How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy

By Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Before he died, Senator John McCain wrote a loving farewell statement to his fellow citizens of “the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” Senator McCain also described our democracy as “325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals.” How can that many individuals bind themselves together to create a great nation? What special skills do we need to develop to compensate for our lack of shared ancestry?

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831, he concluded that one secret of our success was our ability to solve problems collectively and cooperatively. He praised our mastery of the “art of association,” which was crucial, he believed, for a self-governing people.

In recent years, however, we have become less artful, particularly about crossing party lines. It’s not just Congress that has lost the ability to cooperate. As partisan hostility has increased, Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies. Support for democracy itself is in decline.

What can we do to reverse these trends? Is there some way to teach today’s children the art of association, even when today’s adults are poor models? There is. It’s free, it’s fun and it confers so many benefits that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged Americans to give far more of it to their children. It’s called play — and it matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.

The Key: “Free Play”

Young mammals play, and in doing so they expend energy, get injured and expose themselves to predators. Why don’t they just stay safe? Because mammals enter the world with unfinished nervous systems, and they require play — lots of it — to finish the job. The young human brain “expects” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play, including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.

But not all play is created equal. Peter Gray, a developmental psychologist at Boston College, studies the effects of “free play,” which he defines as “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.” Guitar lessons and soccer practice are not free play — they are supervised and directed by an adult. But when kids jam with friends or take part in a pickup soccer game, that’s free play.

The absence of adults forces children to practice their social skills. For a pickup soccer game, the children themselves must obtain voluntary participation from everyone, enforce the rules and resolve disputes with no help from a referee, and then vary the rules or norms of play when special situations arise, such as the need to include a much younger sibling in the game. The absence of an adult also leaves room for children to take small risks, rather than assuming that adults will always be there, like guard rails, telling them where the limits of safety lie. Outdoor free play, in mixed-age groups, is the most effective way for children to learn these essential life skills, Professor Gray says.

Sharp Decline in Play

But during the 1980s and 1990s, children became ever more supervised, and lost opportunities to learn to deal with risk and with one another. You can see the transformation by walking through almost any residential neighborhood. Gone is the “intricate sidewalk ballet” that the urbanist Jane Jacobs described in 1961 as she navigated around children playing in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. One of us lives in that same neighborhood today. His son, at the age of 9, was reluctant to go across the street to the supermarket on his own. “People look at me funny,” he said. “There are no other kids out there without a parent.”

A study by sociologists at the University of Michigan documented this change by comparing detailed records of how kids spent several days in 1981 and 1997. The researchers found that time spent in any kind of play decreased 16 percent, and much of the play had shifted indoors, often involving a computer and no other children.

The trend has continued in the 2000s. Recess and free play time were reduced to make room for more standardized testing and academic work. Homework became common for even the youngest schoolchildren. After-school playtime morphed into structured activities overseen by adults.

Another trend that reduced outdoor free play is the grossly exaggerated fear of “stranger danger.” The spread of cable TV gave us more programming focused on rare but horrific cases of child abduction. Those fears, combined with the long, slow decline of trust in neighbors and fellow citizens, gave rise to a belief by the 1990s that persists today: Children who are not in sight of a responsible adult are at risk of abduction, so parents who allow unsupervised outdoor play are bad parents. The authorities should be notified.

Consequences of the Decline in Play

The constant presence of adults is intended to keep children safe, but what are its likely effects? How might kids deprived of opportunities for free play, risk-taking and self-governance differ from previous generations when they leave the nest? We would expect two main areas of difficulty.

The first is that when these kids become adults, they are likely to be less resilient. Like the immune system, children are “antifragile,” as Nassim Taleb, a professor of risk engineering at New York University put it in his book by the same name. The immune system requires repeated exposure to dirt and germs in order to develop its protective abilities. Children who don’t get enough exposure are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases later on.

By the same logic, if we “protect” kids from the small risks and harms of free play, we stunt their ability to handle challenges and recover from failures. When such children arrive at college, we would expect them to perceive more aspects of their new environment as threatening compared with previous generations. We would expect to see more students experiencing anxiety and depression, which is precisely what is happening, according to national surveys and surveys of student counseling centers. These large increases do not just reflect a greater willingness to seek help; there has been a corresponding rise in self-harm, suicidal thinking and suicide among American adolescents and college students.

The second predictable consequence of play deprivation is a reduction in conflict management and negotiation skills. If there is always an adult who takes over, this is likely to create a condition sociologists call “moral dependence.” Instead of learning to resolve conflicts quickly and privately, kids who learn to “tell an adult” are rewarded for making the case to authority figures that they have been mistreated.

It’s easy to see how overprotection harms individuals, but in a disturbing essay titled “Cooperation Over Coercion,” the economist Steven Horwitz made the case that play deprivation also harms liberal democracies. He noted that a defining feature of the liberal tradition is its desire to minimize coercion by the power of the state and maximize citizens’ freedom to create the lives they choose for themselves. He reviewed work by political scientists showing that self-governing communities and democracies rely heavily on conversation, informal norms and local conflict resolution procedures to manage their affairs with minimal appeal to higher authorities. He concluded that self-governance requires the very skills that Peter Gray finds are best developed in childhood free play.

Unsupervised play is the perfect apprenticeship for Tocqueville’s art of association, but this art can be lost if children are prevented from practicing it. Professor Horwitz’s essay warns us that play deprivation will likely lead to a “coarsening of social interaction” that will “create a world of more conflict and violence, and one in which people’s first instinct will be increasingly to invoke coercion by other parties to solve problems they ought to be able to solve themselves.”

This is already evident on some college campuses. Efforts to disinvite speakers, punish people who tell jokes deemed offensive and regulate everything from dining hall food and Halloween costumes to the organizations that students are permitted to join are at odds with a longstanding liberal distaste for coercion.

“Free Play”: Democracy’s Preparatory Stage

Play is clearly not sufficient for political cooperation — today’s political elites had plenty of free play as children. But if Professors Gray and Horwitz are right that free play is the best teacher of the art of association, and if recent campus trends are harbingers of corporate and social trends, then we can expect our political dysfunction to worsen in the coming decades. We can look forward to rising levels of conflict at work and in other places where an authority is willing to resolve disputes. The job market for lawyers will boom as civil lawsuits are increasingly used to settle interpersonal conflicts.

If such a future comes to pass, it will not be the fault of today’s young people. It will be the result of well-meaning parents, teachers and college administrators who tried to protect young people from harm without understanding that overprotection itself is harmful.

Democracy is hard. It demands teamwork, compromise, respect for rules and a willingness to engage with other opinionated, vociferous individuals. It also demands practice. The best place to get that practice may be out on the playground.Φ

Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt) is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business; Greg Lukianoff (@glukianoff) is the president and chief executive of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. This essay is adapted from their forthcoming book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. This opinion piece appeared on September 1 in The New York Times.

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