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Goofing around goes way back, according to a new theory that suggests society can break down when we don't take time to play.

Early hunter-gatherers used playtime, humor and inclusive joking around to overcome the innate tendencies toward aggression and dominance, the thinking goes, and all that play was necessary to make a cooperative society possible.

"Play and humor were not just means of adding fun to their lives,"explains Boston College developmental psychologist Peter Gray. "They were means of maintaining the band's existence — means of promoting actively the egalitarian attitude, intense sharing, and relative peacefulness for which hunter-gatherers are justly famous and upon which they depended for survival."

Other research has shown that humor makes us hopeful. And a recent study indicated that sarcasm is part of human nature and probably an evolutionarily good thing. Other researchers have shown that choosing to work while foregoing vacations and other play leads to regret among adults, and the regrets grow as we age.

Gray looks at all this but focuses on a less-studied area: child-like free play.

No competition

To understand his theory, you have to think back to a type of play that may be unfamiliar to many.

Gray figures hunter-gatherer children in early human history developed into cooperative adults with the help of a type of play similar to that which once characterized American children's summers and after-school hours in contemporary culture. This play is freely chosen, age-mixed, and, because it is not adult-organized, non-competitive, he explained. This "free play" is distinct from leisure pursuits such as video games, watching TV, or structured extracurricular activities and sports.

"Even when children are playing nominally competitive games, such as pickup baseball or card games, there is usually relatively little concern for winning," Gray said. "Striving to do well, as individuals or teams, and helping others do well, is all part of the fun. It is the presence of adult supervisors and observers that pushes play in a competitive direction — and if it gets pushed too far in that direction it is no longer truly play."

The most important skill for social life, Gray said, is how to please other people while still fulfilling one's own needs and desires. In self-organized play, he contends, children learn to get along with diverse others, to compromise, and to anticipate and meet others' needs.

"To play well," he said, "and to keep others interested in continuing to play with you, you must be able to see the world from the other players' points of view. Children and teenagers in hunter-gatherer cultures played in this way more or less constantly," he figures, "and they developed into extraordinarily cooperative, egalitarian adults. My observations — published in previous articles — indicate that age-mixed free play in our culture, in those places where it can still be found, has all of these qualities."

The value of play

Social play counteracts tendencies toward greed and arrogance, and promotes concern for the feelings and well being of others, Gray writes in the current issue of the American Journal of Play. But, he thinks, we've gotten away from our roots.

Certainly other studies show that U.S adults have less time to play. Over the past 30 years, time spent at work has jumped 10 hours a week. Meanwhile, many parents make sure their children are involved in structured activities and competitive sports — and many of them find time to show up and yell at their children or the opposing team or the referees.

"People are beginning to realize that we have gone too far in the direction of teaching children to compete," Gray said in a statement this week. "We have been depriving children of the normal, noncompetitive forms of social play that are essential for developing a sense of equality, connectedness, and concern for others."

Gray even says it "may not be too much of a stretch ... to suggest that the selfish actions that led to the recent economic collapse are, in part, symptoms of a society that has forgotten how to play."

Hunter-gatherers used humor, deliberately, to maintain equality and stop quarrels, Gray contends, and their means of sharing had game-like qualities. Their religious beliefs and ceremonies were playful, founded on assumptions of equality, humor, and capriciousness among the deities. They maintained playful attitudes in their hunting, gathering, and other sustenance activities, partly by allowing each person to choose when, how, and how much they would engage in such activities.

"Professor Gray's novel insight sheds new light on the question of how such societies can maintain social harmony and cooperation while emphasizing the autonomy of individuals," said anthropologist Kirk M. Endicott, a hunter-gatherer expert at Dartmouth College. "Conversely, his demonstration of the wide-ranging role of play in hunter-gatherer societies focuses attention on the importance of play in the evolutionary success of the human species."

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