Play is the beginning of knowledge

April 21, 2010 at 10:51 am 1 comment

From a review of Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind in this month’s The Atlantic:

Konner is especially interested in play, which is not unique to humans and, indeed, seems to have been present, like the mother-offspring bond, from the dawn of mammals. The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together. Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

Update: Andrew Sullivan explains why play matters:

Once one leaves the reductionism of evolutionary biology, can we not see play as also, well, play? And play is defined by its uselessness, its freedom, its ability to resist productivity. It is a form of ultimate freedom – in my view, the freest human beings can be. Because a game has no known winner in advance, if it has any winner at all. It is about being together and engaging together without an ulterior purpose.

That’s why I see play as something close to the divine. That’s why I believe Jesus loved children. Because, in play, they had found a way to be with each other without any other over-arching purpose.


Entry filed under: play, think. Tags: , , .

Time capsule: Practical instruction and learn-by-doing pedagogy “strange and alarming” A strong body, strong mind

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. jleeger  |  April 22, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Seems right to me. Pretty derivative of Bekoff’s work.

    Funny, I thought the one kid was shielding the other’s cigarette to spark a light on that book cover…hahaha


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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