Maverick Citizen


Cultivating a culture of play in our children nurtures the path of liberal democracy


Professor Mark Tomlinson is co-director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. These are his personal views.

For the strongmen of global politics, like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Xi Jinping, the loss of free play and the rise of ‘phone-based childhoods’ are heaven-sent.

Most of us have some understanding that play is not only about fun, but that it might also be part of something much bigger and more important – particularly for young children. But equally, if pushed, we might find it difficult to articulate that larger role of play.

In two books, (The Philosophical Baby and The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children), developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has described the capacities and minds of babies, the role parents play in the lives of their children, and the role of play for children (and adults).

Play is that thing you do when you are not working, and for many, it is all about fun, without real purpose, and, perhaps, according to Gopnik, even useless. But for Gopnik, play is all about being useless on purpose – she sees play as the most sophisticated and important characteristic of human abilities.

Play is fundamental to child development, and creates powerful learning opportunities – intellectual, social, emotional and physical. Through play, children make connections with others, build leadership skills, develop resilience, navigate challenges and conquer their fears.

Play is also ubiquitous across the animal and even insect kingdoms. Anyone with a dog will appreciate the extent of play between sibling dogs, but few people know that baby wasps engage in a form of rough and tumble before leaving the hive. And young comb-footed spiders engage in a complex form of sex play.

Rhesus macaques have been observed lining up on a branch above a river or lake and diving into the water with great delight before returning to the queue for another go.

Outside of primates, it is rats that engage most frequently in rough and tumble. Sergio Pellis and his colleagues at the University of Lethbridge in Canada have shown how, if rat pups are denied the opportunity to engage in play more generally and rough and tumble more specifically, they are unable in later life to tell the difference between “fighting and courting”.

Without wishing to drift into hyperbole, it is not hard to see such misattribution as potentially disastrous. But perhaps even more interesting was the fact that the brains of rat pups deprived of play have less brain plasticity, a key capacity to re-wire in an ever-changing environment. 

The first-ever International Day of Play takes place on 11 June 2024. In preparation for this, Unicef partnered with the Lego Foundation to outline some key components of the science of play

They describe how the seemingly innocuous act of a child building a tower of blocks involves an understanding of spatial understanding, physical skills and even a rudimentary sense of turn-taking and patience as they decide when and how to place the next block.

The science of play shows how hide-and-seek is about learning to cope with frustration, learn problem-solving, and develop the cognitive strategies of planning and flexible thinking.

It is through play and engagement with peers that children learn to “read the mind” of their peers and to problem solve. It is also a key domain where children begin to learn how to regulate their emotions and about the give and take of relationships.

In his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, psychologist Peter Gray makes the case for the importance of consent in play. Unless all children engaged in a game are prepared to resolve conflicts – and keep the other “players” sufficiently happy – the game will end. 

If one child has been hurt or needs a break, she may signal her need for a short break. A playing partner that fails to read the signal, or even worse, uses this as an opportunity to gain some advantage, will quickly learn that the next time they want to play, their friend will be a little less likely to agree.

Flexibility and not always being able to have your “own way” are foundational to the kind of cooperation that is so integral to a healthy, functioning society. The capacity to cooperate is laid down in early play interactions. 

You may be thinking, this is all very interesting but what does it have to do with me?

The economist Steven Horwitz, in an article titled Cooperation Over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism, argues that unsupervised children’s play is an essential element of a functioning democracy. 

For Horwitz, it is through unsupervised play that children learn informal rulemaking as well as what is needed to follow rules without coercion.

Following rules by coercion is a key hallmark of authoritarian societies, while liberal democracy is built on the capacity for informal rules and enforcement. 

One of the reasons (among many others) for the declines in democracy and liberalism that we have seen in the last 10 years, might be linked in some way to the decline in free play coupled with the rise of the use of mobile phones.

In a recent bestseller, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, Jonathan Haidt describes the wiping out of “play-based childhoods”, resulting in what he calls the “rewiring of childhood”.

In-person, play-based spaces have constricted our children (and us). We are becoming increasingly atomised, sitting alone at home on our devices with fewer and fewer opportunities for human connection where we can test out our limits and test the limits of others.

The loss of free play means fewer opportunities for practising rough-and-tumble play; for the types of interaction that help us learn that sometimes keeping everybody somewhat happy may be better than everybody trying to have all their needs met – and the lesson that sometimes holding your tongue in an interaction may be a good thing. 

For the strong men of global politics, like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Xi Jinping, the loss of free play and the rise of “phone-based childhoods” are heaven-sent. 

Without the creativity – the slow and nuanced learning that takes place during unsupervised play – and the sophisticated give-and-take that emerges from countless interactions in the real world, people will increasingly depend on them, the so-called “strong men”, to tell them what to believe (irrespective of the facts and reality); what to do (storm the Capitol); which groups to marginalise (migrants), and which groups to dehumanise (Palestinians). Coercion over cooperation every time.

Liberal democracy is terrifying to the authoritarian and goes beyond the ballot box. Like play, liberal democracy acknowledges the deep uncertainty and complexities of everyday life. 

Liberal democracy offers questions; authoritarians provide answers. 

As David Graeber says, “Play is the ultimate expression of freedom for its own sake.”  DM



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