skills. By playing together, they learn to cooperate with one another. They learn to be in close vicinity with one another without losing their temper. It’s very important for social animals to develop. In risky play, they learn to take risks to experience fear without losing their heads – a lesson that can save their lives in the course of a real emergency.
Researchers have conducted laboratory experiments in which they’ve deprived young animals – usually this is done with the rats, but sometimes with monkeys – of the opportunity to play as they’re growing up, and they’ve developed ways of doing this without depriving them of other social experiences – at least with rats they’ve developed ways of doing this. The result is what when these young animals develop, they are socially and emotionally crippled. When you place one of these play-deprived animals in a somewhat novel, somewhat frightening environment, they overreact with fear. They freeze in the corner. They don’t adapt to it. They don’t explore the environment as a normal animal would. If you place one of these play-deprived animals with an unfamiliar peer, they alternately freeze in fear and lash out with inappropriate ineffective aggression. They don’t learn to respond to the social signals of the other animal.
It’s not surprising that those mammals that have the largest brains and that have the most to learn are the ones that we find play the most. And given that, it should be no surprise at all that human children, when they’re free to do so, play far, far more than do the young of any other mammals.
A few years ago, one of my graduate students and I conducted a survey of anthropologists who had observed hunter-gatherer cultures in various isolated parts of the world. We asked them questions about children in play and the cultures that they observed. Every single one of these 10 different anthropologists who had studied hunter-gatherer cultures on three different continents told us that the children in the culture that they studied, including the young teenagers, were free to play and explore on their own without adult guidance all day long from dawn to dusk, essentially everyday.
The adults in these cultures, when asked, say, “We have to let them play because that’s how they learn the skills that they need to acquire to grow into adulthood.” Some of these anthropologists told us that the children that they observed in these cultures are among the brightest, happiest, most cooperative, most well-adjusted, most resilient children that they had ever observed anywhere. So from a biological evolutionary perspective, play is nature’s means of ensuring that young mammals, including young human beings, acquire the skills that they need to acquire to develop successfully into adulthood.
From a religious perspective, we might say that play is God’s gift that makes life on Earth worthwhile. Now here’s the sad news. Here’s really what I’m here to talk about. Over the last 50 to 60 years, we’ve been gradually taking that gift away. Over this period of time, there’s been a continuous erosion in children’s freedom and opportunity to play, to really play, to play freely. This has been documented in various ways by historians and social scientists, and I’m old enough that I’ve seen it in the course of my lifetime.
In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long. I like to say that when I was a kid, I had school and I also had a hunter-gatherer education.
At that time, you could walk through any neighborhood in America almost any time the school wasn’t in session, and you would find kids outdoors playing without any adults around. Now, if you walked through most neighborhoods in the United States, what you find, if you find kids outdoors, it all is they’re wearing uniforms. They’re on some kind of manicured field. They’re following the directions of adult coaches while their parents are sitting on the sidelines cheering their every move.
We call this ‘play’ sometimes, but it isn’t by any play researchers’ definition. It’s not really play. Play, by definition, is self-controlled and self-directed. It’s the self-directed aspect of nature, of play, that gives its educative power.
Here are some of the reasons why play has declined. One, of course, is the increased weight of school. But an even more important reason, as important as that one is, I think an even more important reason for the decline of play has been the spread outside of the school walls of what I call a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building.
Another reason, of course, has to do with the spread of fears – really, mostly, irrational fears – spread by the media, spread by experts who are constantly warning us of the dangers out there if we don’t watch our children every minute that they’re out there. Many people recognize the absurdity of some of these extreme fears, but yet once we get them in our head, it’s hard to shake them. I know many parents who would love to let their kids play outdoors, and they think it would be great too, but they just can’t get rid of that idea. In addition, there’s a kind of self-generative quality to the decline of play. Once there are fewer kids out there playing, the outdoors becomes less attractive. It also becomes less safe, so that kid who does go outdoors finds nobody to play with and goes back inside.
Now I don’t want to romanticize the 1950s. There’s a lot of ways in which we’re a much better world today than we were then, but we are a much worse world for kids. Over the same decades that play has been declining, we have seen a well-documented increase in all sorts of mental disorders in childhood. The best evidence for this comes from the use of standardized clinical assessment questionnaires. Based on such assessments, five to eight times as many children today suffer from major depression or from a clinically significant anxiety disorder as was true in the 1950s; and this has been a continuous, gradual, roughly linear increase over the years, very well documented. Over this same period, we’ve seen among young people from age 15 to 24 a doubling of the suicide rate. We’ve seen among children aged 15 and under a quadrupling of the suicide rate. Over this same period of the time, the suicide rate for people my age has gone down considerably. We’ve become a worse world for children, not necessarily a worse world for adults. It may be a better world for us, older adults.
