Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 21
a day-to-day basis, and therefore does not destroy the sense of play. The genius of hunter-gatherer society, from my perspective, lies in its ability to accomplish the tasks that must be accomplished while maximizing each person’s experience of free choice, which is essential to the spirit of play.
Play as the Route to Education
Education is essential to the human condition. People everywhere depend, for their survival, on skills, knowledge, and ideas that are passed from generation to generation; and such passing along is, by definition, education. Because of education, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel—or the bow and arrow, or how to make fire, or the rules for getting along with one another—at every generation. Because of education, we are the benefactors (and also the victims) of the inventions and ideas of our ancestors. This is as true of hunter-gatherer cultures as it is of our own. Hunter-gatherer adults, however, don’t concern themselves much with the education of children. They assume that children will learn what they need to know through their own, self-directed exploration and play. In play, hunter-gatherer children, on their own initiatives, practice the skills they will need for survival as adults. They also, in their play, rehearse and build upon the knowledge, and experience and incorporate the values, that are central to the culture in which they are embedded.
In our culture, when we think of education we think primarily of schooling, not play. We think of education as the responsibility of the older generation, as something that the older generation does to the younger generation. The verbs educate, teach, and train are all active on the part of the teacher and passive on the part of the student; and that language reflects reality in our schools. The teacher educates (or teaches or trains) and the student is educated (or taught or trained). Schools, even more than most adult workplaces, operate through the method of hierarchy and power exertion, the opposite of play. In the classroom, the teacher is boss and students must do as they are told. In the school at large, the principal is boss and teachers must do as they are told. In the school district, the superintendent is boss. Students are at the bottom of the power structure and are subject to rules, regulations, and curricula that are created not by themselves or even by their teachers, but by people who never met them. Students are required by law to be at school, which deprives them of the power to quit. Students do not choose what to learn or how or when to learn it. It is no wonder that it is almost impossible for children to bring their playful instincts to bear on this kind of education. In contrast, among hunter-gatherers, play is the foundation for education.
Our own cultural notions of education, and of childcare in general, are founded on agricultural metaphors. We speak of raising children, just as we speak of raising chickens or tomatoes. We speak of training children, just as we speak of training horses. Our manner of talking and thinking about parenting suggests that we own our children, much as we own our domesticated plants and livestock, and that we control how they grow and behave. Just as we train horses to do the tasks that we want them to do, we train children to do the tasks that we think will be necessary for their future success. We do that whether or not the horse or child wants such training. Training requires suppression of the trainee’s will, and hence of play.
Hunter-gatherers, of course, do not have agriculture, and so they do not have agricultural metaphors. In their world all the plants and animals are wild and free. Young plants and animals grow on their own, guided by internal forces, making their own decisions. Each young organism depends, of course, on its environment; but its way of using that environment comes from within itself. The young tree needs and uses the soil, but the soil does not tell the seedling how to use it or strive to guide or control that use. The young fox’s environment includes its two parents, who between them provide milk, meat, comfort, and continuous examples of fox behavior; but it is