Boys and girls come in to play
Centre-screen, a lion is basking in the sun. Three young cubs tumble, prowl and pounce around him - play-hunting, play-fighting, and occasionally launching themselves at their father, until he loses patience and brushes them away with a mighty paw. Into this picture edges David Attenborough, speaking softly so as not to disturb the family group. "Play," he breathes sonorously, "is a very serious business."
It certainly is. Those lion cubs are learning some of the most important lessons of their lives. They're developing the physical control and co-ordination they'll need for the hunt; they're establishing the social pecking order within their family pack; and they're discovering - in a safe, controlled environment - what it's like to take risks, and what happens when you step over the line. What's more, they're enjoying it. The glorious thing about play is that it is fun: the young of every species is designed by nature to learn fundamental physical, social, emotional and conceptual lessons through sheer enjoyment.
As Robert Louis Stevenson put it over a century ago:
Happy hearts and happy faces
Happy play in grassy places
That was how, in ancient ages,
Children grew to kings and
Unless, of course, they are denied the opportunity to play outside, or lured away from Stevenson's "grassy places" to some sort of virtual unreality.
Last week, Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, urged us to look carefully at the effects of contemporary culture on our children and remember that "the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to any and every event. We cannot complacently take it as an article of faith that it will remain inviolate".
One aspect of modern life that we should be looking at very hard indeed is the 21st-century erosion of real play.
Over the past 15 years or so, age-old play activities (running, climbing, pretend-games, making dens and so on) have been replaced for many children by a solitary, sedentary screen-based lifestyle. Scottish researchers recently found that today's two-year-olds are as sedentary as the average office worker and that, once acquired, this couch potato life-style is difficult to break. As children grow older, the word "play" now means sitting down at a PlayStation. Games are something they buy for their Gameboy. And many spend up to six hours a day staring at the television.
But play - real-life, interactive play - is just as serious for human beings as it is for lion cubs, and if children have access to only screen-based leisure-time activities, they're missing out on a great deal of essential learning. Fundamental concepts and knowledge about the world are learned not from screens, but through hands-on, real-life experiences.
Making mud pies or mixing perfume from flower petals, paddling in puddles or messing in the sandpit, riding a home-made go-kart or climbing a tree - all these activities add to children's vital store of understanding. And as they become less common, it's not surprising that children's performance on Piagetian tests of conceptual development have plummeted. Research has shown them lagging, by the age of 11, two to three years behind their counterparts 15 years ago.
It's obvious too that vigorous outdoor play - running, climbing, skipping, kicking a football - develops children's physical co-ordination and control. Pretend play helps them consolidate their understanding of the social world, providing a theatre for language development (Vygotsky described children's language as "a head higher" during play). And imaginative play - transforming a box into a ship, a broomhandle into a horse - doesn't just develop the imagination; it's also an initiation into the world of symbols and symbolic thought, which underlies academic achievement.
Children's play expert Tim Gill believes one of the greatest losses is what he calls "everyday adventures", the small but significant experiences that happen when children play out together, away from adult eyes. He believes these are an unpredictable but essential part of growing up - opportunities to make judgements, take risks, learn how to make friends and elude enemies. But they depend upon the freedom to be out and about, not closeted in the home, and children today have less freedom to roam beyond the confines of house, garden and school yard.
Ersatz adventures courtesy of TV or computer games don't teach how to move in real space, interact with real people, or take real risks: if it all gets too dull or too scary, the child can just switch off. Thus they don't prepare children for the real-life risk assessments human beings must make daily -judging speed and distance when crossing the road or driving a car, for instance, or assessing how far to trust other people with their own safety. Without the preparation of play and other independent activities involving relatively "safe" risks, psychologists believe some children may eventually become excessively reckless and others excessively timid.
And the changes impact on social development too. In the past, it was taken for granted that most children would learn how to make friends, play as part of a group, and resolve minor conflicts through their playtime activities. When this takes place out of adult view, children can take responsibility - and make mistakes - without incurring immediate adult judgement. But many children's playmates now are screen-based virtual friends, from whom they don't learn social skills. And practically all real juvenile socialising goes on under the eagle eye of adults - who are naturally swift to intervene if things look dicy. Some children are thus being labelled "naughty" very early in their social careers (and then going on to fulfil the prophecy), while others are learning to call for help at the first sign of danger.
Tim Gill believes the epidemic of bullying recorded over the past decade may be partly due to over-supervision, helping to create both bullies and victims.
Sadly, schools too have contributed to the decline of play - it's far less a feature of the primary school day than it was 15 years ago, perhaps because, as Professor Tina Bruce has said, play cannot be "pinned down and turned into a product of measurable learning. It is a process enabling a holistic kind of learning."
If lion cubs stopped playing (and learning through play), the species would not last very long. Human beings are only slightly further up the evolutionary chain.
Sue Palmer's book, Toxic Childhood: how modern lifeis damaging our children and what we can do about it, was published by Orion last week