It's a jungle out there

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
What goes on in the playground mirrors behaviour of primates in the wild.

Adi Bloom reports

more than one teacher has looked out over a playground of screaming children careering uncontrollably across the tarmac and made mental comparisons with troops of screeching monkeys. The comparison is not entirely misplaced. Pam Jarvis, of Leeds Metropolitan university, says that pupils' behaviour at breaktime is linked to that of monkeys and other primates.

When young chimps play, they are practising social and interactive skills that are essential for adult life. The type of play and, therefore, of lessons learnt are split along gender lines. Young male chimps use rough play, such as chasing games, to reinforce social networks within their peer group, while young females build friendships through grooming. These different types of play help to prepare them for their gender-specific roles in primate society.

Dr Jarvis's observations, conducted over 18 months in the primary playground, revealed similar patterns among children. Like their monkey counterparts, boys were far more likely to engage in rough play. Several pretended to be Beyblades, the Japanese cartoon warriors, spinning around while karate-chopping their opponents. Dr Jarvis said: "It was this higher level of energy in boys-only play that separated the genders most distinctly... There was more direct confrontation in most of the boys'


Boys were also keen to establish a clear hierarchy, making competing claims to toughness. For example, one child said during a game of football: "I'm one boy, but I can tackle a thousand men." Another, smaller, boy replied uncertainly: "I can tackle lots of men."

Dr Jarvis said: "Adult males can achieve their maximum chance to produce offspring by directly competing with other males for status and resources, which enhances their attractiveness to females as superior providers."

By contrast, for girls at play the main concern is not toughness, but who is the most caring and good: in one playground game, the role of evil witch is allocated to the youngest, and therefore least dominant, player. Even when girls do engage in rough play, it tends to be more gentle, culminating in reassuring hugs and giggling.

But while girls may not use physical aggression, they will subtly undermine other children's relationships within the peer group, weakening competitors while retaining a good relationship with the majority of the group.

"In the natural environment, primate females typically care for their children within female kin groups," Dr Jarvis states. "The pathway to successful reproduction... is through building and maintaining strong relationships with the other females."

The evolutionary origin of these games suggests that spontaneous, autonomous play is vital in order that children develop many of the complex social skills required for adult primate life. Dr Jarvis therefore bemoans the tendency for 21st-century children to spurn playground interaction for interactive computer games.

"You can't teach social skills," she says. "Often adults think kids are just burning off steam in the playground, or making a nuisance of themselves. But they're learning how to socialise as free agents.

"If you produce children who chant out facts but can't socialise with each other, where are you?"



There can be few headteachers who have not felt like zookeepers at some point in their career. So David Lloyd, head of Warren Hills primary, in Leicestershire, was unfazed by the comparison between pupils and primates.

"The playground is a competitive society, isn't it?" he said. "Boys, in particular, run around in groups, setting up little hierarchies.

"Girls aren't aggressive in the same way. But they use words that can be hurtful. They get their point across in their own way."

Warren Hills serves a deprived area, where more than 40 per cent of pupils have special educational needs. Mr Lloyd believes this increases the importance of play.

"Our children are often sent to their bedroom to watch TV or play on the Playstation," he says. "So they have a need to get out and let their hair down. They need to find a model of social interaction that isn't what they've learnt at home."

But, he insists, his pupils are significantly higher up the evolutionary scale than their monkey cousins. "Monkeys do display hyperactive and playful behaviour," he said. "But I haven't ever thought, we've got a bunch of monkeys here at school."

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