All children deserve time to play
Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-19
Most mammals play. We even play with members of different species — as we do with our pets. This is an odd development in a world in which species are supposed to struggle for existence against one another.
Animals at play are not struggling to survive. Rather, they are engaged in imaginative and empathetic activity. Some nonhuman animals even appear to have a basic idea of “fair play.”
At least that is what Robert Bellah claims. Bellah, one of the most important scholars of religion in the U.S., gave a lecture last week at Fresno State on his new book, “Religion in Human Evolution.” The book explains the evolutionary roots of ethics, religion and philosophy.
Bellah argues that play is an important source of these higher goods. Play occurs in a “relaxed field,” when we are not focused on mere existence. Religious rituals, for example, are examples of rule-governed play. Philosophy, art and science develop as we play with ideas. These activities are meaningful on their own, without reference to the struggle to survive. And they provide solace and satisfaction, as a break from the labor of living.
One could argue that a fully human life is one in which there are ample opportunities for enjoying playful and empathetic activity, outside of the concerns of work and survival. All work and no play makes us dull animals — as the saying might go. Bellah suggests that this is true of many species. Animals thrive when they are free to explore, relax and socialize.
The importance of leisure and play is found in our dreams of a perfect world. Our utopian ideals and religious paradises describe a world without labor, struggle or conflict. Christians dream of lions lying down with lambs. And Plato imagined a peaceful world in which we would play at pastimes — “sacrificing, singing and dancing.”
It makes sense that intelligent animals would imagine an ideal world in which the struggle for existence was overcome. We lament the hard work of life. We aspire to freedom from want. We even imagine that after the toils of life, we may be rewarded by resting in peace without the need to labor.
Surplus resources and physical security make it possible for us to play, reflect, explore and create. Bellah explains that even in nonhuman species, play behavior is made possible by protective parents who provide for basic needs. Nurturing parents allow the young to experiment and romp without fear of predators or hunger. This sort of nurturance allows the animal to take a break from feeding and fighting in order to frolic.
During his visit to Fresno, Bellah returned several times to the issue of poverty and injustice. The sad fact is that there are many human beings who are not free to play — people who have little time or energy for singing, dancing, science, art, religion or philosophy. This is unfair, especially when others enjoy substantial luxury.
The idea of social justice, as found in the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions, develops from this basic idea of fairness. Philosophers and prophets have long criticized injustice and inequality. Bellah suggests that fairness itself may have roots in animal evolution. He claims that some animals seem to show a sense of “fair play.” Dogs will take turns, for example, chasing each other.
Bellah connects play with childhood. But he notes that in some parts of the world the play of childhood remains a privilege of the wealthy, unavailable for poor children. Across the globe, millions of children go hungry, while Americans spend more than $50 billion per year on pet food and animal care.
Bellah writes that one way of describing unfairness is to say that “while some work, others play.” We might add that there is something unfair about a world in which dogs are well-fed, while children starve.
We flatter ourselves in thinking we are more highly evolved than the other animals. But a species that fails to provide for its own children is not clearly superior. Bellah’s evolutionary account of religion reminds us that there is still a long way to go to make sure that all human children have the opportunity to live as well as our dogs do.