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Why we think that playing is a waste of time.

February 22, 2018

Very few people outside of Germany have heard the name of August Hermann Francke. As a 17th century German theology professor and priest, he should have remained in oblivion forever. Yet Francke’s mark on the history and even the psychology of humans is so profound, that it is hard to imagine human lives before his life and work.

They all look grim, but only one of them made you go to school. 


For Francke’s was the driving force behind one of mankind’s most dramatic social reforms – the introduction of public schools. People have learned how to walk, speak, hunt, cultivate the land, prey, write, read and build tools and houses long before his time, but few of them have ever thought about who should learn, what they need to learn and most importantly how learning should be organized.


Before Francke's time, the act of general and intense learning was considered a privilege of the ruling elite or the devoted religious. It a waste of time for everyone else, certainly for children. Most people needed food and shelter, not science or math, to survive. Some needed to learn a trade, so they learned the specifics of that trade.


It was teaching of the holy scriptures that gradually became the main purpose of learning in medieval Europe and Colonial America. And indeed, literacy rates have increased dramatically after the invention of print in the 15th century, but this was mostly among adults. The truly gifted enjoyed learning in universities, which were very religious, and easily discriminated people by their age, faith, gender and economic background. 


Then, in 1695, the small but influential Pietist sect of Prussian Germany, under Fracke’s leadership, concluded that education was important for everyone, especially for kids. Dealing with many poor and often rebellious young orphans,  Francke’s idea was that education cannot be limited to religious teachings, or to a selected few, but as means of preparing a child into a moral adult life.


Most of the people today who are familiar with his work, consider him as a visionary and philanthropist. Indeed, the Franckesche Stiftungen was the first to introduce math, nature and basic science alongside religious teachings. It was also the first institution of its kind to be financially independent, so every kid could attend it.


But the school real purpose was to deliver strong messages of order, structure and obedience, using elements that look too familiar to us to this day -


There was a standard curriculum that all kids must learn. Children were grouped in classes based on their age, so they’ll know what is expected from them at their age. Hour Glasses were present in every class, so everyone would know the schedule and time won’t be wasted.


Soon, this format was expanded into the entire German Empire and from there to the rest of the world. The first state in the US to introduce a public-school system was Massachusetts, in 1852.


But Francke’s ideas go far beyond the use of hour glasses and age groups. His main influence was introducing the idea that when left unsupervised, what children want to do was sinful.


He wrote –


Above all it is necessary to break the natural willfulness of the child. While the schoolmaster who seeks to make the child more learned is to be commended for cultivating the child’s understanding, he has not done enough. He has forgotten his most important task, namely that making of the will obedient.


Apparently, this was normal behavior among kids in the 17th century. 


We cannot understand modern perception of education until we understand the philosophy behind it. Pietist protestants believed that life should be lived in obedience – to God, to king, to country, to father, to any adult and finally to work. The school’s only purpose was to educate kids to serve this order.


While some of us have moved away from parts of this order, it almost universally accept that work is more important than many other things.


If we ask someone we just met “what do you do in life?” and their first answer is “I play my PS4 seven hours every day” we’ll probably label them as unproductive degenerates. Which unknowingly sends us back into the Pietist perception of childhood.


 have you been a productive member of society today?


The dismissal of childhood’s freewill and instincts and creating the social consensus of separation between playing and learning is the true legacy of the Pietist school system. Most of us still think of playing as a digression, if not interference, with more important things in life.


And yet the origins of play are so deep in our history and biology, that we simply don’t know when humans started playing. We know that all mammals engage in some forms of play, as are some intelligent birds. We know that play is much more common and complex among intelligent, social and predatory mammals.


Being highly intelligent, social and successful hunters, us humans have probably played from the very moment we’ve been around. Playing is inseparable from our learning and creative skills, which are superior than those of all other species. It explains why we play longer and more complex games than any animal, even as we grow up.


If we’ll take all the recorded human history, which is about 11,000 years old, and compare it against nearly 200 years of universal education, we’ll notice that while we may have played forever, we’ve been ‘educated’ for less than 2% of this time. (If we take what scientists consider as the first sapiens specimen, aged 3.2 million years, we’re overwhelmingly more illiterate players than educated intellectuals).


Most people would now agree that education is a basic human right and a basic human need. Play has only recently been considered a basic human right by the UN, but few people think about it as a basic human need, as evident by so many of us denying play and games.


In fact, most parents would encourage, if not force their kids to do better at school than to play. (Unless of course play means exceling in well-organized and competitive games, i.e. sport games.) We consider most types of games – especially free, spontaneous and unsupervised play – to be childish, pointless and often dangerous. In short, we consider them sinful.


Even if we don’t say or think about it explicitly, we expect kids to lose interest in play soon after they start their formal education.


Less than three centuries after Fracnke’s death, we have all become his followers. Even the many scholars and educators who now acknowledge the power of play, do it in the name of acquiring new skills or improving academic and professional achievements. We’ve collectively lost our ability to see play as having merits of its own, that we need to play because we need to play.


As legendary game thinker Bernard De Koven wrote in 1978:


“If I’m playing well, I am, in fact, complete. I am without purpose because all my purposed are being fulfilled. I’m doing it. I’m making it. I’m succeeding.”


It’s remarkable, and ironic, that the only ones who seem to figure this out are kids.

They are born to play. Then we educate them out of it.  

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