Nurturing Play Could Lead To New Discoveries

Is “necessity the mother of invention,” or is there something else more fundamental at work? Peter Gray, a Boston College professor specializing in the nature and value of play, asks. “I suggest a revision, which I think has more truth: ‘Play is the mother of invention; necessity is the mother of engineering.”

Play has a unique role that isn’t about the practical, he says. It doesn’t try to figure out how to make things work better or more efficiently; it dreams up new approaches with a free-wheeling imagination.

He relates a story about the invention of the wheel and axle. It’s an invention that revolutionized travel and commerce, but it may have started with making a toy for a child more fun to play with, not carrying people or large loads of goods to markets.

“The earliest functioning wheels and axle in the archaeological record (were discovered) under a small ceramic coyote, a child’s toy, found with the remains of a child buried about 6,000 years ago,” he writes.

“It was most likely made by some playful potter who thought it would be fun, and provide fun for her or his child, to make a toy animal that could be pulled easily with a string without falling over,” he says. His theory is supported by other archaeological finds and because wheels wouldn’t be used in commerce for another several hundred years.

Gray believes if researchers looked more deeply into inventions throughout history, many would have their roots in play: “People just fooling around, for fun or to create a toy of some sort.” What started out as a whimsical endeavor eventually had engineering and mechanics applied to make something useful.

Kids are creative. Their imaginations run wild. They aren’t constrained by experience or adult rules. They spontaneously pick up two unrelated items and see what they can do with them. Children don’t look over their shoulder to see if someone is judging their behavior as foolish or not conforming to the “right” or accepted way of doing things.

He also writes of the late Simon Nicholson, and English architect who explored nature and its importance in a child’s play and development.

Nicholson developed what he called “loose parts” theory. “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it,” he said of his theory. Children can take many parts of unrelated items and create something that entertains.

We remember sitting on the lawn at Lake Minnewaska as a child, breaking four forked twigs off to similar lengths, then pushing them into the ground, creating four corners. Then we would lay a longer straight twig into the forks, creating a frame onto which we would pile more straight twigs. Finally, we would cover the top with newly mown grass clipping to complete the roof.

When we were a little older, playing with our siblings, cousins, and friends at the lake, we built a platform in the woods using four small trees as the posts. Two-by-fours and old lumber scavenged from around the cabins made for a platform that sat four feet off the ground. While it served as a tree fort of sorts, it soon became the center of a game.

One team would gather on the platform with the other surrounding it. The object was for the team on the platform to jump off and escape through the woods. To win, one of the escapes would have to make it back to the platform and get back on top. It was a game that required planning, cooperation, and strategy.

We wonder if we would have played such a game if we all had smartphones at the time.

This past week, we took photos of elementary school children playing the snow during their noon recess. There is a fancy slide and climbing structure in the school yard, but where were most of the children? They were out in the snow building snowmen, snow forts, or burying one another in the snow as if they were on a sandy beach.

If play is the mother if invention, then what happens when kids stop playing?

Over the past couple of decade, as smartphones became increasingly available to kids and their algorithms ensured compulsive addiction, we’ve noticed fewer kids playing outside. Instead of building forts, riding their bikes around together, running through a sprinkler in the summer, or building snowmen in the winter, they sit inside, alone, with their phones.

Parents who provided technology’s gadgets to their children in strollers and graduated them to smartphones, to often so they wouldn’t be interrupted while glued to their smartphones, helped ensure a generation of kids who abandoned playing outdoors.

Many children today suffer from what Richard Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

“Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families and communities,” he writes in his book “Last Child in the Woods.”

What happens to children when their creativity is suppressed at critical times in their emotional and intellectual development? When smartphones take the place of nature, discovery, and inventiveness?

“Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imagination and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity observable in almost any group of children playing in a natural setting.” Louv quotes Robin Moore, an expert designing places for play and learning.

Parents play a primary role in ensuring children play outside in nature, nurturing their creative instincts. Schools have an important role in that they can separate children from technology during school hours, so they interact and play with one another.

Local governments can be invaluable in nurturing creativity if they provide natural places where children can play and learn. Parks don’t have to be filled with structures; they can add natural environments that invite exploration.