Playing with children, adults and Michael Gove: An interview with Patrick Bateson

When we were kids, my friends and I used to play a game where we pretended the floor was covered in lava (or a crocodile swamp, or quicksand, or shark-infested waters depending on where in the world we were that day). The point was to not fall into the lava and meet a painful fiery demise, complete with shrieks of terror and dramatic death throes. While seemingly a pointless and not altogether intellectually stimulating game, according to Professor Sir Patrick Bateson’s recent book, Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, this macabre ‘self-handicapping’ form of play was actually helping to equip my friends and I for obstacles we would encounter later in life.

The advantage of this and other types of play, according to Professor Bateson, is that it facilitates an increase in creativity and innovation, instilling in us the ability to think flexibly. Play isn’t restricted to humans, either; far from it, in fact. Beyond the obvious candidates of seals, dolphins, chimps, cats and dogs, animals ranging from crows, gazelles, meerkats, bears, rats, and even fish and spiders have all been known to play. Professor Bateson believes that the wide biological diversity and persistence of this behaviour indicate that it is inherent and evolutionarily selected for, signifying that its advantages must go a lot further than just our pure entertainment.

I sat down with Professor Bateson, an emeritus professor of ethology at the University of Cambridge and president of the Zoological Society of London, to learn more about our playful tendencies, how to hold onto them as we age, and what happens if we stifle this urge in children.

KR: How do we learn to play? Is it inherent? The animal models you mention in your book seem to suggest that it is an evolutionarily selected-for behaviour.

Professor Bateson: Yes, particularly in birds and mammals. However, the word ‘play’ is used in very different ways. I am not talking about playing football or playing chess. Instead, I am talking about playful play, of which some animals do a lot, as we do too. It’s this activity, which takes up a lot of a young animal’s and a child’s time – about 10% of their waking hours if they’re allowed to. So it is an important activity. Unfortunately, because people thought play wasn’t serious, it wasn’t treated as a subject worth investigating. But it is a subject worth investigating. If a young animal spends as much time playing as it does, then we need to investigate it and find out what it’s all about.

We seem to lose the inclination to play as we age, why do you think that is? Is it because we have to allocate our time and resources elsewhere?

Yes, adults of course have many concerns with lots of responsibilities. However, when released from them we can become as playful as a child.

And is there any way that kids can help us to get our playfulness back? Should we try to play more than we do now?

Yes, there’s that quote from George Bernard Shaw, ‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.’ Quite a lot of self-help stuff is published on how to get people to become more creative, which in effect is how to get them to become more playful. Adults go on doing this all their lives if they’re so inclined. Very often, however, we engage in fruitless, futile, fatuous activities – just watching television for hours on end or going onto social media. We occupy an enormous amount of our time doing things that are not particularly playful or creative.

And do you think that children can help us play, or should parents help their children learn how to play?

I think that we, as adults, can learn something about the benefits of play from children in terms of discovering new possibilities. Children do play spontaneously without adult involvement if they’re allowed to. One of the things that I get really quite worried about is plonking children behind desks at a very early age. I think that it may have almost the opposite effect of what is desirable. People do it because they want to get their kids into better schools, or they’re worried about what will happen if their children are allowed to roam freely. But children will play a lot if they’re allowed to. And if they’re not allowed to, they will lose out in the long run.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about lowering the age of formal education in the UK; do you think this is a bad idea?

If you look at some of the Scandinavian countries, particularly Finland, where they don’t start formal school until they’re seven, there’s no evidence that this late start (by our standards) interferes with their learning of formal skills like reading and writing, or learning mathematics. The worry is, if you start formal education too early with children, they will lose opportunities to play, and many children will also become de-motivated about acquiring socially desirable skills. In the United States the trend was upwards in terms of IQ and creativity until the 1990s. Now the trends are reversing and going down. Children are becoming less intelligent and less creative. That’s a real cause for concern.

And do you think this is tied to the change in the education system?

