Spontaneous order refers to the idea that “stable macro-level patterns—those things that make a complex system a system, an instance of order rather than disorder or randomness — do not come about through design, planning or imposition, but arise instead from the interaction of micro-level elements operating according to certain basic principles or rules”. There exist many spheres in which various writers and theorists have discussed spontaneous order such as evolution, the Internet, language, and economics, but the nature of play and and its application especially interest me.
To use a personal example, I look back fondly upon my days on the playground when a group of us at the ripe age of five would spontaneously organize kickball games. There was no adult making the rules – just small children freely interacting with each other. Yet we still needed to make many decisions such as how we would settle disputes, who would play on what team, how many people we would allow to play, how we would record outs (being hit in the head, for example, would not count, so apparently even at that age we had the capacity to emphasize safety), and how the teams would be organized fairly. Somehow we managed to make decisions in a peaceful and orderly manner – without any adult supervision! Not surprisingly, this interaction took place during recess, which is defined as a period of time in which a group of people is temporarily dismissed from its duties.
I won’t say we played these games without conflicts, however. One conflict in particular arose because one kid who had the strongest personality always wound up choosing the teams and always put one of the more athletic kids on his team, who would always kick first. The teams were always so unbalanced that my team could never get them out. However, one day the leader relented and let the more athletic kid play on our team. I don’t remember why, but I suspect he inherently knew that we were all free to quit the game whenever we wanted.
This freedom to quit has profound consequences, and when juxtaposing this type of activity with an environment in which we cannot leave, it feels like the difference between living freely vs. living in prison. Psychologist and Research Professor Peter Gray explains:
“When schooling is compulsory, schools are, by definition, prisons. A prison is a place where one is forced to be and within which people are not free to choose their own activities, spaces, or associates. Children cannot walk away from school, and within the school children cannot walk away from mean teachers, oppressive and pointless assignments, or cruel classmates. For some children, the only out—the only real way to quit—is suicide. As writer Helen Smith put it in her book, The Scarred Heart (link is external), in describing the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who had been regularly bullied in school: “After missing fifty-three out of the required one hundred and eighty days of school, she was told that she would have to return to school or appear before a truancy board which could then send her to a juvenile detention center. She decided the better alternative was to go into her bedroom and hang herself with a belt. … In times past, she could have just dropped out of school, but now kids like her are trapped by compulsory education.”
Lots of words have been spent on the problem of school bullying and related problems such as students’ general unhappiness, boredom, and cynicism in school. Nobody has found a way to solve these problems, and nobody ever will until we grant children the freedom to quit. The only way to solve these problems, ultimately, is to do away with the coercion.
When children are truly free to walk away from school, then schools will have to become child-friendly places in order to survive. Children love to learn, but, like all of us, they hate to be coerced, micromanaged, and continuously judged. They love to learn in their own ways, not in ways that others force on them. Schools, like all institutions, will become moral institutions only when the people they serve are no longer inmates. When students are free to quit, schools will have to grant them other basic human rights, such as the right to have a voice in decisions that affect them, the right to free speech, the right to free assembly, and the right to choose their own paths to happiness. Such schools would look nothing at all like the dreary institutions we call “school” today.”
Gray also notes how compulsory schooling has continued to take greater control over children’s lives, causing a significant increase in anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism.
“Clinicians know for certain that anxiety and depression correlate strongly with individuals’ sense of control or lack of control over their own lives. 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. One might think that the sense of personal control would have increased over the past fifty years. Real progress has occurred in our ability to prevent and treat diseases; the old prejudices that limited people’s options because of race, gender, or sexual orientation have diminished; and the average person is wealthier today than in decades past. Yet, the data indicate that young people’s beliefs that they have control over their own destinies have declined continually.
There is good reason to believe that the rise of external locus of control is causally linked to the rise in anxiety and depression. Clinical researchers have shown repeatedly—with children, adolescents, and adults—that the helpless feelings associated with an external locus of control predispose people for anxiety and depression. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate, they become anxious. They think, “Something terrible can happen to me at any time, and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great, people become depressed. They feel, “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.” Research has also shown that those with an external locus of control are less likely to take responsibility for their own health, their own futures, and their community than are those with an internal locus.”
