Play to Explore

Source: NYTimes, Apr 2013

Human children are unique in using play to explore hypothetical situations rather than to rehearse actual challenges they’ll face later.

And in doing so, they develop some of humanity’s most consequential faculties. They learn the art, pleasure and power of hypothesis — of imagining new possibilities. And serious students of play believe that this helps make the species great.

They see play as essential not just to individual development, but to humanity’s unusual ability to inhabit, exploit and change the environment.

the distinction between “exploring” new environments and “exploiting” them. When we’re quite young, we are more willing to explore, she finds; adults are more inclined to exploit.

To exploit, one leans heavily on lessons (and often unconscious rules) learned earlier — so-called prior biases. These biases are useful to adults because they save time and reduce error: …  Most adults are slow to set such biases aside; young children fling them away like bad fruit.

… low-probability hypotheses often fail. But children, like adventurous scientists in a lab, will try these wild ideas anyway, because even if they fail, they often produce interesting results.  … They were hypothesis machines.

… this trait peaks around 4 or 5. After that, we gradually take less interest in seeing what happens and more in getting it right.

Yet this playlike spirit of speculation and exploration does stay with us, both as individuals and as a species. Studies suggest that free, self-directed play in safe environments enhances resilience, creativity, flexibility, social understanding, emotional and cognitive control, and resistance to stress, depression and anxiety. And we continue to explore as adults, even if not so freely.

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