Well it’s difficult to prove, of course, because it’s just a correlation. But my guess is that the decline in creativity and intelligence is caused by the changes in educational practices.

So you think that a better model would be the Scandinavian one, versus, say, a more Eastern model?

Some of the Eastern educationists are now getting worried about the fact that their kids are being given a very, very tough schedule – not only going to school for long hours but having to go to crammers as soon as they come out of school. In South Korea, for example, where there’s a very high suicide rate among kids, they’re at school for 13 hours a day; it’s incredible! It may help them to do certain things – acquire skills in mathematics and maybe skills in reading– but the downside is de-motivation and loss of creativity. Some of the Chinese psychologists are getting quite worried about precisely that. They want to move to a set up where the children can play much more.

Do you think there is a problem with daycare centres, where there is no formal learning but the children are still in a structured play environment? Do you think that provides the same sorts of benefits as spontaneous play?

Well in Norway pre-school activities are partially structured, but there’s a lot of free play involved as well. At their kindergartens, for example, children are taken out to places in the country where they can fool around, doing the things that kids like to do. (There is some supervision, obviously.) And when they come back to town, what they do will be a bit structured, but nothing like as structured as what we’re getting to in this country or in the US.

And what about developmentally, do you think there is a difference in this type of spontaneous self-generated play versus the more structured kind?

I think there is a difference, yes, in a sense that the more structured stuff isn’t very playful. The children are told, ‘Let’s now do this, this and this.’ They are not doing it spontaneously.

I think an important question from the policy perspective is, if the child is not getting this kind of attention and play at home, would it be better for them to be in a school environment doing it? What do you think the trade-offs are?

I think obviously for busy mums it’s difficult for them to allow their kids to do what they want. And of course they worry about safety – there’s a big concern about that. So parents are very glad to have their children up in their studies or in their bedrooms fiddling with their computers. So I think you have to have some way in which kids can be helped, as they do in Norway. All kids should have the opportunity to play freely, under some supervision obviously, but not totally controlled.

A gentler transition from being at home to being at a less structured school environment then.

That’s correct, yes.

And you think that would be a better model for the UK?

I think that would be much better. It goes completely against what our Secretary for Education, Michael Gove, wants, of course.

You talk a little bit about passive play in the book; what do you think about video games or computer games, are there any benefits from them? Where children are not just watching TV, they are engaging with the game, but the play is not generated on their own. Do you see any sort of benefits from this other type of play?

There’s a lot of argument about this. I’m a bit sceptical, I have to say. I don’t think there’s been any really decent research, but my impression is that a lot of what happens in a video game is not very playful. It’s very focused, and may have some benefits, but it’s not what a kid would do if they were just allowed to fool around. There are clear rules in these video games and the kids are very quick to pick them up. They gain certain skills and some of these may be beneficial, but there are also costs to their development, I fear.

Shifting gears a bit, you discuss in your book how companies like Google and Facebook are trying to foster creativity with open time and thinking. How successful do you think they are at these different tactics?

Plenty of evidence suggests that releasing some of the stress of a job can help people be more creative. So the policy may be successful in that way. I talked to people at Google about their practice, and they said their engineers were more likely to come at things in different ways because of the free time they were given. If so, Google’s policy may well impact on their employees’ creativity.

So should everyone have ping-pong tables in their office now? Would that help all of us to be a little bit more creative?

Probably not. I think the benefits for adults lies in just being able to sit quietly and not feel stressed, generally allowing our minds to roam freely, even to daydream.

And how do you consider your own work? You’re still going strong after a long and illustrious career, do you find that your work is playful?

I do, I particularly like being in small groups of people, tossing ideas around. Not the brainstorming in the formal sense, but with friends or colleagues, sharing ideas where nobody’s trying to dominate. It can be done playfully and it can be great fun when that happens. I still find that type of playful activity enormously enjoyable, and, indeed, creative.

Professor Patrick Bateson is a Fellow of King’s and a former Provost.