We’ve also seen a decline of young people’s sense that they have control over their own lives. There’s a questionnaire called ‘The Internal-External Locus of Control Scale’. There’s a version of this for children as well as for adults, been given since about 1960. Ever since it’s been given, we’ve seen a decline, a continuous decline, in children and young adults’ sense that they have control over their own lives. They have more and more of a sense that their lives are controlled by fate, by circumstance, by other people’s decisions.
Now this is significant in terms of the relationship between anxiety and depression, because one thing clinical psychologists know very well is that not having an internal sense of control sets you up for anxiety and depression. More bad news – we’ve also seen in fairly recent years, due to questionnaires that have been given out since about 1980, a rise in narcissism in young people and a decline in empathy; and most recently, there’s been research studies analyzing results of tests of creativity over the years, which show that there’s been a gradual decline in creative thinking among children, schoolchildren of all grades, since about the mid-1980s.
Now of course, as any social scientist will tell you, correlation doesn’t prove cause and effect. But in this case, I think that there is good reason to believe that the decline in play is the cause of these deleterious changes. For one thing, the correlation is very good, especially the correlation between the decline in play, which seems to be roughly linear beginning around 1955 on through today, correlates very well with the roughly linear increase in anxiety and depression among young people. It doesn’t correlate with things like economic cycles or wars. Children are more depressed today than they were during the Great Depression. They are more anxious today than they were during the Cold War, when they were continuously warned of the threat of nuclear holocaust that could happen anytime. In addition, everything we know about play tells us that these are the effects we would expect if children are deprived of play. They’re analogous to the effects we see in animals when we take play away from animals.
Play is where children learn that they’re in control of their own life. It’s really the only place they are in control of their own life. When we take that away, we don’t give them the chance to learn how to control their own life. Play is where they learn to solve their own problems and learn, therefore, that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy, and they learn the world is not so depressing after all. Play is where they learn to get along with peers and see from others’ points of view and practice empathy and get over narcissism.
Play is, by definition, creative and innovative. Of course if you take away play, all these things are going to go down, and yet the hue and cry that we hear everywhere is for more school, not for more play, and we’ve really got to change that.
So I’m told that it’s always good to end on a positive note. I don’t want to be the only depressing speaker here, so I’m going to say, “Look, let’s admit this is our fault. We have done this to the children in this world.” Let’s start by admitting that, but then let’s say, “We can do something about it.” The first thing we need to do is to recognize that it’s a problem, and once we’ve recognized it’s a problem, then we need to figure out how to solve that problem. We need to have an internal sense of control and know that we can solve this problem.
We have to begin by examining our own priorities. What do we really want for our kids and how do we achieve it? We have to get to know our neighbors, develop neighborhood networks, because it’s in neighborhoods that children make friends and develop playmates. And by getting to know our neighbors, we can convince ourselves that the neighborhood, after all, is a safe place to play. That neighbor isn’t a child molester after all, once we get to know him.
We need also to establish places for children to play. They’ve kind of disappeared. We’ve even taken away sidewalks. We need to do things like open up gymnasiums, school gymnasiums, after school for free play. We need to do things like put a supervisor in the park, so parents will feel it’s safe enough to leave their kid there to play – a supervisor who knows how to keep things safe enough, but not intervene or interfere. We need to do things like close off city streets during certain hours, so kids can once again reclaim the street as a place to play. And we need to do things like develop adventure playgrounds, the kind that are relatively common in Europe and becoming once again more so. And perhaps most of all, we need to be brave enough to stand up against the continuous clamor for more schooling. Our children don’t need more school; they need less school. Maybe they need better school, but they don’t need more school.
So with that, I’m going to conclude, and I thank you very much for coming. Bless you, and I hope that you will all do what you can to help bring play back to your neighborhood and to children everywhere. Thank you.November 26, 2014 at 11:18 am #43256
It’s informative to imagine that one is a leader over others and concoct a list of ideal traits one would like in a group of one’s subjects.
Would you, as leader, want these subjects to be stronger and smarter than you?
Would you leave their growth and development to themselves?
After all, why do we suppose there is a large “self-help” section in bookstores and libraries? Is it that we maybe have some problems built into what we are all doing?