The nature of spontaneous, unstructured play – while so many adults cling to the notion that children cannot fully develop without sufficient structure – nonetheless teaches children how to effectively negotiate and cooperate with one another as well as develop feelings of personal control and self-efficacy. Relating back to my experience, it was only in the absence of the rigidly structured world of classroom activities when authority figures granted us a period of temporary freedom that would allow us to develop our creative potential and prepare for our eventual entry into the real world by spontaneously engaging in voluntary and mutually beneficial activities that we truly enjoyed. Even with our diverse skills and personalities, we figured out a way to meet each others’ needs, as we all knew any one of us could leave the game at any time.
Reflecting back on this experience, I have asked myself: If a group of small children can interact effectively in a situation involving many different and complex decisions without centrally enforced direction, why can’t we continue to do so as adults? The scenario of schoolchildren playing together gives us a glimpse into the beauty of peaceful civilizations that result from unrestricted human action. As children, we gravitate towards spontaneous play, but as we grow up, we begin to stray from our childhood instincts as our mental energy and creativity becomes sapped by coercive institutions.
The nature of play clearly has benefits, but when an external authority forces us to play or we play with the intention of deriving a future benefit such as making our work more efficient – especially when we are in a hurry to get back to our mindless routine – it is no longer play. Alan Watts, philosopher, writer, and speaker described this internal and external conflict during one of his talks several decades ago, and I would say his description still rings true today:
“And you know, for the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life – what you rush home to get to – is to watch an electronic reproduction of life. You can’t touch it, and it doesn’t smell, and it has no taste. You might think that people getting home to the real point of life in a robust material culture would go home to a colossal banquet or an orgy of lovemaking or a riot of music and dancing, but nothing of the kind. It turns out to be this purely, passive contemplation of a twittering screen. As you walk through suburban areas at night – it doesn’t matter in what part of the community it is – you see mile after mile of darkened houses with that little electronic screen flickering in the room – everybody isolated watching this thing, and thus in no real communion with each other at all. And this isolation of people into a private world of their own is really the creation of a mindless crowd.
Some time ago it occurred to me that a crowd could be defined as a group of people not in mutual communication. A crowd is a group of people that is say in communication with one person alone – I regret to say that you listening to me at this moment thereby constitute a crowd – we’re not really in full communication with each other and unnaturally it’s terribly difficult to bring about mutual communication between a large number of people. But that does seem to me to be the essence of a crowd, and thus of a community that is not a community, not a real society, but a juxtaposition of persons. Now one other thing that one notices about this anti-materialism is its lack of joy, or I prefer to call its lack of gaiety.
Little while ago I was reading a book called Motivation and Personality by A.H. Maslow who’s a professor of psychology at Brandeis. And he had amassed together a very amusing set of quotations from about 13 representative and authoritative American Psychologists, and they were all saying words to the effect that the main drive behind all forms of animate activity was the survival of the species. In other words, all the manifestations of life are regarded by these men as intensely purposive, and the purpose and the value for which they strive is the value of survival. And Maslow commented on this – that American psychology as a result of its contact with the culture is over-pragmatic, over-puritan, and over-purposeful. And no textbooks on psychology have chapters on fun and gaiety, or on aimless activity, or on purposeless meandering and puttering and so on. And he said they are neglecting perhaps what may be when honed, even the most important half of life.
In other words, it is a basic premise of the culture that life is work and it’s serious. And herein lies its lack of joy. Life is real. Life is earnest. What do we mean when we say life is serious? What do we mean when we differentiate work from play? Well work, it seems to me, is what we must do, in order to go on living, in order to survive. And play is pretty much everything else. But now you’ll notice that in this culture, play is justified and tolerated in so far as it tends to make our work more efficient. We have the saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” But that really means dull at work. Play is recreation – something you do to get refreshed to go back and face the great problems of life. Now this is all very well, but that saying – even to play – that play is necessary – you must play.
