The Order of Playtime
At a recent family and friends gathering, I was able to catch up with an old babysitter of mine whom I hadn't seen in over a decade. During our conversation she asked if I remembered other attendees of her babysitting service. As we talked about my former playmates, she also mentioned the various games we used to play in her yard. Certainly most readers are familiar with childhood games like dodge and tag. These activities, though simple in design, were incredibly entertaining and helped pass the time before our parents came to pick us up around dinner time.
It's hard to explain the thrill a child gets when gleefully running for what seems like his life from another child's outstretched arm. For the youngster who has the misfortune of being "it," there is the thrill of the hunt as he tries to unshackle himself from being the odd man out by tagging someone else.
Just as primitive man banded together to trade resources and better his living conditions, children often play amongst themselves because they seek satisfaction by injecting some agitation into their otherwise structured lives. Aristotle's definition of man as a "social animal" is applicable to any age. In the case of my babysitter, the choice was between occupying yourself alone with toys or engaging with others. No one in my almost seven years of attendance ever chose to go it alone for an extended period of time. It was much too enticing to not join in the fun outside.
Looking back, it's quite remarkable how children under the age of ten could come up with so many different combinations of activities. Ball tag was combined with freeze tag. Hide-and-go-seek became a team sport. The point of safety known as "base" was switched from round to round to liven things up. The average suburban lawn became a land of infinite possibilities.
The yard was really a marketplace of ideas, where only the best were kept in play. Instead of voting with our wallets like normal consumers, we would vote by being willing to abide by the new rules or refusing and going along as before. New ideas were offered up, both good and bad, in an effort to incorporate more excitement into an already exciting physical activity. In what seemed like chaos to the outside observer was an orderly vetting of new and different designs anchored down by a child's underlying sense of fair. If someone proposed a rule that was overly burdensome on whoever happens to be "it" or the seeker in hide and seek, it was quickly vetoed. Though we all wanted to remain free, the threat of being tagged or caught is what made the game unpredictable.
In a sense, the order that evolved from our games was spontaneous. No individual had the sole discretion to establish rules of conduct. The initial rules were established, as F.A. Hayek described them, by "certain traditional and largely moral practices." While certain aspects of different games were interwoven to create something different and new, many of the basic elements of fairness remained.
It is striking how the autonomous development of simple activities runs counter to the twelve-year prison sentence known as compulsory public schooling. For those who think it's outrageous to even compare government schools to government prisons, please consider the similarities. Besides its compulsory nature, public schooling subjects children to authoritarian conformity. They are told where to sit, when to stand, how to walk in line, when to eat, and when to speak. Original ideas and questioning the status quo are met with suspicion from superiors. In the modern age of the War on Terrorism and drugs, now children are subject to metal detectors and police surveillance. In some schools, kids are now being charged criminally for misbehavior as harmless as throwing a paper plane. This shouldn't be surprising, considering the despotic origins of public education in America.
As former schoolteacher John Gatto has documented, the model for compulsory education comes straight from 19th-century Prussia. In his book The Underground History of American Public Education, Gatto writes:
The seed that became American schooling, twentieth-century style, was planted in 1806 when Napoleon's amateur soldiers bested the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is renting soldiers and employing diplomatic extortion under threat of your soldiery, losing a battle like that is pretty serious. Something had to be done.
The most important immediate reaction to Jena was an immortal speech, the "Address to the German Nation" by the philosopher Fichte - one of the influential documents of modern history leading directly to the first workable compulsion schools in the West.
In no uncertain terms Fichte told Prussia the party was over. Children would have to be disciplined through a new form of universal conditioning. They could no longer be trusted to their parents. Look what Napoleon had done by banishing sentiment in the interests of nationalism. Through forced schooling, everyone would learn that "work makes free," and working for the State, even laying down one's life to its commands, was the greatest freedom of all.
Obedient soldiers, workers, civil servants, and uniformity in thought were the goals of the Prussian education system. It was eventually imported to the United States and first implemented in Massachusetts with the release of Horace Mann's infamous Seventh Report to the Boston School Committee in 1843.
Public education was never the product of good souls looking to bequeath the wonders of knowledge and critical thinking onto subsequent generations. It was a system designed to instill a sense of unquestioned obedience to state authority.
Compare and contrast this environment of stifled creativity and forced participation with the ideas that develop from children voluntarily interacting with one another. Just because they aren't as "self-aware" or conscious of their self-ownership as adults doesn't mean children enjoy leisurely activity within the confines of strict supervision. Juveniles typically don't appreciate constant instruction as they explore the world around them. In some cases, young children don't like even the hindrance of basic clothing! Creativity can blossom anywhere, but as history has shown and economic theory has proven, the free interactions of people are the best conditions for innovation to take place. The economy of a nation and the local park differ only in population size and depth of specialization; both are marketplaces inhabited by men (or children in the case of the park) seeking to achieve ends. The businessman might seek a profit, but the child may be in search of something for more important: a new and exciting experience or playmate to tide him over till it's time to leave.
Spontaneous order is a phenomenon found within all aspects of human interaction. It doesn't always result in perfect answers, but those failings necessitate the search for better solutions. The state and its army of coercive bureaucracies can't match the dynamic nature of the market. Similarly, the forced conditioning of children does more to repress their imaginative inclinations than to build upon and encourage them. In an era where society is more beholden than ever to the whims of overly paternalistic state officials, something as trivial as the unhampered playtime among children becomes increasing important for their intellectual development.