a study in play deprivation

by Bernard De Koven on July 26, 2012

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.”

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