Am I committing the sin of Ludic Instrumentalism when I say that “Through play we become human”?

Since I said that ‘becoming human’ thing a few years back in the piece I wrote with Penny Wilson and Mo Palmer, the great Peter Gray has made the same point in his blog (just so you know, I said it first).
The point is this: children learn how to get along with each other through the many daily interactions with other people, big or little, going about their daily business. Being told off in a shop, being smiled at, play fighting that goes wrong, unkind remarks from others, making peace, etc.

(Only a small part of that is the over-vaunted ‘rough and tumble’ play, which is a thing mainly confined to boys. Especially boys around seven or eight (and older, given half a chance, and, while I’m in a bracket, why, o why, do Americans call it ‘roughhousing’? Is it related to a lack of housing? Sleeping rough? Two nations separated by a common language.)

You could reify these rubbing-along together processes as ‘socialisation’, but that implies a slightly sinister process driven by an adult societal agenda. It also implies a desirable monoculture. In reality, that sort of so-called state socialisation delivered by professionals often fails, else everybody would have 2.4 children, live in a semi in Swindon, watch Xfactor and not listen to The Cure and wear black from head to toe, and not like Corbyn. Any sane society, so not North Korea then, has to learn to get along with alt-cultures (sub-cultures is a bit disrespectful, isn’t it?). Periodically this lesson has to be re-learnt by the state. Black people in Ferguson seem to have got that point across to the Police and City Hall, eventually.

I prefer to talk about ‘getting along with each other’.

This summer, a bunch of kids, some live in my street, some from just round the corner in the next street, have been joyfully rampaging up and down. There’s a little plot of ground at the bottom of our street, opposite the old garages and near the two big houses down the little un-tarmacced road. As well as screaming, playing chasy games, riding bikes, having races, wheel-based and pedal, and standing and sitting about, the kids have been building a farm for most of the summer. Here it is:


Inevitably the noise of them screaming drove an invalid (not happy with that term either, he isn’t not-valid, he is chronically ill) to call the Old Bill. He has the misfortune to live opposite the home of a couple of the kids, and the group just happens to hang outside their house. There’s a low wall outside, perfect for sitting on or leaning against. So the din is at its worst just outside his front window. You have to feel sorry for him, and I do. The noise is terrific when they briefly appear outside my house on bikes and scooters. Joyful, brightens my day, but not all the time.

The plastic Plod handled it quite well actually, if you accept the dominant narrative that children are a nuisance, don’t have Article 31 rights or indeed any rights to legitimately use public spaces, are always in the wrong, don’t need to be listened to and are incompetent to look after themselves and therefore mustn’t play in the road because they’ll be run over. Given that the street is tiny and narrow and stuffed with parked cars, the average speed of traffic can’t be more than 10 miles an hour (I checked my own speedo), so that’s basically a convenient ‘lie to children’, to apply pressure to get them to not play in the street. No point in talking to them as thinking reasonable social beings, just herd then along with some flannel.

In the interest of fairness, there actually is one guy who occasionally whizzes up and down the street like a nutter; but despite him, nobody has died. The kids learnt quickly to keep an eye for each other, as ever. Are the plod interested in catching this turbonutter? I asked them: no, not really.

Thanks to the intervention of the Bill, not a lot has between learnt here in terms of intergenerational relations. Missed opportunity. The kids keep to the bottom end near the spare ground. The two who live at the house opposite the complainant seem not to be out as much, and the two from round the corner aren’t often seen.

Now, these two friendly and sociable little kids are, shall we say, of a non-pasty skin colour, unlike moi —I’m  a sort of off-white with a pinkish cast. This prompted one of my neighbours, a good neighbour, to refer to them obliquely by saying that the area had become more multi-cultural’. She was correct, IMHO, to attribute this to the ‘buy to let’ phenomenon, aka the rise of an exploitative rentier class. If you are a hard lefty, feel free to call my neighbour a racist; I prefer the term ‘ignorant’. The established locals round here, a mix of Welsh and Northern English, are friendly, tolerant, look out for each other, live and let live, keep an eye out, hold your parcels for you, tell you when you leave your lights on, hold a key in case of emergencies, always say hello in the street, or wave from their car, often pause for a chat, give advice on builders, and are the nicest people you could ever hope to have as neighbours. Oh, and some of them are a bit elderly and a bit scared, and don’t like change and think that people with different skin colour are some sort of vague threat. So let’s call them ignorant, and reserve the term racist for actual thugs, Donald Trump, the Daily Mail, the Sun, frothing at the mouth loonies on Question Time, the BNP and Hitler. Come on, live and let live, it’ll work out OK. Humans are cool.

