Guest Post, Paleo Periodical: Play Like Your Life Depends On It (Because It Kinda Does)

If you haven’t yet heard, Wednesdays are our Guest Blogger Series day! It’s a day where Matt and I get a bit of a mid-week break while getting to share with you some of our favorite online bloggers.  And for their hard work, they get the benefit of your readership – we encourage you to please show all of them your support by visiting their blog and social media links at the end of this post!

Today’s post is from Karen of Paleo Periodical, the fantastic blog you can find here. She posts on a variety of topics in a very engaging way. You should definitely check her out!

Play Like Your Life Depends On It (Because It Kinda Does)

“In play, from their own desires, children practice the art of being human.”

— Peter Gray

Play is endangered. Recess has been removed from the school curriculum, competition is forbidden so everyone can have a participant’s ribbon, and playground equipment is engineered to be as safe as possible (read: BORING). Haven’t you heard? All that frivolous running around and frolicking cuts into test prep time, encourages conflict and hurt feelings, and—darnit!—somebody might get hurt.

Western cultures—though the rest of the world is catching up—prize efficiency, value, and productivity. Play has nothing to do with any of those concepts. In fact, play may be the exact opposite of those concepts. In our quest for economic dominance, we’ve forgotten that play actually serves a critical function in the development of a human being.

When fox cubs tumble, mock bite, and yelp together, what we’re actually seeing is their initiation into foxhood. Those skills will serve them later when they’re hunting, competing for mates, and raising their young. The same is true for human children, though we could be forgiven for forgetting this, because the ends do not necessarily resemble the means. Humans have complex social, emotional, mental, and physical skills to learn, which is why childhood lasts so much longer for us than for other animals. Play provides a safe atmosphere to test abilities, challenge limits, and learn emotional control. If it gets to be too much, a child can simply “time out.”

So what are we talking about when we say “play”? According to Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, there are five characteristics to play:
1.    It is self-chosen and self-directed. As the name implies, play is what you want to be doing, not what you have to be doing.
2.    The process is more important than the result. If a group of children are building a castle out of blocks, it ruins all the fun if you make it for them because you’ve mistaken the ends for the means. This is what’s wrong with being a Helicopter Parent.
3.    The rules and boundaries come from the minds of the players. In Freeze Tag, if the person who is “It” tags you, you must freeze in place. If you don’t, preferring instead to walk around freely (which of course you can ACTUALLY do), you will probably not be invited to play freeze tag anymore.
4.    It’s removed from real life and dependent upon the imagination. In physical play, for example, there may be a sword fight with tree branches, but no one is trying to kill anybody.
5.    It requires “an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.” Why? Imagine if you’re playing house while your actual house catches fire. When other priorities call, play can wait.

These days, the obesity epidemic is undeniable, and this burden is being seen in greater numbers amongst our youth. In response, we’re seeing more references to words like “fitness” and “exercise” for children. What’s so wrong with that?

“Exercise” violates all the characteristics of play above. It is an adult concept built upon the misunderstanding that movement and exertion are things we do when we’re not sitting at a desk doing more important things. I’m truly bothered that my three-year-old daughter knows the word “exercise,” because exercise is punishment for our perceived dietary sins. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know how well that works. I mean, we call exercise sessions “workouts,” and if that isn’t indicative of our feelings toward exercise, then I don’t know what is.

Erwan Le Corre, founder of the movement system MovNat, is fond of pointing out that when we see a bird flying, is it performing a wing movement exercise? Is a slithering snake engaging its core? What exactly is a proper workout for a tiger? When we think of it this way, it’s utterly crazy that we gather under fluorescent lighting after a long day at work and punish ourselves with repetitive, injury-inducing motions on strange contraptions. We need to shift toward human movements that strengthen us, engage us, and keep us curious about our capabilities. Play does this naturally.

Being outside, climbing trees, digging in the dirt, making forts out of fallen branches, playing at the park with other hoodlums, crawling under bushes, building boats out of leaves and sailing them down the gutter, throwing snowballs, settling arguments amongst friends, squashing ants, chasing squirrels, jumping on rocks. Despite its seeming lack of logic to our adult sensibilities, this is the child’s birthright. It’s how we harness our human heritage and become fully realized, well-adjusted people.

What else can we do? Here’s a list to get you started, but please feel free to add to it in the comments!
•    Provide as much unstructured playtime as possible, both in and outdoors. If you feel burdened by extracurricular activities, consider dropping them to give more free time to your child.
•    Organized team sports are great for many reasons, but many people drop them once they leave high school. Consider other activities that provide life-long possibilities: martial arts, yoga, parkour, CrossFit, MovNat workshops, hiking, dancing, rock-climbing, etc. If you homeschool your children, consider these for your phys ed.
•    Competition isn’t a bad word, but if your child isn’t having fun in competitive sports, consider a switch to something that focuses on the process, not the results.
•    The next time you’re at a playground or on a trail, play Follow-the-Leader, but let your child lead! They’ll get a big kick out of torturing you, and you just might learn something new.
•    Animal crawls—kids love these! Bear crawls, crab walks, bunny hops, frog jumps, etc.
•    Psst! A little secret…play is good for you too.
•    Some of my favorite resources right now:
◦    Peter Gray’s Freedom to Learn blog
◦    Frank Forencich’s The Exuberant Animal Play Book
◦    How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Karen Phelps is a writer and editor living in Southern Oregon. After giving birth to her daughter and finding it impossible to lose the weight via conventional means, she embarked on a journey down the ancestral rabbit hole. She’s having a blast down there. Dispatches from the adventure can be found at her blog, The Paleo Periodical, and on Twitter @PaleoPeriodical.

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