Why We Play (And How It Can Bring About The Good Society)

By Pat Kane 

I've been an advocate for the power and potential of play for over two decades (see The Play Ethic) - towards the development of adults as well as for children.

As I've gone along, I've found myself more and more in a multidisciplinary tribe, who draw on everything from sociology to neuroscience, evolutionary theory to art theory, to build up a case for play as one of the most undervalued natural capacities of humans (and other complex mammals).

Play isn't the only primal emotional system that we need to attend to, if we are interested in the emotional underpinnings of a politics that isn't functioning properly at all. But the joy, enthusiasm and sociability that play-moments unleash is one channel of energy that we should definitely tap into. 

Below are the slides to my presentation to this year's Edinburgh International Science Festival, "Why We Play (And How It Can Bring About The Good Society)". But also speaking with me was the wonderful Sue Palmer, an expert in childhood literacy whose book Toxic Childhood started a real debate ten years ago about the forces (consumerism, overworked parents, unmonitored tech and screens) that were distorting and damaging modern children's lives. 

Sue has just brought out a proactive response to all this - a way to actively defend the conditions for a healthy childhood (which of course will improve future adult society). Her book is called Upstart: the case for raising the school age and providing the under-sevens with what they need.

And very usefully for The Alternative UK, it focusses on a particular policy (a 3-7 year old play-based kindergarten system), which underpins many of the best-performing national education systems.

But Sue, like myself, believes that a play-dominant early childhood can also addresses a whole range of other factors - preeminently the increasing incidence of childhood mental illness, and the instabilities that builds in for later life. 

Our favourite philosopher Roberto Unger asks, "how can we live in such a way that we die only once?" Thinking seriously about what play precisely is, and where it fits into the mostly ignored emotional repetoire of our lives, helps provide an answer.