Why do children Play?

Children are fascinated by what's around them. When left free, they tend to explore the world. They observe, playfully imitate and engage with the things around them. They are in a constant state of flow, fully consumed by what they do.

Alwin George

If let free, wouldn’t children just play around and have fun? Would they learn? This is a genuine concern that many parents have. Anyone who has been with a child knows that they just love to play, that if given the opportunity they will play all day long. I wonder why though? Why do children spend most of their time in play? Are they just wasting their time or is there something to play that we don’t truly appreciate.

After reading “Free to Learn” by Peter Gray I was introduced to the idea of learning without schools. The Idea that children are able to acquire the skills required to thrive in life without being ‘taught’ or ‘schooled’. We often think of education as something that’s done to children by Adults. Rarely do we think about education as an internal process. The Process of Wonder, Observation, Playfulness and Creative Imitation that every child is born with. A process that is capable of enabling children to excel at anything that’s around them, without the need for being ‘schooled’ or ‘taught’.

Let’s begin by looking at our notion of play. We define play as ‘not work’, work is productive, it makes you a functioning member of society. The idea of schooling is to upskill children so that they are able to work and earn a decent living. Earning a livelihood is a fundamental and important aspect of life and I’m in no way questioning it.

Yet, A Gallup study found that 51 Million Americans don’t like the work they do, they live waiting for weekends and holidays. Do we really want our children to go through life resented by what they do?

Then, there are people who love what they do and are consumed by it, for them work is not something they do because they have to, but because they want to. They find sheer joy and happiness in it. These people are often in the forefronts of their fields, truly leaving a mark on the world. Strangely enough, these people don’t have a distinction between work and play. They are in a state of flow or ‘playfulness’ like how children are.

Recently I was in the Village ‘Payyanur’ in Kerala, It’s a small community of artisans who work on Bell Metal Crafts. I was there with them for a week and I was curious as to how the children there learn craft making. Do adults teach them?  Do children learn on their own? Is learning a chore for them like how ‘Schooling’ is for our children?

First off, Learning to make crafts is hard, it requires attention, persistence and mad practice to master. Without any form of compulsion or nudging would children engage in this seemingly hard and challenging ‘work’?

To my pleasant surprise after school, the children would come to the ‘Kovil’, where the Adults do craft making. Out of curiosity they come and observe what the adults make. There is zero to little verbal instructions or teaching present in the Kovil. No one is interested in ‘teaching’ children. Children through pure observation pickup the process. They start off by playing with the wax and attempt to build their own crafts. Initially they build seemingly simple crafts and these often lack detail. But no one asses their work, no child is graded or valued for their work. Nobody thinks it’s a good idea to carrot and stick children to improve their performance. They understand that there is an innate strive for mastery and excellence in children and that children learn best when left on their own. I found that children like to be challenged and pushed, these children practice hours on end trying to improve and master their craft. All these go against our popular notions of what drives learning and consequently our schooling practices. I was awestruck by the crafts these children are able to make, without any form of compulsion or teaching.

Made by a seven year old girl at Payyanur

For our children, Learning is ‘work’. Seth Godin once said “ The biggest crime schooling does is they teach children that ‘Learning is Work’, that no one likes doing it. Everyone does it so they could pass their examination and move on. Learn only the very least that’s required.

We have all heard this in our schools, Do this or we’ll laugh at you, expel you, tell your parents, make you sit in the corner. Do this or you will get a bad grade, be suspended, never amount to anything. Do this or you are in trouble.”

This fear that schools use as a tool to administer their students is toxic. Fear is easy to awake, easy to maintain, but ultimately toxic. It kills the human spirit. Passion, on the other hand can overcome fear, the fear of losing, of failing, of being ridiculed[3]. At the very instant we take away freedom and assume control over a child’s learning, playfulness and passion cease to exist. In a caged mind, there is no space to explore or learn. The human spirit needs autonomy and freedom to thrive.

“When we don’t take away a child’s love to learn, the amount of learning becomes limitless.”, I have friends who knew all there is to know about cricket, they learned it out of love and passion for the game. They can produce stats about any game or player in an instant. I wonder if they were introduced to cricket in a classroom where they were asked to memorize ‘stats’ would they have learnt to hate the game?

Something that I have started doing recently is to read Books on ‘Education’, having gone through years of schooling reading a book was extremely hard for me. I hated books, books were something you had to endure to be let free to do the things you loved. School had successfully taught me to hate books. Only slowly have I began to appreciate books and started reading them for the fun of learning new things.

Children are fascinated by what’s around them. When left free, they tend to explore the world. They observe, playfully imitate and engage with the things around them. They are in a constant state of flow, fully consumed by what they are doing. Children play based on their observations and experiences. They spend significant amounts of their time observing and imitating the things around them. Observation demands attention and concentration be developed. This leads to further interest in seeing details and how things happen.

Made using refills by a boy at Payyanur

The fundamental requirement of creativity is to be sensitive to the surrounding and to learn from it. Be it a designer or a writer the ability to pay attention and observe the things around them, to be present in the moment and to ‘see’ is the most important cognitive formation required for creativity.

