Nothing disturbs visitors to Sudbury Valley School more than the sight of children of all ages playing freely all day long. The image contradicts every notion people have of what a school should be. Moreover, it seems to offer proof of our culture’ s prevailing view that children, left to their own resources, cannot be expected to amount to much, since all they do is play. No matter how the situation is viewed, it doesn’t look good.
In general, play has gotten a bad press in Western society. It is considered to be the activity that is least useful economically, socially, even ethically. It is associated with laziness and shiftlessness. It is the antonym of “work”. At best, it is what one does when one has earned time off from productive work, when nothing more is expected of a person; it is to be discouraged at all other times. In the case of young children, it is sometimes acknowledged to be a necessary evil, and much effort is bent towards improving its quality, or justifying it as a partially excusable preparation for something more substantial.
Yet, there is something very wrong with this picture. It is, after all, a fact that Nature has arranged matters in such a way that play is the chief, overridingly absorbing, activity of human young. It is an equally indisputable fact that the human species could not have survived these past hundreds of thousands – or millions – of years on earth if the young of the species were not well endowed by Nature with a virtually irresistible drive to acquire the skills necessary for functioning as effective adults. Moreover, it is during the earliest years of development that children learn the most, and learn the fastest; nothing in later life compares with the enormous capacity of infants and young children to master new material, adapt to new environments, and obtain satisfactory solutions to strange and often overwhelming problems. According to the Natural order of things, then, play – the activity central to people in their most accelerated learning mode – must be the most effective instrument for learning. What is going on? What is play all about? Why did it come to get such a bad rap in Western culture? What attitude should post-Industrial societies adopt towards play? This essay is an attempt to provide some answers to these questions.
Let me begin with my definition of play: Play is activity directed by mental processes that are characterized primarily by the exercise of free-wheeling imagination. All such activity is play, and all play is such activity. The mind of a person at play must be engaged in some creative fancy; I generally call this mental activity “model-building”. Play is model-building in action. It is the mind’s laboratory, testing in the physical domain the fancies it has come up with in its purely mental exercises. Play does what every experiment, every “reality check”, does: it provides feedback to the brain about the consequences of its models when played out in the real world environment. This is why play is so indispensable to infants: before they develop communications skills that enable them in effect to tap into other people’s minds directly, play is the only avenue children have to test their models of reality. Later in life, play remains the only avenue people have to interact directly with their environment in order to test their new models.
Let’s take a closer look at play, and note some of its characteristics. The most obvious is its powerful creativity. Play is the vehicle through which people produce creative outcomes in action. Its power lies in its freedom; it is not, by its very nature, bound to any prior mode of action or thought. In play, a person can survey a given situation and create an unlimited number of new responses to it. In play, a person can hypothesize, in his imagination, an unlimited number of new situations, and create responses to them as well. Creative people must “play” with ideas, with theories, with new behavior patterns. Successful research institutions know this, and make provision for it. The more creative people we want in our society, the more opportunity for play must be provided; and, as in any other domain of human behavior, the more comfortable people are with play at an early age, the better they will be at it – and at producing creative outcomes – the rest of their lives. The fact that children are born with the ability, and overwhelming desire, to play, is the clearest demonstration of the evolutionary fact that humans are by nature creative, by nature possessed of the innate ability to build infinitely varied models of reality and to relate to their environment in a limitless variety of patterns.
Allowing children to play freely is a necessary prerequisite for a society of adults who have the freedom to be creative – in other words, for the post-Industrial society which we are rapidly approaching. Suppressing play in children means suppressing the expression of their imagination and creative impulses, which can later be recovered only with great effort, if at all.
Many people who acknowledge the substance of what I have written above are nevertheless still concerned about the apparently undisciplined nature of play. They worry that children who are allowed to play all day will not be ready to face “reality” when they grow up; that such children will want to continue to play all the time, without concern for the more serious issues of life. This raises an important question: What is the relationship between play and “reality”? Or, put in a slightly different perspective: What is the relationship between play and fantasy?
