A new theory about early human adaptation suggests that our ancestors capitalized on their capacities for play to enable the development of a highly cooperative way of life.
Writing in the current edition of the interdisciplinary American Journal of Play, Boston College developmental psychologist Peter Gray suggests that use of play helped early humans to overcome the innate tendencies toward aggression and dominance which would have made a cooperative society impossible.
“Play and humor were not just means of adding fun to their lives,” according to Gray. “They were means of maintaining the band’s existence - means of promoting actively the egalitarian attitude, intense sharing, and relative peacefulness for which hunter-gatherers are justly famous and upon which they depended for survival.”
This theory has implications for human development in today’s world, said Gray, who explains that social play counteracts tendencies toward greed and arrogance, and promotes concern for the feelings and well-being of others.
“It may not be too much of a stretch,” says Gray, “to suggest that the selfish actions that led to the recent economic collapse are, in part, symptoms of a society that has forgotten how to play.”
Interest in play is very much on the upswing among psychologists, educators, and the general public, according to Gray. “People are beginning to realize that we have gone too far in the direction of teaching children to compete,” he said. “We have been depriving children of the normal, noncompetitive forms of social play that are essential for developing a sense of equality, connectedness, and concern for others.”
Gray stressed that the kind of “play” that helped hunter-gatherer children develop into cooperative adults is similar to the sort of play that at one time characterized American children’s summers and after-school hours in contemporary culture. This play is freely chosen, age-mixed, and, because it is not adult-organized, non-competitive, he said.
(Source: Boston College study, as reported in Psychology News journal, April 2009)
Provided by: Robin Mcconnell