a study in play deprivation

In his article All Work and No Play Make the Baining the Dullest Culture on Earth, our favorite play advocate, Dr. Peter Grey, shares a case study of the impact of systematic play-deprivation as exemplified by the Baining people of Papua, New Guinea. His conclusions are admonitive, shedding a bright and condemning light on the child-rearing practices of our own culture:

“The Baining are small-scale agriculturalists, who subsist on their gardens and the few animals they raise.  In their style of life and attitudes they are in many ways the opposite of hunter-gatherers, including those hunter-gatherers to whom they are closely related.  Hunter-gatherers love the bush, or forest; value freedom and individual initiative; and—as I have discussed elsewhere (including here and here)—are extraordinarily playful in their daily lives and especially value play among children. Hunter-gatherer children are allowed to play all day, every day, from dawn to dusk, and in that way they acquire the subsistence skills, social skills, and personal traits and values that characterize their culture.  In contrast, the Baining shun the bush, which they view as chaotic and dangerous, and they derogate play, especially that among children.

“…the Baining eschew everything that they see as ‘natural’ and value activities and products that come from ‘work,’ which they view as the opposite of play.  Work, to them, is effort expended to overcome or resist the natural. To behave naturally is to them tantamount to behaving as an animal. The Baining say, ‘We are human because we work.’ The tasks that make them human, in their view, are those of turning natural products (plants, animals, and babies) into human products (crops, livestock, and civilized human beings) through effortful work (cultivation, domestication, and disciplined childrearing)…

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and it apparently makes the Baining the ‘dullest culture on earth.’ In some ways, I fear, we today are trying to emulate the Baining as we increasingly deprive children of opportunities to play and explore freely and, instead, force them to spend ever more time working in school and participating in adult-directed activities outside of school.”

1 Comment

  1. Lily on July 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    My email, and often my screen name is chaostheory. I have had many comments on it, good and bad. I have had requests from people to change it to something more “professional”. I refuse to do that though.

    In this culture, it seems that chaos is considered bad. Much like the Bainings fearing the chaos of the bush, in this culture, anything that cannot be controlled (by humans at least) is considered chaos and therefore fearful and just plain “bad”. I try, every day, to embrace the chaos. Chaos theory is what connects people and things and everything to each other in ways that we can only imagine. Cutting ourselves off from chaos may make life simple and easy, but it cuts us off from what “could be”. Not only that, but it’s futile, chaos will always find a way into our lives.

    Nature, by it’s very nature, is chaos. Things don’t grow in rows like they do in crops. But, when you watch, it actually has a lot of patterns and rules too. When reading about the hunter/gatherers and how their children play, I couldn’t help but think about wolf puppies. Wolf puppies spend most of their time playing with other puppies (and sometimes the adults join in), learning to hunt, learning to socialize, learning their place in the pack heirarchy. It’s like when little kids play “house”. Young ones can’t help but play and pretend the part of adults in their culture.

    One of the summers we spent here that brings a smile to my face is the one where a family of hawks lived somewhere nearby. The babies had just learned to fly and they would go out the the school yard across from our back yard and play “tag”-ish and other chase games (seemed pretty chaotic), making happy sounds at each other until it got dark and the Mama and Papa hawk would come and round them up and send them home. They were adorable.

    So, as sad as it is that we expect our children to work instead of play, the thing to remember is that our children will find ways to play, even if that play is pretending to do the work the adults will soon expect us to do. Play is play, even if it doesn’t look like it.

    Love and laughter,

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