The delights of play: a path to wisdom?

Play teaches a child a great number of things: self-regulation and self-control, organizational skills and resilience, to name a few; yet, we do not often think of play as teaching wisdom. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of Medieval philosophers, suggests we should think of play much more deeply than we do. Aquinas compares play to wisdom in two ways. First, play, like wisdom, gives pleasure. Secondly, play and wisdom are both pursued for their own sake.

In his commentary on Boethius’s Hebdomads, Aquinas writes, “play is delightful, and the contemplation of wisdom holds the greatest delight… The activities of play are not directed towards something else, but are sought on their own account; this is also true of the delights of wisdom. For sometimes it happens that a person takes delight within himself in considering those things which he desires or which he proposes to do.”

Children’s Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560

Play teaches children the same habits of mind and dispositions of character necessary for seeking wisdom. Following Aquinas we might therefore say that play is one of the first teachers in the way of wisdom.

The German philosopher Josef Pieper observes that the Greek word for “leisure” is the origin of the Latin word scola from which we get the English “school.” Hence through this etymology we discover something which the ancients knew, but which the manically workaholic 21st century Americans have forgotten: there exists an essential relationship between the origins of wisdom and the dispositions of leisure and play.

We have come to devalue play for the same reasons we have devalued leisure and contemplation. We believe that anything worthwhile must be difficult to attain, and thus great effort is required to attain it. However, this point of view is mistaken in two ways. First, the greatest things to attain are given, at least in part, as gifts (love, for example). Secondly, there is much more reward to be found in attaining those things which are truly good and beautiful than in attaining those things which are merely difficult to attain. Here we might object to President Kennedy: it was good to go to the moon because it was a worthy and noble human endeavour, which expanded our knowledge and the horizons of what was known. It was not worth doing simply because of the difficulty of doing it.*

In higher education today the humanities must be legitimized by some appeal to their usefulness in the market. Similarly, in early childhood we legitimize play on the basis of its utility for achieving the predicted return on investment of early childhood education programs. If we commit to the flourishing of children — a flourishing that will flower in both a life of a virtue and of wisdom — we should value play for its own worth not because it teaches some sort of early STEM skills to the future’s engineers or social skills necessary for successful integration on corporate teams, but because it disposes our children to the life of wisdom and flourishing.

*Read more in Josef Pieper’s Leisure: the Basis of Culture (1948).