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The Instinct Of Play

Small use to be a child unless one can play. Says Karl Groos: Perhaps
the very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play;
the animal does not play because he is young, but he is young because he
must play. Play is a constant factor in all grades of animal life. The
swarming insects, the playful kitten, the frisking lambs, the racing
colt, the darting swallows, the maddening aggregation of
blackbirds--these are but illustrations of the common impulse of all the
animal world to play. Wherever freedom and happiness reside, there play
is found; wherever play is lacking, there the curse has fallen and
sadness and oppression reign. Play is the natural role in the paradise
of youth; it is childhood's chief occupation. To toil without play,
places man on a level with the beasts of burden.

THE NECESSITY FOR PLAY.--But why is play so necessary? Why is this
impulse so deep-rooted in our natures? Why not compel our young to
expend their boundless energy on productive labor? Why all this waste?
Why have our child labor laws? Why not shut recesses from our schools,
and so save time for work? Is it true that all work and no play makes
Jack a dull boy? Too true. For proof we need but gaze at the dull and
lifeless faces of the prematurely old children as they pour out of the
factories where child labor is employed. We need but follow the
children, who have had a playless childhood, into a narrow and barren
manhood. We need but to trace back the history of the dull and brutish
men of today, and find that they were the playless children of
yesterday. Play is as necessary to the child as food, as vital as
sunshine, as indispensable as air.

The keynote of play is freedom, freedom of physical activity, and
mental initiative. In play the child makes his own plans, his
imagination has free rein, originality is in demand, and constructive
ability is placed under tribute. Here are developed a thousand
tendencies which would never find expression in the narrow treadmill of
labor alone. The child needs to learn to work; but along with his work
must be the opportunity for free and unrestricted activity, which can
come only through play. The boy needs a chance to be a barbarian, a
hero, an Indian. He needs to ride his broomstick on a dangerous raid,
and to charge with lath sword the redoubts of a stubborn enemy. He needs
to be a leader as well as a follower. In short, without in the least
being aware of it, he needs to develop himself through his own
activity--he needs freedom to play. If the child be a girl, there is no
difference except in the character of the activities employed.

PLAY IN DEVELOPMENT AND EDUCATION.--And it is precisely out of these
play activities that the later and more serious activities of life
emerge. Play is the gateway by which we best enter the various fields of
the world's work, whether our particular sphere be that of pupil or
teacher in the schoolroom, of man in the busy marts of trade or in the
professions, or of farmer or mechanic. Play brings the whole self into
the activity; it trains to habits of independence and individual
initiative, to strenuous and sustained effort, to endurance of hardship
and fatigue, to social participation and the acceptance of victory and
defeat. And these are the qualities needed by the man of success in his

These facts make the play instinct one of the most important in
education. Froebel was the first to recognize the importance of play,
and the kindergarten was an attempt to utilize its activities in the
school. The introduction of this new factor into education has been
attended, as might be expected, by many mistakes. Some have thought to
recast the entire process of education into the form of games and plays,
and thus to lead the child to possess the Promised Land through
aimlessly chasing butterflies in the pleasant fields of knowledge. It is
needless to say that they have not succeeded. Others have mistaken the
shadow for the substance, and introduced games and plays into the
schoolroom which lack the very first element of play; namely, freedom
of initiative and action on the part of the child. Educational
theorists and teachers have invented games and occupations and taught
them to the children, who go through with them much as they would with
any other task, enjoying the activity but missing the development which
would come through a larger measure of self-direction.

WORK AND PLAY ARE COMPLEMENTS.--Work cannot take the place of play,
neither can play be substituted for work. Nor are the two antagonistic,
but each is the complement of the other; for the activities of work grow
immediately out of those of play, and each lends zest to the other.
Those who have never learned to work and those who have never learned to
play are equally lacking in their development. Further, it is not the
name or character of an activity which determines whether it is play for
the participant, but his attitude toward the activity. If the activity
is performed for its own sake and not for some ulterior end, if it grows
out of the interest of the child and involves the free and independent
use of his powers of body and mind, if it is his, and not someone's
else--then the activity possesses the chief characteristics of play.
Lacking these, it cannot be play, whatever else it may be.

Play, like other instincts, besides serving the present, looks in two
directions, into the past and into the future. From the past come the
shadowy interests which, taking form from the touch of our environment,
determine the character of the play activities. From the future come the
premonitions of the activities that are to be. The boy adjusting himself
to the requirements of the game, seeking control over his companions or
giving in to them, is practicing in miniature the larger game which he
will play in business or profession a little later. The girl in her
playhouse, surrounded by a nondescript family of dolls and pets, is
unconsciously looking forward to a more perfect life when the
responsibilities shall be a little more real. So let us not grudge our
children the play day of youth.

Next: Other Useful Instincts

Previous: The Instinct Of Imitation

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