I remember in England – we used to have the institution of compulsory games in school – as a result of which I developed an intense loathing for most of the games that we played like cricket and football and so on. They were forcing you to play. And so in the same way, the thought that the supreme value is survival value. The thought in other words that it is absolutely necessary for us to go on living is a basis for life, which takes the joy out of life and is really contrary to life. I feel that the biological process that we call life – with its marvelous proliferation of innumerable patterns and forms – is essentially playful. By that I mean that it doesn’t have a serious purpose beyond itself. It’s an art form like music and like dancing. And the point of these art forms is always their present unfolding, the elaboration of an intelligible design of steps and movements through time. That is not to say that their goal is the present when you think of the present simply as the hairline on a watch – the immediate instant. The present – that’s only an abstract present.
As for example, in listening to music, a person who hears a melody – he doesn’t hear simply a sequence of notes, he hears the steps between the notes. A tone-deaf person hears only the notes. What a person able to hear music hears is therefore steps in a certain order. This is what is diffused present is that what I would call the real or physical present. And I feel life is very much something of this nature. It is a play. And it is its own end. Now if you say to a form of play, “You must happen. You’ve got to go on”, you only should return it into work. And you immediately turn it also into what we call colloquially a drag. Are we surviving – it is our duty to survive so that our children may go on living? Well if we think that, our children catch the same point of view from us, and they go struggling along for the sake of their children, and the whole thing becomes a fatuous progress to an ever-eluding future. And it is because I think fundamentally that we have this compulsive view of the necessity of existence that our culture is distinctly lacking in gaiety.”
The International Journal of Computer Game Research also provides profound insights:
“Play is not characteristically undertaken to acquire some extrinsic benefit. The essential function of play is the modulation of experience. The intention of playing tennis to improve one’s health is not playful in this sense, because it is motivated by the expectation of some future good. In contrast, persons who enjoy the sheer pleasure of competing with others, for instance, exhibit a genuinely playful attitude. Exercising may also help to upgrade our health, but this anticipated benefit is not here the principal reason for the action. Viewed from a biological viewpoint, it makes sense to ascribe functional advantages to physical exercise, but these advantages are not the agent’s primary motivation. People who play do so mainly because they treasure the experience of intense immersion that it uniquely affords. When pursued in a purely playful spirit, the ludic experience of tension, uncertainty or release is its own justification, not a means to some subsequent end. Play thus resists any form of narrowly instrumental analysis.”
I view community dining not as a serious endeavor or a means to an end, but rather, much like the nature of play, an end unto itself. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if more of us viewed the world through the eyes of a child, and if this view would make us less serious, more playful, and better equipped to live harmoniously with one another. Journalist and social critic Randolph Bourne eloquently described what children bring to our world:
“Youth is the incarnation of reason pitted against the rigidity of tradition. Youth puts the remorseless questions to everything that is old and established-Why? What is this thing good for? And when it gets the mumbled, evasive answers of the defenders it applies its own fresh, clean spirit of reason to institutions, customs, and ideas, and finding them stupid, inane, or poisonous, turns instinctively to overthrow them and build in their place the things with which its visions teem. . .
Youth is the leaven that keeps all these questioning, testing attitudes fermenting in the world. If it were not for this troublesome activity of youth, with its hatred of sophisms and glosses, its insistence on things as they are, society would die from sheer decay. It is the policy of the older generation as it gets adjusted to the world to hide away the unpleasant things where it can, or preserve a conspiracy of silence and an elaborate pretense that they do not exist. But meanwhile the sores go on festering, just the same. Youth is the drastic antiseptic… It drags skeletons from closets and insists that they be explained. No wonder the older generation fears and distrusts the younger. Youth is the avenging Nemesis on its trail…
Our elders are always optimistic in their views of the present, pessimistic in their views of the future; youth is pessimistic toward the present and gloriously hopeful for the future. And it is this hope which is the lever of progress–one might say, the only lever of progress…
The secret of life is then that this fine youthful spirit shall never be lost. Out of the turbulence of youth should come this fine precipitate–a sane, strong, aggressive spirit of daring and doing. It must be a flexible, growing spirit, with a hospitality to new ideas, and a keen insight into experience. To keep one’s reactions warm and true is to have found the secret of perpetual youth, and perpetual youth is salvation.”
So the next time you come across someone who claims to be laid back and playful and love children, have this person read everything above and observe the response. It will be a great way to gauge how one sees the world.