Playing with children, adults and Michael Gove: an interview with Patrick Bateson

The Editors
January 21, 2014

When we were kids, my friends and I used to play a game where we  pretended the floor was covered in lava (or a crocodile swamp, or  quicksand, or shark-infested waters depending on where in the world we  were that day). The point was to not fall into the lava and meet a  painful fiery demise, complete with shrieks of terror and dramatic death  throes. While seemingly a pointless and not altogether intellectually  stimulating game, according to Professor Sir Patrick Bateson’s recent  book, Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation,  this macabre ‘self-handicapping’ form of play was actually helping to  equip my friends and I for obstacles we would encounter later in life.

The advantage of this and other types of play, according to Professor  Bateson, is that it facilitates an increase in creativity and  innovation, instilling in us the ability to think flexibly. Play isn’t  restricted to humans, either; far from it, in fact. Beyond the obvious  candidates of seals, dolphins, chimps, cats and dogs, animals ranging  from crows, gazelles, meerkats, bears, rats, and even fish and spiders  have all been known to play. Professor Bateson believes that the wide  biological diversity and persistence of this behaviour indicate that it  is inherent and evolutionarily selected for, signifying that its  advantages must go a lot further than just our pure entertainment.

I sat down with Professor Bateson, an emeritus professor of ethology  at the University of Cambridge and president of the Zoological Society  of London, to learn more about our playful tendencies, how to hold onto  them as we age, and what happens if we stifle this urge in children.


How do we learn to play? Is it inherent? The animal  models you mention in your book seem to suggest that it is an  evolutionarily selected-for behaviour.

Professor Bateson:

Yes, particularly in birds and  mammals. However, the word ‘play’ is used in very different ways. I am  not talking about playing football or playing chess. Instead, I am  talking about playful play, of which some animals do a lot, as we do  too. It’s this activity, which takes up a lot of a young animal’s and a  child’s time – about 10% of their waking hours if they’re allowed to. So  it is an important activity. Unfortunately, because people thought play  wasn’t serious, it wasn’t treated as a subject worth investigating. But  it is a subject worth investigating. If a young animal spends  as much time playing as it does, then we need to investigate it and find  out what it’s all about.

We seem to lose the inclination to play as we age, why do you  think that is? Is it because we have to allocate our time and resources  elsewhere?

Yes, adults of course have many concerns with lots of  responsibilities. However, when released from them we can become as  playful as a child.

And is there any way that kids can help us to get our playfulness back? Should we try to play more than we do now?

Yes, there’s that quote from George Bernard Shaw, ‘We don’t stop  playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.’ Quite  a lot of self-help stuff is published on how to get people to become  more creative, which in effect is how to get them to become more  playful. Adults go on doing this all their lives if they’re so inclined.  Very often, however, we engage in fruitless, futile, fatuous activities  – just watching television for hours on end or going onto social media.  We occupy an enormous amount of our time doing things that are not  particularly playful or creative.

And do you think that children can help us play, or should parents help their children learn how to play?

I think that we, as adults, can learn something about the benefits of  play from children in terms of discovering new possibilities. Children  do play spontaneously without adult involvement if they’re allowed to.  One of the things that I get really quite worried about is plonking  children behind desks at a very early age. I think that it may have  almost the opposite effect of what is desirable. People do it because  they want to get their kids into better schools, or they’re worried  about what will happen if their children are allowed to roam freely. But  children will play a lot if they’re allowed to. And if they’re not  allowed to, they will lose out in the long run.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about lowering the age of formal education in the UK; do you think this is a bad idea?

If you look at some of the Scandinavian countries, particularly  Finland, where they don’t start formal school until they’re seven,  there’s no evidence that this late start (by our standards) interferes  with their learning of formal skills like reading and writing, or  learning mathematics. The worry is, if you start formal education too  early with children, they will lose opportunities to play, and many  children will also become de-motivated about acquiring socially  desirable skills. In the United States the trend was upwards in terms of  IQ and creativity until the 1990s. Now the trends are reversing and  going down. Children are becoming less intelligent and less creative.  That’s a real cause for concern.

