Why Play is Necessary and Good for Humankind

posted on: April 29, 2020
author: Anthony Pellegrino

Children at play

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered just why it feels so good to participate in sport and competition? 

Besides being so fun and all.

Well, it unsurprisingly has a lot to do with play.

See, play, for all intents and purposes, is just awesome all around. 

It’s enjoyable, it’s liberating, it takes us outside the ‘ordinary’ world for just a few moments, and most importantly, it’s intrinsic to our very nature. The need for play goes deep, all the way to our bones.

But it’s much bigger and more important than a simple amusing activity. 

Sports, games, and performance are actually a vital component of what holds our society together. Nothing fosters or maintains a sense of social cohesion to the degree that playing does, especially playing sports.

This becomes abundantly clear when we think back on why we play in the first place.

Why is it that humans and other animals spend so much of their time playing?

Isn’t there something better we could be doing? 

It may be mysterious at first why animals have evolved with this innate mind for game-playing. You may be asking yourself, how exactly does such leisurely activity help the survival of a species? 

Well, it all has to do with what we just mentioned: social cohesion.

Socially, play actually confers an enormous amount of evolutionary benefit in terms of strengthening group bonds. 

Think about all those family barbecues where a game of Wiffle ball suddenly occurs. Not only is it super fun, but isn’t it the time where we feel most connected with one another? 

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Women playing volleyball

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Sports and other games help establish social rank, foster social learning (socialization), and promote social bonding while giving members of a group an outlet for relieving stress, practicing their motor coordination, and developing a multifaceted set of creative and cognitive skills. 

But, still, you may be asking: what’s the big deal? 

Well, if you think back to our prehistoric days, our species, the Homo sapiensactually coexisted with two other human species

One of which you are probably already familiar with: the Neanderthals. 

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia up until 40,000 years ago. There are several theories as to what factors lead them to extinction, but there is a consensus that early Homo sapiens definitely played a role.

You see, our ancestors migrated from Africa into the Neanderthal homelands, which led to considerable competition, and violence, over land and resources. Our ancestors often fought with the Neanderthals, who, by most accounts, were significantly stronger and stockier than sapiens. It’s unclear, at first, how our ancestors were able to outmatch Neanderthals in combat.

But, according to Yuval Noah Harari in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, what primarily differentiated our ancestral sapiens from the other human species was our ability to cooperate with one another.

Simply put, our proclivity for social cohesion allowed our species to string together in larger and larger groups.


Neanderthals, and other human species, could only form small bands and were subsequently overpowered by the uniquely huge groups of sapiens

Photo by Hammad Siddiqui on Unsplash

This is what ultimately allowed us to effectively hunt megafauna, such as the Wooly Mammoth, into extinction. It’s also what allowed us to become the only human species left alive, and later the dominant species on this planet. 

It may sound silly to say, but it all couldn’t have happened without play. 

Now, most animals display playful behaviors. The Neanderthals surely did, too, but with our highly developed neocortex, prefrontal cortex, and temporal lobes of our brains, our play behavior helped set the stage for the most advanced social structures the world had ever seen.

These structures evolved into the major societies we’re accustomed to today. Many of the primitive games and physical activities our ancestors were accustomed to later developed into the early sports.

In 1938, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published a book called Homo Ludens, which essentially stated that play is a necessary condition of the generation and development of culture. 

You can think of it this way:

I obviously don’t need to tell you that play is fun; that’s what makes it play. But the fact that it is fun is what allowed humans to toy and tinker with the various aspects of our society, our culture, and our world. Hence the term Homo ludens derived from the Latin word ludus, which refers to play, sport, or practice. 

Man at play.

Two men playing chess in a park

Photo by Hammad Siddiqui on Unsplash

Sports and performance feel so great because it truly is a fundamental aspect of who we are as human beings. It’s a vital aspect of our history. 

Competition and play have been with us since the very beginning, and they’ll continue to be with us for as long as we live. 

To play is to be human. 

Play made us who we are and helped build the world around us.

It’s our most endearing legacy. 

So be sure to remember that with pride, next time you’re able to step out on court.

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About the Author

Anthony Pellegrino is a freelance journalist, writer, and content marketing strategist. He is currently studying to get his B.A. in Philosophy at Fort Hays State University. He works as contributor to Pulse Magazine and as a freelance content creator for several marketing agencies and brands. His writing is focused on philosophy of mind, metaphysics, politics, everyday life, and content marketing.

Learn more about the author: http://tonyp.press

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