To answer this, we must grasp the relationship between fantasy, reality, and imagination. Every person creates his own models of reality by applying his model-building skills to the inputs provided to his mind by his interactions with his surroundings. In the course of building, revising, and reconstructing models of reality, people are constantly testing new constructs, and new modes of processing information. Fantasy is nothing more nor less than the mind’ s creation of alternative constructs for reality. They are consciously invented as alternatives to the current model of reality being used by the inventor – hence they are, to him, “fantasies” rather than reality. They must, of course, be coherent models; all fantasies are models of some form of reality, albeit an “alien” form relative to the “real” form currently in use. Fantasy is the tool used by people to fashion “what if”s of reality, and to follow them through as far as they wish to.
This function of fantasy is widely accepted in the arts, especially in writing. It is less recognized as such in more “down to earth” domains, such as science and technology. But science is, after all, nothing if not the constant testing out of new notions of the way natural phenomena work, and modem science has taken the lid off of any limitations on the extent to which new hypothesize can appear to be utterly “fantastic”. Dramatic technological breakthroughs, too, can be traced to some flight of fancy of one or more inventors, who depart dramatically from the prevailing models.
Children in their play can be seen to use fantasy in exactly the same manner as adults. Children are never confused between the “fanciful” models they create and the models of reality they are currently employing. They are fully aware that the space stations they build, or the animals they become, or the societies they invent, are different from the characteristics of reality that they are currently working with. Indeed, the difference is the attraction: play is not an escape from reality, but an opportunity to test out alternative models of reality. One of the most attractive features of children’s play is the persistence with which they are willing to follow through and explore in depth an enormous number of consequences of their play models. This follow-through is tremendously important to the effectiveness of the creative process, and is much needed by creative adults. Children follow through naturally (as human beings are meant to), and the best way we can help children grow up to be adults who are able to expend concentrated energy on elaborating new models is not to interfere with them when they are elaborating their models at play.
It all comes down to the observation that there is no sharp line of demarcation between our current models of reality and fantasy. People’s models of reality are, have been, and always will be in constant flux, and fantasy is the tool by which new alternatives are created, understood, tested, and ultimately used, either in whole or in part.
Play is not undisciplined. On the contrary, play is always governed by strict rules – subject, to be sure, to change, but strictly enforced by the players as long as the play proceeds.1 Indeed, the first step a person takes when engaged in play is to delineate the hypotheses according to which the play activity will unfold. This is true even of infants, even in the pre-verbal stage of development; before they play, they configure the domain in their minds.
This aspect of play is one of its chief attractions. There is an absorbing two-faceted character to play: the formation of hypotheses (or rules) and the elaboration of actions within this framework, stretching the rules to their utmost extremes. Both facets are essential to the enjoyment of play, and to its significance as the quintessential model-building activity. To fashion models of reality, a person must learn not only to weave theories – i.e., to create models – but also to weave his perception of reality into his theories as well as he can, thus realizing the purpose for which the models were proposed in the first place. Being a good builder of models of reality means being good at playing!
The seriousness with which people, including even the youngest children, concentrate on actions which make reality work within the rules they have adopted has scarcely been noticed, and yet this is the most important active part of living, of model-building – and of play. There is no point to creating models (i.e., hypothetical sets of rules) except as tools through which activities can be effectively performed. Children know this; so do adults. That’ s why everybody plays hard, plays long, plays with intense focus – the more so, the better the player he is.
Watch a tiny infant repeat a set of movements over and over and over again – he is playing, and perfecting the fit of model to his reality. Watch young children live elaborate “fantasy” lives for hours on end, down to the last detail, with no time off, with no tolerance of sloppiness – they are elaborating their models, finding the flaws and learning how to function well within their parameters.
Play is the mother of all disciplined activity; its discipline comes from within the players, who are, as natural model-builders, committed to its success.2 Perhaps the most vivid example of this discipline is the way people play at games in which the rules are predetermined: video games, computer games, team sports, writing sonnets. In all such instances, the key attraction of playing is the challenge to perfect a person’ s performance – i.e., to maximize the effectiveness of a person’ s actions within the domain of the hypothetical rules. The preoccupation that people have with such games is nothing less than a determination to better themselves as effective performers within the reality created by the models they have adopted.3
There is another aspect of play that is worth noting. Play is an outlet for the expression of emotions, which are an integral part of every person’ s stock of model-building tools (along with cognitive skills, sensory inputs, and autonomic neural activity). People at play, especially when they are not made self-conscious by external restraints, show their feelings in every conceivable manner as their play proceeds.
