Monday, July 23, 2018

Playtime Politics:The Rapidly Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture

American Political Science Association Meeting (2018)
Boston, Massachusetts
Playtime Politics:
The Rapidly Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture

Fri, August 31, 12:00 to 1:30pm
Session Organized by:

Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
Mount St. Joseph University

Session Submission Type: Full Paper Panel

Session Description

 By: Ronald F. White
Mount St. Joseph University

Evolutionary psychologists have long argued that there is an ever-growing “mismatch” between human behavior that has been shaped primarily by biological evolution, and behavior that has been shaped by cultural evolution. That same idea holds true for political behavior. One of the more promising, yet often neglected areas of evolutionary political research is the study of the biological and cultural forces that shape the political regulation of childhood play. The fact that young humans, and other primates exhibit similar playtime bodily motions and activities suggests an evolutionary component. Yet, it also obvious, that there is, now, a growing mismatch between our slowly evolving Pleistocene, hunter-gatherer brains and the rise of the political regimes that now shape the global human environment. This research panel will explore the evolutionary psychology and/or the evolutionary politics of childhood play. Panelists may document the various Post-AR spheres of influence that now shape childhood play, including technological evolution, economic evolution, and/or sociopolitical evolution; and the resulting mismatches. Panelists may also explore the developmental implications of this mismatch and/or suggest how contemporary political leaders might close (or at least reduce) that ever-expanding conflict.

Introduction to Session

By: Ronald F. White
Mount St. Joseph University

 This session will focus, primarily on the proximate and ultimate explanations for playground technology. Although there is much cultural variation “how” young children play in various historical and cultural settings, there are at least some timeless universals that explain “why” children play in those contexts. Conceptually, we differentiate between: active v. passive play, individual play v. group play, and supervised v. unsupervised play. We will also explore the moral and legal dimensions of playgrounds, and how and why societies and governments regulate playgrounds, most notably: how and where playgrounds can be built; who can build playgrounds, and who pays for the construction and maintenance of those playgrounds; and how and why those standards are morally/legally) monitored and controlled. And finally, we will discern how these regulations have affected the psychological development of children and their families. Here is what you can look forward to. Eli will identify the timelessly universal bodily motions that underlie child’s play in playgrounds, David will talk about of medicine has shaped (and continues to shape) our perception of risk. Charles will talk about how and why political regulations have led to increasingly safer playgrounds that children don’t want to utilize. And Rachel, will talk about the timelessly universal childhood game “Ring around the Rosy” and how and why children (and adults) creatively express their feelings toward epidemics via combinations of dance and song.            

Comments on Individual Presentations

By: Ronald F. White (Mount St.  Joseph University)

Presentation #1
Eli White (Northern Kentucky University)
“Affordance Psychology and the Evolution of Playground Technology”


In the realm of perceptual psychology there is a wide body of research that investigates how the environment determines which actions are possible. Originally coined by perceptual psychologist J.J Gibson (1979), the concept of affordances describes how properties of the animal in relation to properties of the environment can inform or specify what actions are possible. Childhood playgrounds, in all times and all places, reflect a predisposition to engage in specific bodily motions such as: up and down, back and forth, and around and around. This presentation will explain why playground technologies tend to replicate these patterns, especially: monkey bars, swings, see-saws, and merry-go-rounds; and, how and why adults seek to politically regulate these technologies.

 Comments: Eli’s presentation integrates affordance psychology with the physical movements of children and adults engaged in “playtime: especially: up and down, back and forth, and around and around.  Today, these same motions contribute to the “fun” (pleasure) associated with most playgrounds, video games, and movies. The question of the ultimate causation of the pleasure of these motions or the biological purpose that these motions have played and continue to play in human survival certainly provides and important portal into the nature and purpose(s) of human play. His analysis will eventually be supported by research he will conduct with the approval of Northern Kentucky University’s Institutional Review Board, which itself illustrates why it is so difficult to conduct playtime research on children. He will also discuss the recent rise of natural “playscapes” as an alternative to traditional playgrounds.

Presentation #2
David Vanderburgh (Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation)
"Medicine and the Growing Problems of Risk-Averse Playgrounds"

The hallmark of evolutionary politics has been the ever-rising legal standards for health and safety of citizens. In most recent years, the increased regulation of childhood playgrounds has produced successive generations of safety conscious, risk-averse adults. As risk-aversion increases, so does the power of government to protect us from ourselves. Are there any objective standards for acceptable childhood risk-taking, or have public and/or private playgrounds, already, become so safety conscious, that they are no longer attractive to venues for child play? What, if anything, can be done to restore, at least a modicum of playground risk-taking?

Comments: David’s presentation explain the role that the medical profession (esp. physicians) has played in shaping risk-averse childhood playtime, by providing authoritative instructions for directing parental, institutional, and sociopolitical responsibility for safe and/or healthy children. Since the 1970s, the sociopolitical influence of physicians (especially pediatricians) along with professional and institutional liability concerns have been especially important. The key actors include: insurance companies, tort-friendly state and federal courts and legislatures, and lawyers. Legal liability for childhood injuries that take place on playgrounds affect not only the owners of the playgrounds where children get injured, but also  hospitals and professionals that treat those injuries. Thus institutions have become increasingly risk-averse out of fear of not only overly-generous payoffs, but also ever-spiraling insurance premiums, as physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies seek to avoid paying ever-spiraling legal damages to parents, lawyers, and opposing insurance companies.           

