all work and no play will make Jack and Jill bored and frustrated

Another educational dichotomy revealed by a recent Twitter conversation is learning vs play. Although I know people make this distinction, I found myself wondering why, traditionally, work and play have been contrasted, as in the old adage All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and when learning might have slipped into the place of work.

The function of play

Hunting and gathering

For many thousands of years, human beings have been hunter-gatherers. Most human infants are capable of gathering (foraging for berries, leaves, shoots etc) before they can walk, although they might need a bit of support and guidance in doing so. Hunting is a more complex skill and needs the dexterity, attentional control, tuition and rehearsal that only older children can handle.

The primary function of typical play in humans, like that seen in other mammals, is to develop the skills required to obtain food and to make sure you don’t become food for anyone else. All that chasing, hiding, running, fighting, climbing, observing, collecting and pulling things apart can make the difference between survival and starvation. Of course human beings are also social animals; hunter-gatherers forage, hunt and eat in groups because that increases everyone’s chances of survival. So humans, like many other mammals, have another characteristic in their play repertoire – mimicry. Copying the behaviour of older children and adults forms the foundation for a wide variety of adult skills not confined to acquiring food.

Hunting and gathering involves effort, but the effort is closely related to the reward of eating. The delay between expending the effort and eating the food is rarely more than a few hours, and in foraging, the food immediately follows the effort. The effort could be described as work, and a child who’s poking an anthill or fighting another child when they should be gathering or hunting could be considered to be playing as opposed to working, but the play of hunter-gatherer children is so closely aligned to their ‘work’, and the consequences of playing rather than working are so obvious, that the distinction between play and work is rather blurred.


For a few thousands of years, human beings have been farmers. Farming has advantages over hunting and gathering, which is why it’s been so widely adopted. It increases food security considerably, especially in areas that experience cold or dry seasons, because surplus food can be produced and stored for future use. It also reduces,but doesn’t eliminate, the risk of territorial conflict – having to compete for food with another tribe.

In contrast to hunting and gathering, farming involves a great deal of effort that isn’t immediately rewarded. There’s a delay of months or even years before food results from the effort expended to produce it. Human children, like other mammals, aren’t good at delayed gratification. In addition, their default play patterns, apart from mimicry, don’t closely resemble the skills needed to produce food via agriculture. Ploughing, sowing, irrigating, weeding, protecting, harvesting and storing food involve hard, repetitive effort for no immediate reward to an extent that rarely occurs in hunter-gatherer societies. In addition, farming requires a lot of equipment – tools, containers, buildings, furniture etc, also requiring repetitive effort in their manufacture and maintenance. Communities that survive by subsistence farming can do so only if children do some of the work; they don’t have the spare capacity to allow children to spend their childhood only in play. This means that for farming communities, there’s a clear divide between children’s play and the work involved in producing food.


In England, subsistence farming was a way of life for thousands of years. As the population increased, pressure was put on land use, and areas of common land used for grazing animals, were increasingly ‘enclosed’ – landowners were given legal rights to take them out of public use. Following the Enclosure Acts of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, thousands of families found they didn’t have access to enough land to sustain themselves. They couldn’t survive by making and selling goods either, because of competition from the mass-production of cheap items in factories, made possible by the invention of the steam engine.

This double-whammy resulted in a mass migration to towns and cities to find work, which often consisted of hard, repetitive, dangerous labour in factories, or, because of the huge increase in demand for coal, in mines. Child labour was in great demand because it was cheap and plentiful, and many families couldn’t survive without their children’s earnings. Working in factories or in coal mines put children’s health in jeopardy. Previous generations of children working on the family smallholding might have found the work boring and repetitive and unpaid, but, poor harvests aside, would have had a reasonably good diet, plenty of fresh air and exercise and free time to pay with their friends. In industrial settings, children were working for twelve hours or more a day in dangerous environments, and, in the case of mines, almost complete darkness. The opportunity to play became a luxury.