A good writer for example is one who notices the stories that are unfolding around him/her and is sensitive to it. An excellent designer notices the forms, colours and texture around him and encompasses it to their designs. If we want children to grow to be more creative, explorative, imaginative, confident and capable of creating knowledge, we need to let them play and explore freely.

One of the foundations of a happy and capable life is to be able to take control of one’s life and navigate through uncertainty with confidence. During play children learn to take control of their lives, they learn to judge their abilities, try to overcome their fears and to push themselves forward. Children pick up the confidence to do things by acting on things they have never done before.

“The simple act of a child jumping from stairs in turn prepares him/her to take a step into the unknown, to do something they have never done before, they try to outgrow their fear, to learn to judge their capabilities. They pick a spot that is  both capable and challenging for them. Finally, when they make the jump they have outgrown their fear and become more confident of themselves and their abilities “

I was in Kokodi, A Village in Chattisgarh for a week. I was struck by how the adults at Kokodi regard children, Adults have a deep sense of trust and faith with children’s abilities to take care of themselves. they don’t try to micromanage the child in any way. One day I was walking through the outskirts of the village through the paddy fields. I heard a few children giggling and having fun, I walked up to them to see what they were upto. Children aged 5-7 were bathing in a Pond, one that is fairly deep and far away from the village for any potential help. No one was bothered about their security. When asked around I learned that no kid had ever been in an accident, that they expect kids to take care of themselves.

The day that I left for Chattisgarh I was in Bangalore, having dinner in a restaurant which has an open pond in the middle of it. The kid who sat next to me, went near it to have look at the fish. He stood there with awe and wonder. The mother having seen this ran up to the kid and screamed at him. It taught the kid a very important lesson that he is no way capable of looking after himself, that he is clumsy and would fall off to the pond.

The rule of expectations states that “If I accept you as you are. I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I can help you become that. But what happens when we constantly convey it to children that they are incapable, how would they turn out?

In the Village I stayed, there is a steep rock that stands out majestically across the paddy fields, few children were playing around me as I was looking at it with awe. I asked a kid whether there is a trail to go up to the base. The kid, Nikhil who was around 12 told there isn’t any but that he would come with me, so we went. Halfway through we reached the end of the village trail. He then took the lead and navigated through the jungle. He started talking about the flora and fauna of the jungle, I was mesmerized by the amount of knowledge he has.

As we reached the base of the steep rock I could see the entire village, I stood there enjoying its beauty. Nikhil suggested that we climb up the steep rock. It’s a purely steep vertical climb, I went around it and told him that I won’t be able to climb up. I told him I will wait at the base, he then went on to climb that rock, until then I had seen such feats of climbing only on National Geographic. The level of composure and confidence children at Kokodi have in their abilities was staggering to me.

Over Dinner, I mentioned it to the person who was hosting me. He told me that these kids sometimes “disappear” just like that, go to the jungle, roam around the nearby villages and come after a few days. I’m 25 now and even now I cannot “disappear” without informing my parents. Still they worry about my safety. But the 12 year old kid “disappears” into the jungle and the parents just assume everything is alright because they know their child can take care of himself.

On my way back in the train, A family was traveling in the same compartment as mine, The mother was constantly telling the kid to sit down and stay put. When the mother wasn’t looking, he managed to sneak out close to the door. He was standing a fair bit away from the door at the middle of the bogie. Nonetheless, the mother having seen this ran up to him and slapped him in his face. I was sad at the realisation of how we treat our children. Children at Kokodi have climbed the highest peaks, the tallest trees and swam across the deepest waters. I wonder what our children will be capable of achieving if we treat them with respect and trust. Don’t we want our children to grow up learning to pick themselves up?

I don’t want to end this without giving solutions as to how we can create conditions for children to grow. I’m aware, as opposed to village life modern space often don’t have favorable conditions for children to learn freely through observation and playfulness. Much of what happens in cities are hidden from children. children grow up seeing ‘products’ rarely do they see the ‘process’ of how things come about. There was this interesting survey in which children from the U.S. were asked, Where milk comes from?

It comes from the supermarket, they said. Well, were they really wrong?.

Once, I was walking through a village in Rajashtan, There are no ‘walls’ in that village. the kids were free to roam around. They went anywhere they pleased. Kids had access to everything, they could go anywhere, see anything and do anything. But there was one place in the Village that had ‘Walls’. A place that stood in contrast to it all, the Village ‘School’.

It will be a long time before we will be able to open up our cities for children to explore and learn, Currently I’m working on a piece that explores possible solutions that address this very issue, Once done, I will [link] it here

Till then I will leave you with this quote from  Rachel Carson.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he/she needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the World we live in”


- Alwin George

email: alwingeorge2008@gmail.com


References & Further reading:

- The rule of expectations

- Free to Learn - Peter Gray

- Stop Stealing Dreams - Seth Godin

- Anthropology of Childhood - David Lancy