 Presentation #3
Charles Kroncke: (Mount St. Joseph University)
The Economics of Boredom: Risk-Averse Playgrounds and Indoor Play”


In recent times, childhood playground technology has become subject to increasingly higher legalized safety standards. Coinciding with these increased safety concerns we also have declining childhood interest in collective outdoor play. As the costs associated with purchasing and installing these risk-free playgrounds increase, the number of children that utilize these playgrounds has decreased. This paper will attempt to explain how/why the number of playgrounds has increased, despite declining childhood interest and the increase in interest in stationary indoor play.

 Comments: Charles’s presentation focuses on the political economy of children’s playgrounds (public and private) and the recent rise of risk-averse playgrounds. Charles argues that at least a portion of the pleasure that children experience in playground activity has always been risk-related. However, politicians in their never-ending quest to make playgrounds safer have inadvertently contributed to the rise of “safe-but-boring” playgrounds; and perhaps even the decline of childhood interest in outdoor activity as well. He also observes that corporate behavior is also a major component in the institutionalization of risk-free playgrounds, as corporate designers, manufacturers, and installers seek to protect themselves from liability. Charles proposes that, like other aspects of human endeavor, the free market rather than government regulation provides the most reliable portal into designing, building, and maintaining playgrounds that are both fun and reasonably safe.       

Rachel Constance: (Walsh University)
“Ring Around the Rosy: The Biology and Culture of Childhood Games and Epidemics”


Epidemic disease plays a central role in the development of human societies, through a symbiotic relationship that predates the development of agriculture. Many historians have explored how epidemics have shaped human history demographically, culturally, politically, and financially. However, less research has explored how the underlying biology of epidemic disease has shaped the experience of childhood. This paper will explore how the biology of epidemics such as the bubonic plague, cholera, and more recently, HIV, have manifested in the culture of childhood play. It will focus particularly on sources that help us understand how children processed the morbidity of such diseases through childhood play, including games, books, and nursery rhymes.

Comments: Rachel’s presentation brings together a wide variety of both proximate and ultimate causes that underlie the children’s game “ring around the rosy.” Although the game arose in the historical context of the plague, both children and adults at all times and places are naturally predisposed toward: holding hands singing, and dancing in circles in time with rhythmic phrases. While adults teach “ring around the rosy” to young children at an early age, those universal components (singing, dancing in circles, holding hands, and falling down) are deeply embedded in human play, worldwide, and subject to ultimate explanation. Even adults incorporate those components in their own culturally bound songs and dances. It would be interesting to find out how many other songs and dances performed by various cultures (in various times and places) commemorate natural disasters and/or political events. Worldwide, there are also laws that encourage and/or forbid singing, dancing, holding hands, and boys and girls playing together in both public and private spheres.           

General Session Conclusions

By Ronald F. White:

            Professional tradition at conferences dictates that commentators attempt to find common ground between seemingly disparate presentations. Given the fact that all of the papers presented today will be part of a book I am editing for my forthcoming (Spring 2019) sabbatical from Mount St. Joseph University, common ground has already been forged via hours of reference-sharing and scholarly conversation between longtime friends. Philosophical tradition also dictates that I try to limit that “common ground” to three main points of agreement.

First, given the fact that everyone on this panel are parents and/or grandparents, we all have similar observations on how children play, especially on playgrounds. I think we all agree that there are often profound gender-based, individual based, and developmental differences between children in terms of risk-taking limits, even within families. Therefore, any ultimate explanation for risk-averse child’s play, must acknowledge profound variation, within families, cultures, and even over the course of a child’s lifetime.

Second, I think we’ll agree that a child’s propensity for risk-taking can be expanded and/or contacted under various environmental conditions and in various social contexts; especially when young children play with little or no adult supervision, play with older or younger children; and/or play with strangers, friends, or close relatives.   

Third, as parents, we all agree that we have all been influenced by the “better safe than sorry” principle, which underlies risk-averse parenthood. Some of us have had first-hand experience with risk-averse physicians, hospitals, and schools that routinely order medical tests and procedures for relatively low probability medical conditions; and for relatively low harm conditions. Nevertheless, we all admit that when it comes to the well-being of our own children, we are all naturally risk averse, which (in part) explains why we tolerate our government’s ongoing propensity to legally regulate childhood and parental behavior “for the sake of our children.” As a libertarian I find that to be very disconcerting, as state paternalism continues to run rampant in the United States and the authority of parents is rapidly being diminished. There’s much more to be said about the Evolutionary Politics of how, where, and why children play, especially within in liberal democracies.            

APSA Links

Sub Unit


Individual Presentations
    Affordance Psychology and the Evolution of Playground Technology -
    Eliah James White, Northern Kentucky University

    The Growing Problem of Risk-Averse Childhood Playgrounds - David F Vanderburgh, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation


    Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg


    Mount St. Joseph University