Why Play Matters


Benjamin Schwarz reviews Melvin Konner's tome:

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 functionsexercise, learning, sharpening skillsand 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.

Well, yes, maybe. But 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.

(Photo: Angolan children play in an abandoned container on the road to Namibe province on the outskirt of Lubango on January 23, 2010. By GianluigiGuercia/AFP/Getty Images.)