Oh, and in case I forget, here’s some evidence that learning soft skills, like getting on with grownups when you play in the street and make a noise, might mean that you don’t grow up to be a mentalist or a criminal.

Am I committing the sin of Ludic Instrumentalism when I say that “Through play we become human”?   Does that go against the idea of ‘Play for its own sake’?  I ask because I’m not sure. So please comment.

Merry Christmas to all the children and all the grown-ups everywhere, even Donald Trump.

Humans are cool. Be kind. Even to the Trump.


2 thoughts on “Am I committing the sin of Ludic Instrumentalism when I say that “Through play we become human”?

  1. Nice piece, Arthur. Enjoyed it.

    As to your question, just some thoughts that occur. To be picky, not sure that formulation ‘through play we become human’ is a happy one. Isn’t the starting point all humans are, from the outset, human and whatever form ‘becoming’ takes we can’t get to being ‘more’ human. Presumably, what’s meant here is that without play we can’t be and become the sort of human you and I might approve of. That may possibly be true.

    As to instrumentalism, to say that play may generate ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’, does not undermine valuing it ‘for its own sake’. Things done ‘for their own sake’ inherently resist being signed up to explicitly generate secondary outcomes – to do so, destroys the vary quality that is valued.

    Its the difference, perhaps, between having overt intention and being content to see what might turn up. I suppose its about starting from the other end: there are activities/undertakings that require no further justification beyond that they seem worthwhile to those enaged in them. The sort of human soiciety people like me (and you?) want is one where doing stuff for its own sake is woven into the fabric of individual lives. By definition, no further justification is required.

    I think this is not a wholly adequate response, but I wanted to respond to your request for comments before the Christmas break. Perhap a subject to be taken up again in the new year. Hvae a good Christmas and a fulfilling 2016. Regards, Bernard

    • “To be picky, not sure that formulation ‘through play we become human’ is a happy one. Isn’t the starting point all humans are, from the outset, human and whatever form ‘becoming’ takes we can’t get to being ‘more’ human. Presumably, what’s meant here is that without play we can’t be and become the sort of human you and I might approve of. That may possibly be true.”

      You are being picky!

      You might enjoy this piece, which is always lurking at the back of my mind when I think about what it is to be human:

      It’s not about the ‘sort of human you and I might approve of”, it’s about a functioning human. A child doesn’t simply arrive as a human, unlike other animals. Like all primates, we have an extended neotenous period: 2 years in chimps, how long for humans? Longer certainly. Other mammals are almost fully operational from birth, and reptiles are born as tiny adults, ready to rock in every way apart from size.

      As in the case of the Wolf Boy, and the Romanian orphans, deprivation takes its toll on physical development, brain development and social development. The murderers that Stuart Brown studied had one thing in common: play deprivation. So it’s not really about what we approve of, except inasmuch as we are proxies for human society as a whole, it’s about the necessary ‘socialisation’ processes which support a baby human to become a human, not just a grown-up. Some never get there: psychopaths and socipaths for example. and that socialisation ‘medium’ [wrong word] is play.

      So when I say “through play we become human” I’m making a claim I stand by which has now been better articulated by Peter Gray. I said it first, but he said it better, and he’s famous and a professor and shit:

      “I am going to argue, in my next post, that when we bring playfulness to bear in our social interactions we create a spirit of equality and personal freedom that allows us to overcome our equally human drive to dominate one another. ”

      That next post:

      “I refer to this method of governance as the method of play, because play is where we see it most clearly and, I think, play is always its ultimate source.”

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