Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers’ Work is Play

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written for Psychology Today magazine (7/2/09) in which Peter Gray explains how hunter-gatherers made work play by making it optional. To read the complete article, please click here.

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Our word “work” has two meanings. It can mean any unpleasant activity; or it can mean any productive or useful activity, regardless of its pleasantness or unpleasantness. The first of these meanings is the opposite of play; the second is not. We use the same word for the two meanings, I suppose, because in our culture’s history the two meanings have so often overlapped. Productive activity conducted by slaves, servants, and hired hands with no sense of choice about what they are doing indeed is work in both senses of the term.

To keep the two concepts distinct, so we can think about them separately, let’s use the term toil for the first meaning (unpleasant activity) and work for the second. With this terminology, toil is the opposite of play, but work is not. Work can be toil, or it can be play, or it can lie anywhere on a continuum between the two.

In last week’s essay I described the characteristics of work, and the attitudes toward it, that allow many people in today’s society to experience their work as play. Now I want to expand on those ideas by describing hunter-gatherers’ toil-less manner of sustaining themselves.

As I noted in the introductory essay, this whole series on “Play Makes Us Human” was inspired by my immersion in the research literature on hunter-gatherer band societies. Wherever they have been studied–in isolated parts of Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, and elsewhere–such societies have been found to be extraordinarily playful. Today, such societies are mostly destroyed, or in transition to something quite different, but I use the present tense (sometimes called the “anthropological present”) to describe them, as remnants of them do still exist. In past essays I have shown how (a) hunter-gatherer children educate themselves through play; (b) how hunter-gatherers use play and humor to maintain a social and economic system founded on principles of sharing, cooperation, individual autonomy, and equality; and (c) how playfulness runs through hunter-gatherers’ religious beliefs and practices in ways support their egalitarian approach to life.

In general, hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of toil. When they do have that concept, it derives apparently from their contact with outsiders. They may learn a word for toil to refer to the work of their neighboring farmers, miners, or road construction workers, but they do not apply it to their own work. Their own work is simply an extension of children’s play. Children play at hunting, gathering, hut construction, tool making, meal preparations, defense against predators, birthing, infant care, healing, negotiation, and so on and so on; and gradually, as their play become increasingly skilled, the activities become productive. The play becomes work, but it does not cease being play. It may even become more fun than before, because the productive quality helps the whole band and is valued by all.

My reading about life in many different hunter-gatherer cultures has led me to conclude that their work is play for four main reasons: (1) It is varied and requires much skill and intelligence. (2) There is not too much of it. (3) It is done in a social context, with friends. And (4) (most significantly) it is, for any given person at any given time, optional. Let me expand on these, point by point.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the forthcoming book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 6th edition). He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current research and writing focuses primarily on children’s natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.


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