The Ecology of Play

by Grant A. Mincy

My son, Elijah, and I playing in Flat Fork in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee.

My son, Elijah, and I playing in Flat Fork in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee.

Special note regarding this piece. This story first appeared in a book edited by my colleague and friend Nick Ford. The book is entitled Abolish Work: An Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia. You can purchase a copy here, at

Off the southern slopes of Bird Mountain in Tennessee the headwaters of Flat Fork emerge. The waters trickle into one another and build momentum as they carve into ancient Cumberland rock. The waters trickle through a lush, damp hardwood forest of Poplar and Hemlock as they twist and turn on the long journey to the Emory river. Fish and insects, coyotes and numerous other animals lap up these waters of Flat Fork. All is normal, until the mist of Frozen Head State Park. Just next to campsite 1, the monster growls.

With crooked fingers and twisted grin, the monster picks up stones and hurls them into water. Splash! Roar! Growl! Laughter fills the forest. The monster is a child at play.

Play is a rather interesting phenomenon as it is not easily defined by biology. On the one hand, it burns a lot of energy on seemingly meaningless activities. Why burn energy if not at risk to a predator? But that is the catch — just because activities seem meaningless, at the heart of the matter, this is not true. When exercise is involved, for example, be it by running, jumping or moving stones in a creek, play increases motor skills, muscle mass and even the oxygen carrying capacity of an organisms blood. Play is pleasurable, as it stimulates the central nervous system. Play is self-directed, free from the confines of what we may call “work” — tedious chores that need to be done. Play is a spontaneous leisure time activity, but is also emotional. Play brings mostly joy, but can also bring frustration. Thus, play is also a bit of “labor” — a task we are inclined to do.

There are  three methods of play: Locomotive play, social play and object play. Locomotive play involves movement for movements sake. Examples would be tag, hide and seek, climbing trees and other activities that enhance locomotive skills. Social play involves juveniles or adults of the same age engaged in activity together. There are usually rubrics or rules involved, along with a bit of imagination and creativity in a group setting. This of course enhances social bonds and strengthens community relationships. Object play of course involves objects — pots and pans, ukulele’s, drums and other musical instruments, ABC blocks, Jenga, kitchen tools and so forth. Object play allows those involved to master certain skills. All three types are distinct, but all three can be mixed and mingled, enjoyed between juveniles and adults — again advancing the social and individual capacities of those involved.

Play adapts and changes over time. We are perhaps programmed to think only the young play, but this is not the case. Adults play with the young, and adults with each other all the time. Some of this is pure leisure activity, sometimes it is physical, sometimes cognitive. The only difference is that as the animal matures, play becomes more intricate as activities advance.

Whatever the types of play are, or the age of those who partake, play is at its core an inclined, self-directed, recreational activity practiced in leisure time. So what is it that limits play? Of course, it is the discipline of a complex society — a society that requires work as opposed to labor, schooling for skills as opposed to lessons for knowledge and innate interests. It is this “working culture” that denies children and adults alike both play and their inclined labor. For children, we sit them in desks, inside classrooms where teachers lecture. As for adults, many of us, no matter how free or rewarding the job, spend a lot of time on mundane clerical or manual tasks. Each setting is at odds with our urge to play and engage in self full-filling labor.

This has numerous ill effects on society, especially regarding the young. From an evolutionary standpoint, lack of leisure time is dangerous. Play, especially rough and tumble play, is a homologous trait shared by all mammals — humans included. This is because play enhances social ties, develops the social brain and even deeper brain functions by generating new scenarios to make fun.

Though adults have fully developed brains, working culture reduces the individual’s ability to labor on self-directed projects, enhance social bonds and engage ones community. Work reduces the amount of leisure time we have to play with family — especially our children who simply long to play with us. With more leisure time our families, communities and natural environment will be better off.

Personally, I have many leisure time activities that, depending on my mood, I love to partake in. Sometimes it’s watching movies or sports to decompress. Sometimes it is laying on a blanket outdoors with a beer and a good book. Perhaps it’s sitting next to a mountain stream or gazing into the forest canopy to simply think. Sometimes I hike or trail run. Sometimes I choose to labor during my leisure time — by writing for example. Sometimes, my favorite times, I will mix labor and play.

Sunday afternoons are spent with my family. I’ve mastered the art of jazzy smoked chicken and I love preparing meals for my wife and child. On a perfect afternoon, with toddler in tow, we will listen to music (perhaps some Everybody Knows this is Nowhere — great album!) chop onions and celery, mix them with select herbs and spices and dress a chicken. The child loves to “help” as we cook and laughs as he enjoys snacks and watching to process. Soon the chicken is on the smoker. With classic rock in the background, “beats” is what the boy calls music, we will have a dance party as the protein unwinds. Perhaps we will kick a soccer ball around, perhaps play “air plane” and fly across the yard. But, no matter what, we play, bond and love.