That the creative process involves the emotional side of people is well known. Play gives this side free rein, and enables the players to get comfortable with it. In play, people use anger, sadness, ecstasy, joy, love, hate and every other feeling; and, as they get to be more effective players, they learn how to integrate these emotions into their activity in a productive manner. They find out how to deal with conflicting emotions, how to deal with other players’ emotions (if they are not playing alone) – how, in short, to make their feelings participants in the model-building process, rather than treating them as unwanted intrusions.
This aspect of play is readily observable among the children at Sudbury Valley. The school is suffused with strong feelings; this is one of the main reasons being at SVS is such an intense experience for everybody, children and adults. Feelings are expressed at all times in the play that goes on all day, at all ages. Play makes it possible for children to grow up at SVS without having to split their emotions from their intellect as they learn to cope with life.
The free rein given to emotions at SVS is often a source of concern to parents, who wonder why, in a school where children are free, children are not “happy” all day. This concern traces back to the “bread and circuses” mentality of the industrial era, where a sign of well-administered autocracy was a populace that “felt good” all the time. In fact, of course, the healthy human state – and the one that brings deep and lasting joy – is the one wherein the full range of human emotions are part of daily life, and are integrated into the working models of reality by which people live.
It should come as no surprise that play has gotten a bad press in industrial Western culture, or in any society controlled by an authoritarian governance. Play is the essence of the free, creative, independent life, in which people realize their full natural potential as human beings. In a society which fears such openness and freedom, play is anathema. In such a society, play is indeed the opposite of what people should do to survive effectively, since such a society has little or no place for creative free spirits. On the contrary, independent people suffer in such a society, and pay a heavy price for their free-spirited behavior.
Now that Western culture, at least in the United States, has progressed well beyond the industrial era, it has become clearer and clearer to leaders and laypersons alike that the only kind of person who will be truly effective in the socio-economic environment which is rapidly overtaking us is just the kind of person who knows how to play, and play well. The successful adult of the coming decades will be comfortable with play, not ashamed of it; adept at it; and, hopefully, practiced at it from the earliest age. This is why Sudbury Valley exists – to provide just such an opportunity for children as they grow up to become adults. Anyone who spends time at the school and quietly observes the nature of the play activity that goes on here should have no trouble understanding why we value play so highly; why we are delighted that we can say honestly that at SVS, children are free to play all day – and that most of them, happily, do so!
Nothing compares to play as an instrument of learning, least of all courses given by a teacher. Although much has been written, in general educational literature as well as in Sudbury Valley publications, on the virtual uselessness of “taking classes” as a mechanism for learning, seldom has the matter been put more succinctly or eloquently than by Kahlil Gibran, in a passage rarely quoted:
The astronomer may sing to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding. The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm, nor the voice that echoes it. And he who is versed in
the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither. For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man. And even as each one of you stands alone in God’ s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.4
Gibran presents us with the following image of the role an outsider can play in helping a person become an effective learner:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep
in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow
of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of
his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter
the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your
own mind5. [bold added]
There is a remarkable commentary on Gibran’s book, consisting of a transcript of a series of talks given by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to his followers in India in 1987. Rajneesh has some penetrating observations on the passages just quoted6, of which the following is a sampling:
Kahlil Gibran is not aware of the difference between the two words,
the teacher and the master; otherwise he would have said that if you are
only professionally a teacher – that means you are a medium of
transferring knowledge from one generation to another generation – you
don’ t have anything of your own to share and to give. But if your truth
is awakened in you, and your house is full of light and your being is
full of fragrance, you have become a master; you are no longer just a
teacher. When you are sharing your own truth, you are a master.
But that distinction, between the teacher and the master, is Eastern.