What is it that all of us have been involved in building, in this “society”, and for whom?December 28, 2014 at 2:58 am #43258
After all, why do we suppose there is a large “self-help” section in bookstores and libraries? Is it that we maybe have some problems built into what we are all doing?
What is it that all of us have been involved in building, in this “society”, and for whom?
Q: How would you answer those questions?
At present, billions of American tax dollars are being spent each year on preparations for war, weapons of war, industries of war running the nation into unpayable debt while across the country untaxed gang lords cruise about in limousines, drug pushers and psychopaths prey on neglected children, homeless grandmothers push their worldly possessions before them through the streets in shopping carts, and citizens of all ages contract Pistol Fever, shooting themselves and each other with handguns at the rate of sixty-four deaths per day killing more Americans in two-and-one-half years than did the sixteen-year Vietnam War (and wounding approximately one hundred thousand others yearly).
The huge-like-us Soviet Union went Broke feeding the military, and were following Close behind. Meanwhile, little Germany and little Japan, who comparatively speaking spend next to nothing on military matters, are beating us in practically every area of endeavor. What do we receive in return for the trillions of dollars that weve handed to the Armed Forces over the past thirty years? Lets see.
Well, weve been provided with warplanes that dont fly; armored tanks that dont steer; weapons that dont fire … No, those dont count. Thats what we’re told, anyway. Oh, there must be something… Ah, yes half a million tons of hazardous waste per year. The military is the nations largest producer of it. What good that will do us is rather hard to say, however. And toxic waste isnt exactly the sort of thing we can return to the store for a refund.
Of course, that waste is sooner or later bound to leak out. Fourteen thousand four hundred military sites are now officially recognized as toxin contaminated the cleanup of which is expected to cost taxpayers over two hundred billion dollars making the U.S. military the countrys leading Earth Abuser. The military now directly manages about twenty-five million acres of public land and borrows around eight million more from agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service which allows one hundred sixty-three military training activities in fifty-seven national forests, involving three million acres. How respectfully do the Armed Forces treat the land they manage? Well…
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers describes Basin F of Colorados Rocky Mountain Arsenal as the most contaminated square mile on earth. Thousands of animals and birds have died by drinking or landing in its water. Nevadas Bravo 20 range is a sixty-four-square-mile moonscape after fifty years of battering. In 1983-1984, water from Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge overflowed into the area and mixed with the chemicals in its bomb craters, then receded back into the refuge killing seven million fish and thousands of birds. Twenty-three million artillery, tank, and mortar shells have blasted the forests and meadows of Indianas ninety-square-mile Jefferson Proving Ground. Approximately one-and-one-half million of these rounds have not yet exploded. Many are below the surface, nearly impossible to locate. An expert has stated that to decontaminate the once-unspoiled area, it would be necessary to remove thirty feet of ground using armored bull-dozers thirty feet down for ninety square miles.
When the empire follows the Way wrote Lao-tse, horses haul wagons of fertilizer through the fields. When the empire loses the Way, horses haul war chariots beyond the city walls. And:
I have three treasures,
Which I guard and keep.
The first is compassion.
The second is economy.
The third is humility.
From compassion comes courage.
From economy comes the means to be generous.
From humility comes responsible leadership.
Today, men have discarded compassion
In order to be bold.
They have abandoned economy
In order to be big spenders.
They have rejected humility
In order to be first.
This is the road to death.
The Taoist ideal is to rule by filling stomachs and building bones to take care of society from the bottom up. Todays leaders in government, business, and industry take care of society by giving more and more money and power to those at the top. And the Buck Stops There. As Lao-tse described the situation:
The court is filled with splendor.
The fields are full of weeds.
The granaries are empty.
The powerful wear costly clothing,
Carry sharp swords,
Pamper themselves with lavish food and drink,
And possess riches in extravagance.
These are not princes and lords.
They are robber barons.December 28, 2014 at 3:12 am #43260
Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine…
Return to the infant state. Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who . . . think that they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure. Great man retains childs mind. The great man we would say, plays like a child and attracts like a woman. His play may be serious and his attraction seem masculine on its surface, but it is childlike and feminine nevertheless.
And that brings us to someone we consider the greatest Piglet of all time, who changed his life and the lives of millions by applying the tremendous power available to those who attract positive with positive. We will introduce him with these words by Chuangtse:
If a great master ruled the empire, he would stimulate the minds of the people by working in harmony with them, so they carried out his teachings unconsciously and without rebelling. Under his influence they would reform their manners, the evil and violence within them would be extinguished, and they would move forward as individuals acting for the common good, as if they did so on their own initiative.February 5, 2015 at 1:13 pm #43262
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