When it’s time to pull the chicken it’s back to the labor of the kitchen. Undoubtedly, more vegetables will be chopped as the meal comes together. I greatly enjoy the method. As I slice plants to enhance a meals flavor I talk to the child and tell him all about the process. He watches and listens intently as I describe how cooking helped us become human. When carving time comes the boy is right by my side, devouring bits and pieces of the protein as the process goes on. It’s fun, and my favorite way to pass the time. Cooking is an enjoyable labor of love, an opportunity to play with the child and riddled with human liberty. The Sunday meal usually takes between five to seven hours to prepare. That is five to seven hours of free liberated time, a full days activity, spent on inclined labor and play.

So what of our communities? If play enhances social bonds, then this leisure time activity will also enhance the common good. I see it happening in my neighborhood right now. Community members have come together to cultivate new markets, community spaces and family friendly events. Long economically depressed, the neighborhood is on the up. Numerous “neighborhood cleanups” have been organized. Even a “Bio-Blitz” or two have occurred in the neighborhood to identify local plants. These activities are fun, adults and children alike create games on these days. Who can identify the first Cornus florida, or arrange acorns in the shape of a butterfly?

It’s community play. Adults and children alike, of all different ages and social backgrounds, get to know one another. As a result I see community members helping local business partners paint or build their shops, free of charge. Locals are also pitching in their labor to build trail systems around the unique South Knoxville Urban Wilderness. With mattock, Pulaski or shovel they manually labor on the trail. Trail building is actually a lot of fun, and there is a great sense of accomplishment once the activity is completed. Whether pitching in for local markets or trail-work, these are soon to be places for us all to congregate with one another, to talk about how the neighborhood is on the up. Spaces to laugh with one another, share a beer or a meal, and tell stories. They are local institutions — places we can come together as a community in our leisure time to play. Now, imagine what a free society, one that works less but labors and plays more, could accomplish.

Of course the natural environment, whether acorns on the playground or truly wild spaces, is crucial for a society to play. Personally speaking outdoor play has had a huge influence on my life. I actually think it was time spent with my parents in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, playing in streams and learning about the Appalachian environment, that instilled my life long wonder of natural systems.

Such natural splendor is in trouble, though, as we experience Earth’s sixth mass extinction. I think a large part of the current extinction is due to a human crisis — the loss of play and removal of children from the natural environment. It is the young, and future generations, who will need to protect ecosystems. As todays young lose touch with nature, future generations may not get the chance to experience her grandeur.

This is sad, because nothing compares to outdoor play. I, of course, do not disparage indoor play — instead I love it! But, outdoor play is fundamentally different and comes with its own unique sets of values and experiences. The greatest joy of nature is that natural systems are truly anarchic. The natural mechanisms that craft the great out doors are free of human dominance and the Leviathans of modern civilization. As we lose species, as habitat is lost, it is heartbreaking to think the young, and those yet unborn, will never experience the excitement of a bio-luminescent bay, or simply throw rocks into pure mountain streams.

Sad as it is, a child at play in nature is becoming a rare occurrence. There are many reasons as to why. The world is becoming more urbanized as more and more people move to the city. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, and can actually be good for environmental purposes, but urbanites tend to work long hours. This means there is less time for leisure. With notable exceptions, urban landscapes are gray with little of the natural environment present.

Parenting has shifted as well. The culture fears strangers much more so than in the past (though major studies indicate crimes against children, such as kidnapping, are plummeting). Spaces of capital exclusion exist all over urban landscapes, as commons spaces shrink in number. The aforementioned structure of indoor schooling and of a childs time come to play as well. As a result, it is the indoors that occupy the work and leisure time of children and adults alike.

As detrimental this disconnection is for adults, it is a great dis-service to our children and all future generations. Contact with nature stimulates creativity in children. Take the work of now famous education specialist Edith Cobb, for example. In her essay, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, she noted that children who had grand experiences in the natural world between the ages of five and 12 experienced greater cognitive development than their peers who did not. Plants and animals, Cobb argued, are among “the figures of speech in the rhetoric of play … which the genius in particular of later life seems to recall.”

Play is more creative outdoors. The fantasy that develops in natural landscapes requires more time and imagination to evolve because natural systems are far more complex than the standard human dominated landscape. It is not just fantasy and role play that guide the activity, but also reason and observation of the surrounding ecosystem. The argument could be made that forcing children into desks and making them study so much is counter productive — that the key to a childs enlightenment is actually play. Let them run, the wild animals, through the woods and across tall grass. Let them chase fire flies and gaze into the piercing night sky with wonder. Let them sit on a log and watch the clouds go by. Let them be still and think about the world.

The sad thing is, most of us inclined to protect such experiences are those of us who spent a good amount of time in the natural world as children. Why fight for something if it was never experienced?

Play is of fundamental importance to human civilization. So too is wilderness. How can we truly know ourselves if the wild is lost? How can we ever be free? Systems of power and domination have no choice but to loathe and fear the anarchic ecstasy that defines the wild. So without it, without the delight of play in the great out there, how can we ever understand human liberty? How will future generations ever know humanity?

Forest Schools and Montessori approaches to education, programs such as Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, local nature centers, urban forests, a rejuvenated celebration of wilderness and other methods of reconciliation ecology will help us all reclaim our commons. They will help us all reclaim our right to the wild and thus the possibility of truly understanding ourselves. In the final analysis, alternatives to work and restored time for leisurely activities are essential to a life worth living.

Play is liberation, our great hope.