The Realities of Play


A recent issue of Science News, When it’s playtime, many kids prefer reality over fantasy, highlights some of the difference between how ancestral (egalitarian) and civilized (hierarchical) people experience childhood. These excerpts below stand out:

Keep it real

Studies of children in traditional societies illustrate the dominance of reality-based play outside modern Western cultures. Kids raised in hunter-gatherer communities, farming villages and herding groups rarely play fantasy games. Children typically play with real tools, or small replicas of tools, in what amounts to practice for adult work. Playgroups supervised by older children enact make-believe versions of what adults do, such as sharing hunting spoils.

These activities come much closer to the nature of play in ancient human groups than do childhood fantasies fueled by mass-produced toys, videos and movies, researchers think.

Handing over household implements to toddlers and preschoolers and letting them play at working, or allowing them to lend a hand on daily tasks, generates little traction among Western parents, says psychologist Angeline Lillard of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Many adults, leaning heavily on adult-supervised playdates, assume preschoolers and younger kids need to be protected from themselves. Lillard suspects that preschoolers, whose early helping impulses get rebuffed by anxious parents, often rebel when told to start doing household chores a few years later.

“Kids like to do real things because they want a role in the real world,” Lillard says. “Our society has gone overboard in stressing the importance of pretense and fantasy for young children.”

Hands on

Outside Western cultures, children’s bias toward reality takes an extreme turn, especially during play.

Nothing keeps it real like a child merrily swinging around a sharp knife as adults go about their business. That’s cause for alarm in Western households. But in many foraging communities, children play with knives and even machetes with their parents’ blessing, says anthropologist David Lancy of Utah State University in Logan.

Lancy describes reported instances of youngsters from hunter-gatherer groups playing with knives in his 2017 book Raising Children. Among Maniq foragers inhabiting southern Thailand’s forests, for instance, one researcher observed a father looking on approvingly as his baby crawled along holding a knife about as long as a dollar bill. The same investigator observed a 4-year-old Maniq girl sitting by herself cutting pieces of vegetation with a machete.

In East Africa, a Hadza infant can grab a knife and suck on it undisturbed, at least until an adult needs to use the tool. On Vanatinai Island in the South Pacific, children freely experiment with knives and pieces of burning wood from campfires.

Yes, accidents happen. That doesn’t mean hunter-gatherer parents are uncaring or indifferent toward their children, Lancy says. In these egalitarian societies, where sharing food and other resources is the norm, parents believe it’s wrong to impose one’s will on anyone, including children. Hunter-gatherer adults assume that a child learns best through hands-on, sometimes risky, exploration on his or her own and in groups with other kids. In that way, the adults’ thinking goes, youngsters develop resourcefulness, creativity and determination. Self-inflicted cuts and burns represent learning opportunities.

Games and toys reflect cultural values.

Childhood games and toys in foraging groups and farming villages, as in Western nations, reflect cultural values. Hunter-gatherer kids rarely engage in rough-and-tumble or competitive games. In fact, competition is discouraged. These kids concoct games with no winners, such as throwing a weighted feather in the air and flicking the feather back up as it descends. Children in many farming villages and herding societies play basic forms of marbles, in which each player shoots a hard object at similar objects to knock the targets out of a defined area. The rules change constantly as players decide among themselves what counts and what doesn’t.

Children in traditional societies don’t invent fantasy characters to play with, Lancy says. Consider imaginative play among children of Aka foragers in the Central African Republic. These kids may pretend to be forest animals, but the animals are creatures from the children’s surroundings, such as antelope. The children aim to take the animals’ perspective to determine what route to follow while exploring, says anthropologist Adam Boyette of Duke University. Aka youngsters sometimes pretend to be spirits that adults have told the kids about. In this way, kids become familiar with community beliefs and rituals.

Aka childhood activities are geared toward adult work, Boyette says. Girls start foraging for food within the first few years of life. Boys take many years to master dangerous tasks, such as climbing trees to raid honey from bees’ nests (SN: 8/20/16, p. 10). By around age 7, boys start to play hunting games and graduate to real hunts as teenagers.

In 33 hunter-gatherer societies around the world, parents typically take 1- to 2-year-olds on foraging expeditions and give the youngsters toy versions of tools to manipulate, reported psychologist Sheina Lew-Levy of the University of Cambridge and her colleagues in the December Human Nature. Groups of children at a range of ages play make-believe versions of what adults do and get in some actual practice at tasks such as toolmaking. Youngsters generally become proficient food collectors and novice toolmakers between ages 8 and 12, the researchers conclude. Adults, but not necessarily parents, begin teaching hunting and complex toolmaking skills to teens. For the report, Lew-Levy’s group reviewed 58 papers on childhood learning among hunter-gatherers, most published since 2000.

“There’s a blurred line between work and play in foraging societies because children are constantly rehearsing for adult roles by playing,” Boyette says.

Among South America’s Matsés hunter-gatherers, adults allow young children, such as this girl, to play with knives.

In Africa, children of Aka hunter-gatherers build a figure of a forest spirit out of plants. Such play activities introduce the youngsters to adults’ religious world.

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Interesting. I noticed that on Bali, children were already competent artists and dancers before reaching their teens. They would paint alongside their elders, or perform at ceremonies as full-fledged members of the society.


thanks for sharing this post

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