Want Your Kid to Get Ahead? Learn From the Gorillas

Filed under: Weird But True, Opinions, Development: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids


Well, I'll be a monkey's ... playmate, I guess. Turns out a common primate pastime is for one gorilla to sneak up, hit another gorilla, then run and hide.

Which sounds extremely familiar.

Yes, scientists have come to the conclusion that gorillas play tag. They -- the humans, that is -- studied the game being played in six different gorilla colonies, which just goes to the desire to get out there and play is so deep, it's actually pre-human.

And yet, our kids aren't playing as much any more. Oh, they go to soccer clinics and karate class, and before that, they scramble under the parachute at Mommy and Me and You and Anyone Else with an Extra $360 to Spend on 12 weeks of Doing the Stuff Kids Used to Do at Home for Free class. But the time kids spend just goofing around is eroding, and that is a crisis right up there with the erosion of the rain forest, says Susan Linn, author of, "The Case for Make Believe."

In both instances, a crucial natural resource is disappearing.

What's so crucial about playing? Linn, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says play is the foundation of intellect. It's how we first learn to create: We come up with something to make or do. Need a bat but don't have one? That's problem solving 101: How to become resourceful. Need a magic carpet? That's Problem Solving 202 -- now the imagination kicks in. Who's going to be the Queen of the Forest? That involves persuasion. Oh, you both want to be Queen of the Forest? Welcome to the wonderful world of compromise!

And, if whatever you're playing requires keeping score, add math to the list of skills that playing hones. Just think, all this learning, while still being fun.

Beats homework, right?

Kids are hardwired to play because that's pretty much how our young have always learned, even before the advent of school -- even before the advent of Homo sapiens, apparently.

And these days when we worry, "Why does my kid always say he's bored?" or "Why can't I drag him away from the screen?" the answer might be: Because he never learned to play. He was actually deprived, the way you can be deprived of a vitamin and end up stunted.

Play time has been eaten away by school time, test prep time, extracurricular time and time spent supervised, inside, for fear of whatever's out there. Often, if your kids are like mine, that inside time becomes electronic game time. But electronic games are different from games you have to make up. They may require skill, but not the skill to come up with an idea out of the blue, or turn a stick into a sword or an acorn into a teacup.

Less play time may seem like no big loss. After all, what were our kids accomplishing?

Other than everything important for a happy, successful life, I mean.

Related: Yes, You Can Leave Your Kids in the Car for a Few Minutes

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.