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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

hese 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.