It’s important for survival from an evolutionary standpoint. Trying things out, without any inhibitions, and experimenting are the most efficient and effective ways to learn.
We play to learn?
Yes. There’s hardly anything that gives humans as much pleasure as learning—excepting good food and sex. The human brain and many animal brains are designed for learning, and the best way to efficiently learn new things is by playing.
This information doesn’t seem to have made it to many schools.
Unfortunately, efforts are being made today to discourage children from playing. Instead of learning and having their own experiences, they’re supposed to take tests written by adults. Whether they pass them or not is secondary; it’s all about weeding people out. For instance, many countries only allow students with very good grades to go on to study medicine. But a high grade point average is really the dumbest possible of all selection criteria. Binge learning is still being rewarded, while social skills, an ability to see connections and a person’s inner calling are not.
Why are people so often trying to curb our instinct to play?
It has a long tradition. Take for example the core statement of the book Der Spielteufel (The Play Devil) from 1563: the father of the house should ensure that all playing is forbidden to the children. This is driven by the Protestant work ethic, the aftermath of which we’re still suffering from today.
But we continue playing nevertheless.
The instinct to play is innate. The history of gambling also makes this very clear: in times when gambling was forbidden and casinos were forced to close, people continued to gamble—it just went underground. Homo sapiens have always played, otherwise they wouldn’t have become humans.
What makes a good game?
That depends on the respective values a society has. In the thirteenth century, a game of spheres with planets orbiting the Earth in the center was very popular. It reflected the worldview of the era: a player who drew one of the outer planets with a longer orbit, such as Saturn, had hardly any chance to win. That wasn’t a problem at the time because there was no equal opportunity in any case. If we want to raise our youth to become egoistic lone fighters, then chess would be a good game. If we want to promote social skills, a more cooperative game would be needed, such as the board game Pandemic. Players must work together to fight a plague that threatens humanity. I used to play it with my children years ago. Nobody needs to explain to them how dangerous exponential spread is.