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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 1 - page 25 / 33





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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate.  P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers   p 25

“It may start through imitation of a real dispute the children witnessed in the main camp, perhaps the night before. They all take roles and imitate the adults. It is almost a form of judgment for if the adults talked their way out of the dispute the children having performed their imitation once, are likely to drop it. If the children detect any room for improvement, however, they will explore that, and if the adult argument was inept and everyone went to sleep that night in a bad temper, then the children try and show that they can do better, and if they cannot, then they revert to ridicule which they play out until they are all rolling on the ground in near hysterics. That happens to be the way many of the most potentially violent and dangerous disputes are settled in adult life.”77

Turnbull goes on to describe how Mbuti youth, roughly age 10 through 17, judge and correct their elders’ behavior. If the camp has been seriously disrupted by adults’ dissention for a period of time, the youth, on their own initiative, may enact a ritual, called the molimo madé, in which they present themselves in unison as an angry elephant, stomping through camp and disrupting it. This enactment is well understood by everyone to be a sign that the young people are tired of the dissent among the adults and are asking them to make peace. And so, it is not just the case that children learn by observing their elders; the elders also learn from the children. The ritual itself is, like other hunter-gatherer rituals, a mix of play, religion, and practical politics. It is a playful means by which the young people, without blaming any individual adult, can influence the adult’s behavior.

The Age-Mixed, Noncompetitive Nature of Children’s Play

Because they are free to mingle with people of all ages, hunter-gatherer children learn from those of all ages. From the oldest people, they hear stories about the past. From returned hunting and gathering parties of adults, they hear accounts of the day’s adventures. From older children, they gain examples of skilled play toward which to strive. From younger children and infants, they gain playful practice in childcare and nurturing. All this contributes to their growing fund of knowledge and to the games they play among themselves. The stories and examples draw and fascinate children because they are real aspects of the culture in which they are growing, not something designed artificially for their supposed benefit.

The play of hunter-gatherer children is not only informed by what they have learned from others of various ages, but it occurs almost always in age-mixed groups. Because hunter-gatherer bands are small and births are widely spaced, the number of potential playmates for any given child is limited. Even if hunter-gatherer children wanted to segregate by age, they would rarely find more than one or two playmates within a year or two of their own age and often none. A typical play group might consist of half a dozen children ranging in age from 4 to 11, or from 9 to 15.  As Patricia Draper put it, in her response to our survey: “Any [Ju/’hoan] child with enough motor and cognitive maturity could enter into any game. Older teenagers and adults could and did play as well, though not for as long or with the same enthusiasm as the children.”

Research on age-mixed play in our culture suggests that such play differs qualitatively from same-age play. 78 It is less competitive and more nurturing. In age-mixed play, each child tries to do his or her best, but has little or no concern for beating others. When playmates differ greatly in age, size, and strength, there is little point in trying to prove oneself better than another. In such play, older children typically help younger children along, which allows the younger ones to play in more sophisticated ways than they would alone and gives the older ones valuable experience in helping and nurturing.

In the 1950s and ‘60’s, using data from the Human Relations Area Files, John Roberts and his colleagues compared the types of competitive games commonly played in different types of

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