The Intelligence of Play

As children, we are naturally interested in our surroundings and without this driving curiosity, or the innate need to explore and understand what the environment provides, we would fail to thrive and learn, says Georgie Britt

As parents, it is vital that we recognise the role of curiosity in shaping our children’s lives. Moreover we have to allow them the freedom to learn through play. Children love to be outdoors in their natural environment. They love to be in the fresh air and sunlight, often barefoot and naked, surrounded by trees and flowers, playing with water and hearing the birds and the wind. The technical term is biophilia – the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.

As humans, we naturally try to understand everything around us and make sense of the world through play. If children are free to play, they cultivate a love and understanding of their surroundings. It develops calmness, awareness, confidence, curiosity and flexibility to handle stress. They also learn necessary skills – from physical to linguistic, intellectual and social.

During key periods of development, play appears to be a major designer of the brain. It is interesting that in the natural world, the more intelligent a species is, the more they play. More skillful players in nature have larger and more intricate brains.

Play, if you like, is nature’s way of ensuring that young mammals will practice the skills they need for survival.

Young lions and tigers play at stalking, chasing and pouncing and young monkeys play at chasing each other and swinging from trees. However, we humans have more to learn in our sophisticated world and therefore play in more varied and sophisticated ways than any other species.

But the universal forms of play seen in any culture, such as rough and tumble, locomotor, language and pretend and socio-dramatic play, match the varieties of skills that human beings everywhere must develop to survive and thrive: if we let them get on with it.

Bringing up children is a continual test of our ability to trust. And it is, in effect, unlearning that adults need to do in order to listen to our instincts as parents, and trust our children to guide us.

Our anxiety for them to know certain things at specific ages, as dictated by parenting books and school curriculums, is an enormous obstacle to allowing their natural development.

Interestingly, language is the hardest thing to learn and children do it all on their own and the speediest learning in humans occurs in the youngest years, when they generally do nothing more than play all day.


So you might ask – what kind of play is most effective in growth and learning? The simply answer is: self-initiated and self-directed. Adult intervention may actually get in the way. Because of our obsession to see children reach certain stages of development at a particular age, it is incredibly hard for us not to become involved in influencing how and what they are learning.

If we look back at hunter-gatherers – great anthropologists such Jean Liedloff have studied various nomadic and hunter-gatherer tribes – we refer back to a time before humans were determined to condition children. The freedom that hunter-gatherer children enjoyed to pursue their own interests comes partly from the adults understanding that such pursuits are the surest path to education. Occasionally an adult might offer a word of advice or demonstrate how to do something better, how to shape an arrowhead perhaps, but such help was only given when the child asked for it.

It is remarkable to think that our instincts to learn and to contribute to the community evolved in a world in which our instincts were trusted. We don’t have to tell or encourage a child to do this, children will do it naturally because there is nothing they desire more than to grow up to be like the adults around them.

Further to this, performance research on athletes has uncovered profound similarities between what they call the ‘zone’ and authentic play. Many athletes describe a trance-like state when winning a race or performing at their best. This is most likely because they have tapped into their ‘animal brain’ and allowed their natural ability to take over without thinking about it.

And that’s the point: you don’t need to think about how we train or condition our children to learn, because they will do it naturally, in their own way and in their own time. So let’s kick off our shoes, run around outdoors with our children, enjoy the liberation of being playful and in nature. Perhaps we can learn something ourselves in the process.

 Georgie Britt is an integrative health and fitness coach, sports therapist and practitioner of Bioregulatory medicine. She works privately with high-profile clients and consults for Vivo Barefoot. She has two children: a boy of 4 and a girl, 13 months. To escape the chaos, Georgie runs barefoot up and over the hills in the Cotswolds.

1 Comment

  • Aja Lake says:

    Really great information. Notes of this remind me of John Ratey and Richard Manning’s Go Wild, which is partly grounded in biophilia and in the afflictions of post-hunter-gather civilization. Super interesting! I agree, let them be. xx

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