Even more important than creativity is the capacity to get along with other people, to care about them and to co-operate effectively with them. Children everywhere are born with a strong drive to play with other children and such play is the means by which they acquire social skills and practise fairness and morality. Play, by definition, is voluntary, which means that players are always free to quit. If you can’t quit, it’s not play. All players know that, and so they know that to keep the game going, they must keep the other players happy. The power to quit is what makes play the most democratic of all activities. When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. Each player must recognise the capacities and desires of the others, so as not to hurt or offend them in ways that will lead them to quit. Failure to do so would end the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs. The most fundamental social skill is the ability to get into other people’s minds, to see the world from their point of view. Without that, you can’t have a happy marriage, or good friends, or co-operative work partners. Children practise that skill continuously in their social play.
In play, children also learn how to control their impulses and follow rules. All play – even the wildest-looking varieties – has rules. A play-fight, for example, differs from a real fight in that the former has rules and the latter doesn’t. In the play-fight you cannot kick, bite, scratch, or really hurt the other person; and if you are the larger and stronger of the two, you must take special care to protect the other from harm. While the goal of a real fight is to end it by driving the other into submission, the goal of a play-fight is to prolong it by keeping the other happy.
From Peter Gray’s “Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less” in The Independent.