I am about 1/3rd through reading all of the play literature published over the past two decades. Some of this review is reacquainting myself with authors that I have long admired, and it has been a delight to reread works in light of my experience. While I do try to stay current, much is new in the field and extremely informative. So, while my studies still have a long way to go, I’ve already uncovered enough important insights that I’ve decided to give you a preview of some of what I’m learning.
Discovering the writings in evolutionary psychology has been especially exciting. The most revelatory insight has been the extent to which nature goes to ensure reproductive success. Here is the evolutionary challenge homo sapiens face. We are the most successful large animal inhabiting virtually every part of the globe. To accomplish this, we must be very smart, but we also have to be extremely adaptable. There’s the problem. To combine brains and flexibility babies are born with the enormous potential to learn but are completely helpless. Think about a baby chick who can mostly fend for themselves minutes after hatching and you get a sense at just how vulnerable infants are. Most other animal babies can be independent in a year, or at most two years. Our children require at least a decade before they can fend for themselves. The age at which reproduction occurs is similarly extended for humans as compared to other animals. From an evolutionary perspective, this presents a real challenge. What mechanisms has nature put in place that gives the best chance for our children to survive to become parents themselves?
The first obstacle to be overcome is maternal rejection. Having a baby hurts … a lot. It would be logical for any mother to get as far away from the source of pain as possible. To counteract the possibility of rejection, new mothers are loaded with hormones that foster bonding. Babies do all sort of things to make themselves adorable and less likely to be rejected, and nature helps out by making them cute. This natural protective process continues through the first few years as, for example, a mother will be awakened from a deep sleep in a noisy environment with the barely heard cry from her child.
Like most other primates, humans rely on friends and family for child rearing. Maternal grandmothers will help by, for example, preparing baby food and childcare. The mother’s mother is more likely to do this than the father’s mother since the grandmother has an interest in supporting her own offspring’s child.
Both siblings and other children have a significant role in helping toddlers become successful adults. It has been shown that children who frequently play in a group of mixed age peers gain skills sooner than children who do not have a chance to play with older kids.
What an evolutionary perspective gives us is to look at life as a cost/benefit dynamic. If resources are scarce what is the impact on the family? As harsh as it sounds, parents will preferentially support their older child as they represent their most substantial investment and, being older they tend to be less prone to disease. Likewise, a community will tend to be inclusive in times of abundance and less so when resources are lacking.
Play tends to occur most robustly when resources are abundant primarily, and the environment is reasonably safe. This means that a playful household or community is a healthy environment in which children will thrive. It is also the case, and heart endearingly so, that play will try to emerge even in challenging circumstances as is famine or war. This is a measure of how important play is to children’s development
For more on this subject see:
The Origins of Human Nature – Evolutionary Developmental Psychology, David F. Bjorklund and Anthony D. Pellegrini