And do you think this is tied to the change in the education system?

Well it’s difficult to prove, of course, because it’s just a  correlation. But my guess is that the decline in creativity and  intelligence is caused by the changes in educational practices.

So you think that a better model would be the Scandinavian one, versus, say, a more Eastern model?

Some of the Eastern educationists are now getting worried about the  fact that their kids are being given a very, very tough schedule – not  only going to school for long hours but having to go to crammers as soon  as they come out of school. In South Korea, for example, where there’s a  very high suicide rate among kids, they’re at school for 13 hours a  day; it’s incredible! It may help them to do certain things – acquire  skills in mathematics and maybe skills in reading– but the downside is  de-motivation and loss of creativity. Some of the Chinese psychologists  are getting quite worried about precisely that. They want to move to a  set up where the children can play much more.

Do you think there is a problem with daycare centres, where  there is no formal learning but the children are still in a structured  play environment? Do you think that provides the same sorts of benefits  as spontaneous play?

Well in Norway pre-school activities are partially structured, but  there’s a lot of free play involved as well. At their kindergartens, for  example, children are taken out to places in the country where they can  fool around, doing the things that kids like to do. (There is some  supervision, obviously.) And when they come back to town, what they do  will be a bit structured, but nothing like as structured as what we’re  getting to in this country or in the US.

And what about developmentally, do you think there is a  difference in this type of spontaneous self-generated play versus the  more structured kind?

I think there is a difference, yes, in a sense that the more  structured stuff isn’t very playful. The children are told, ‘Let’s now  do this, this and this.’ They are not doing it spontaneously.

I think an important question from the policy perspective is,  if the child is not getting this kind of attention and play at home,  would it be better for them to be in a school environment doing it? What  do you think the trade-offs are?

I think obviously for busy mums it’s difficult for them to allow  their kids to do what they want. And of course they worry about safety –  there’s a big concern about that. So parents are very glad to have  their children up in their studies or in their bedrooms fiddling with  their computers. So I think you have to have some way in which kids can  be helped, as they do in Norway. All kids should have the opportunity to  play freely, under some supervision obviously, but not totally  controlled.

A gentler transition from being at home to being at a less structured school environment then.

That’s correct, yes.

And you think that would be a better model for the UK?

I think that would be much better. It goes completely against what our Secretary for Education, Michael Gove, wants, of course.

You talk a little bit about passive play in the book; what do  you think about video games or computer games, are there any benefits  from them? Where children are not just watching TV, they are engaging  with the game, but the play is not generated on their own. Do you see  any sort of benefits from this other type of play?

There’s a lot of argument about this. I’m a bit sceptical, I have to  say. I don’t think there’s been any really decent research, but my  impression is that a lot of what happens in a video game is not very  playful. It’s very focused, and may have some benefits, but it’s not  what a kid would do if they were just allowed to fool around. There are  clear rules in these video games and the kids are very quick to pick  them up. They gain certain skills and some of these may be beneficial,  but there are also costs to their development, I fear.

Shifting gears a bit, you discuss in your book how companies  like Google and Facebook are trying to foster creativity with open time  and thinking. How successful do you think they are at these different  tactics?

Plenty of evidence suggests that releasing some of the stress of a  job can help people be more creative. So the policy may be successful in  that way. I talked to people at Google about their practice, and they  said their engineers were more likely to come at things in different  ways because of the free time they were given. If so, Google’s policy  may well impact on their employees’ creativity.

So should everyone have ping-pong tables in their office now? Would that help all of us to be a little bit more creative?

Probably not. I think the benefits for adults lies in just being able  to sit quietly and not feel stressed, generally allowing our minds to  roam freely, even to daydream.

And how do you consider your own work? You’re still going  strong after a long and illustrious career, do you find that your work  is playful?

I do, I particularly like being in small groups of people, tossing  ideas around. Not the brainstorming in the formal sense, but with  friends or colleagues, sharing ideas where nobody’s trying to dominate.  It can be done playfully and it can be great fun when that happens. I  still find that type of playful activity enormously enjoyable, and,  indeed, creative.


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