Personal Autonomy

The Atlantic has a short article on the importance of unstructured “free play” that has me thinking. This bit in particular caught my attention:

As children direct their own free play and solve the problems that come up, they must exert control over themselves and must, at times, accept restrictions on their own behavior and follow the rules if they want to be accepted and successful in the game.

As children negotiate both their physical and social environments through play, they can gain a sense of mastery over their world, Gray contends. It is this aspect of play that offers enormous psychological benefits, helping to protect children from anxiety and depression.

“Children who do not have the opportunity to control their own actions, to make and follow through on their own decisions, to solve their own problems, and to learn how to follow rules in the course of play grow up feeling that they are not in control of their own lives and fate. They grow up feeling that they are dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others….”

Anxiety and depression often occur when an individual feels a lack of control over his or her own life. “Those who believe that they master their own fate are much less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control.” Gray believes that the loss of playtime lessons about one’s ability to exert control over some life circumstances set the scene for anxiety and depression.

The importance of this aspect of free play becomes especially striking when I think about long-term trends in labor mobility over the past forty years, and in particular labor stagnation in the past four. One of the greatest stressors for me personally has been the uncertainty surrounding my employment prospects after I finish my graduate studies, which will have taken five years of my life and all of my savings, as well as will have necessitated a sizable amount of student debt.

When I was a child, I was allowed a fair amount of unstructured time by my parents. Looking back now, I think that the hours spent playing with Brio trains and constructing Lego buildings, as well as cavorting with my primary school friends, were far more important to my personal development than the soccer league all children were socially obliged to participate in in my town (I do not deny the importance of team sports for children – but Mendon’s focus on soccer was curiously myopic). The reason I rank my own free play time higher than my soccer play was because it taught me creativity, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. I have drawn on these aspects of my unofficial education time and again as an adult, in a way that I have not drawn upon my half-remembered athletic experiences.

The relevance of this kind of personal development to adulthood is that the way our economy is now structured, it is the ability to personally advance oneself and maintain flexible social relationships that is the paramount skill. Childhood team-sports, which tend to be hierarchical and which encourage collective accomplishment over individual development, or which simply descend into the victory of the jocks-over-the-nots, do not encourage these skills. In short, while team-sports and “structured play” may have been appropriate to a 20th century economy in which large corporations were drivers of the economy, and in which labor mobility was not as large an issue as it is today because workers “stayed on the team” longer, the demands of the 21st century economy demand flexibility and personal autonomy, which free play encourages.

This economy is also an incredibly harsh and emotionally damaging place, not so much a liberal market environment as it is an increasingly Hobbesean economic state of nature, the war of all against all, in which social structures are in upheaval as communities are sacrificed to “creative destruction” and vices such as cheating and greed are transformed into virtues. In this state of nature, the ability to find in oneself the personal strength to weather the storm and thrive becomes a major economic advantage as well as survival mechanism.

If free play can give people a sense of control over their own affairs, it can help them withstand economic turmoil. The current economic environment seems to be the new normal – it is in the interest of every parent to see that their child have free play as part of their education.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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