The terrible working conditions for children didn’t last that long; a series of Factory Acts in the 19th century were followed by the 1870 Education Act which made education compulsory, and further legislation made it free of charge. Increasing prosperity (as a result of the industrial revolution, ironically) meant that most communities had sufficient resources to allow children to spend their childhood learning rather than working.

Learning vs play

Not everybody saw education in the same light, however. For some at one extreme, education was a means to an end; it produced a literate, numerate workforce that would increase national and individual prosperity. For others, education offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be archetypally human; to be free of responsibility and engage only in learning and play – what children do naturally anyway. Not surprisingly, many popular children’s authors (popular because of the increase in child literacy) subscribed to the latter view, including Mark Twain, Louisa M Alcott, Lucy M Montgomery, Edith Nesbitt, Enid Blyton and CS Lewis.

Education has essentially been dominated by these two viewpoints ever since; the ‘traditionalists’ on the one hand and the ‘progressives’ on the other. It’s easy to see how the clear distinction between work and play that emerged with the advent of agriculture, and that became even more stark in the industrial revolution, could carry over into education. And how in some quarters, learning might be seen as children’s ‘work’.

In highly developed industrialised societies, the default play patterns of hunter-gatherers bear little resemblance to the skills children will need in later life. But children’s play is very versatile; they observe, mimic and learn from whatever they see around them, they experiment with technology and become skilled in using it. Children are still ‘doing it for themselves’ as they always have done. The informal education they would get if they didn’t attend school would still provide them, as it has for millennia, with the knowledge and skills they would need to survive as adults.

Of course for most people survival isn’t enough. The lives of people in communities that ‘survive’ tend to be nasty, brutish and short, and most people don’t want a life like that. The best way we’ve found to improve our quality of life and standard of living beyond ‘survival’ is to increase the efficiency with which we produce food, goods and services. In theory, at least, this frees up time to find ways of improving our quality of life further. In practice, the costs and benefits of increased efficiency tend to be rather unevenly distributed, with some people bearing most of the costs and others enjoying most of the benefits, but that’s another story.

The best way we’ve found to improve efficiency is for communities to have access to the knowledge we’ve acquired about how the world works. It isn’t necessary for everyone to know all about everything; what is necessary is for people have access to knowledge as and when they need it. Having said that, childhood and adolescence present a golden opportunity, before the responsibilities of adulthood kick in, to ensure that everyone has a good basic knowledge about how the world works.


A core characteristic of learning is the acquisition of new information in the form of knowledge and/or skills. But human beings aren’t robots; acquiring knowledge isn’t simply a matter of feeding in the knowledge, pressing a button and off we go. We are biological organisms; acquiring knowledge changes our brains via a biological process and it’s a process that takes time and that varies between individuals.


One of the ways in which humans naturally acquire, assimilate and apply new knowledge is through play. A core characteristic of play is that it isn’t directly related to what you do to survive. Play essentially consists of rehearsing and experimentally applying knowledge and skills in a safe environment – one where the outcomes of your rehearsal and experimentation are unlikely to end in disaster.

The amount learning in play varies. Sometimes the play can consist almost entirely of learning – repetition of knowledge or skills until perfect, for example. Sometimes there’s very little learning – the play is primarily for rest and relaxation. And rest and relaxation play can provide the ‘down-time’ the brain needs in order for new information to be assimilated.

Young humans play more than older ones because they have more new knowledge and skills to assimilate and experiment with, and their play tends to incorporate more learning. For very young children all play is learning.

Older humans tend to play for rest and relaxation purposes because they don’t have to acquire so much knowledge. They do learn through play, but it often isn’t recognised as such; it’s ‘kicking an idea around’ or imagining different scenarios, or experimenting with new knowledge in different configurations. In other words learning through play in adults is often seen as a corollary of work – what you get paid to do – not as play per se.

What emerges from this is that construing learning and play as different things and assuming that children and young people must either be learning or playing, is not a valid way of classifying learning and play. Learning can include play and play can include learning. Since play is one of the ways through which human beings learn anyway, it makes sense to incorporate it into learning rather than to see it as something that distracts from learning.

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