The West is unaware. The West thinks the teacher and the master are
synonymous: they are not. In fact, the more you are full of borrowed teachings, the less is the possibility of your ever becoming a master. That’s why it is very rare to find a knowledgeable man who has depth, whose very gestures speak,
whose very silence is a message, whose very presence reaches, just like
an arrow, into your being....
Knowledge is that which comes from outside and settles in you, and
prevents your wisdom; it becomes a wall, China Wall, around your own
wisdom. Wisdom is that which comes from your innermost core. In knowledge you are not sharing anything of your own being.
Wisdom is the child that has grown in your very being. Knowledge is the
adopted child. It has grown in somebody’s womb, but nobody knows who the father is, who the mother is... The master does not give you the wisdom – cannot give – but he creates the right milieu of trust in which your wisdom starts flowering, becomes awake. You will be grateful to him – perhaps in the beginning you will think he has given it to you. He has not given anything; he has simply given you confidence. He has taken away many things from you – your fear ... he creates the atmosphere in which wisdom starts growing on its own accord. [italics added]
The master simply creates trust in you, “Don’t be afraid,” because you will be going alone. The deeper you will go, the more alone you will find yourself, and more afraid – not one but thousands of fears: Am I going in the right direction? – there are no signposts, there are no milestones, no map can be provided – or am I going in the wrong direction? And who knows whether this road leads anywhere or isjust a dead-end street? And the fear: Will I be able to go back if I find that the road is wrong? Will I be able to find my own footsteps to help me to go back?
The inner world is almost like the sky – birds fly, but they don’t leave footprints. When you go inwards you don’t make any footprints; it is impossible to find the way that you have traveled if you want to come back. You will need tremendous courage, great trust...
The above excerpt is an extraordinary depiction of the kind of environment Sudbury Valley provides for its students, and of the challenges and fears they face daily. There is yet another passionate passage which is a graphic depiction of the difference between industrial-age schooling, and the schooling of the new era we have now entered, in which the uniqueness of each individual has an unprecedented opportunity to be expressed within the greater social setting:
Aloneness is one of the most mysterious experiences. But you are all
afraid of being alone, you have become accustomed to being a sheep. I want
my people to be all shepherds. That is the real transformation. You are, in
fact, shepherd, but society has forced the idea on you that you are just sheep,
so you behave like sheep.
And when parents say that, priests say that, teachers say that, all the
scriptures say that... you become surrounded with such pressure. You have
just arrived on the earth, you don’ t know who you are, and everybody is
telling you that you are a sheep; naturally, you live as a sheep your whole
life. This is wastage, wastage of millions of people – their joy, their integrity,
their individuality. This is real murder. There cannot be any crime which is
bigger than this.
I say unto you: you are born a shepherd. Remember it, and behave
like a shepherd. Your old habit, your old conditioning, will again and
again interfere. There are a few advantages in being a sheep ... the coziness of millions of sheep surrounding you – you are never alone – snuggling with each other. Have you seen sheep when they walk? – with no fear; they know real
brotherhood and sisterhood. There is some safety, security, but there is
no life. This is not a good bargain – losing life for safety and security. For
whom is the safety and security needed?... Your real being is that of a lion; it is that of a shepherd.
The above passages express in a different, more emotional, and more poetic idiom many of the key ideas Sudbury Valley has stood for from its inception.
1. Many observers have taken pains to distinguish between “free play” and play that follows rules (e.g., athletic games, board games). I do not see the distinction as valid.
2. In industrial-era societies, where adults are limited in their opportunities for exercising their natural creativity, they usually play at their hobbies and recreations with a ferocious intensity and discipline that is rarely matched at their work-places.
3. The upper classes of earlier societies understood this well. It is no accident, for example, that play – in the form of highly disciplined games – was encouraged and widely engaged in by the ruling elite of the British Empire. They were quite clear that such play enhanced the creative abilities of the players and developed within them the natural inner discipline that enabled them to function effectively throughout a global empire where they daily encountered conditions that were completely outside their former experience.
4. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (Heinemann: London, 1967), p. 67 (section entitled “Speak to us of Teaching”).
6. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, The Messiah : commentaries by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh on Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”, 2 vols. (Cologne: Rebel Publishing House, 1987), excerpts from Vol. 2, pp. 119-134.