The Role of Play in Hunter-Gatherer Societies


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
I thought this recent SOTT article was peripherally related to this topic, especially with respect to how it "gamifies" the education and discipline of children.

Back in the 1960s, a Harvard graduate student made a landmark discovery about the nature of human anger.

At age 34, Jean Briggs traveled above the Arctic Circle and lived out on the tundra for 17 months. There were no roads, no heating systems, no grocery stores. Winter temperatures could easily dip below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Briggs persuaded an Inuit family to "adopt" her and "try to keep her alive," as the anthropologist wrote in 1970.

At the time, many Inuit families lived similar to the way their ancestors had for thousands of years. They built igloos in the winter and tents in the summer. "And we ate only what the animals provided, such as fish, seal and caribou," says Myna Ishulutak, a film producer and language teacher who lived a similar lifestyle as a young girl.

Briggs quickly realized something remarkable was going on in these families: The adults had an extraordinary ability to control their anger.

"They never acted in anger toward me, although they were angry with me an awful lot," Briggs told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview.

Even just showing a smidgen of frustration or irritation was considered weak and childlike, Briggs observed.

For instance, one time someone knocked a boiling pot of tea across the igloo, damaging the ice floor. No one changed their expression. "Too bad," the offender said calmly and went to refill the teapot.

In another instance, a fishing line - which had taken days to braid - immediately broke on the first use. No one flinched in anger. "Sew it together," someone said quietly.

By contrast, Briggs seemed like a wild child, even though she was trying very hard to control her anger. "My ways were so much cruder, less considerate and more impulsive," she told the CBC. "[I was] often impulsive in an antisocial sort of way. I would sulk or I would snap or I would do something that they never did."

Briggs, who died in 2016, wrote up her observations in her first book, Never in Anger. But she was left with a lingering question: How do Inuit parents instill this ability in their children? How do Inuit take tantrum-prone toddlers and turn them into cool-headed adults?

Then in 1971, Briggs found a clue.

She was walking on a stony beach in the Arctic when she saw a young mother playing with her toddler - a little boy about 2 years old. The mom picked up a pebble and said, "'Hit me! Go on. Hit me harder,'" Briggs remembered.

The boy threw the rock at his mother, and she exclaimed, "Ooooww. That hurts!"

Briggs was completely befuddled. The mom seemed to be teaching the child the opposite of what parents want. And her actions seemed to contradict everything Briggs knew about Inuit culture.

"I thought, 'What is going on here?' " Briggs said in the radio interview.

Turns out, the mom was executing a powerful parenting tool to teach her child how to control his anger - and one of the most intriguing parenting strategies I've come across.

No scolding, no timeouts

It's early December in the Arctic town of Iqaluit, Canada. And at 2 p.m., the sun is already calling it a day. Outside, the temperature is a balmy minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. A light snow is swirling.

I've come to this seaside town, after reading Briggs' book, in search of parenting wisdom, especially when it comes to teaching children to control their emotions. Right off the plane, I start collecting data.

I sit with elders in their 80s and 90s while they lunch on "country food" -stewed seal, frozen beluga whale and raw caribou. I talk with moms selling hand-sewn sealskin jackets at a high school craft fair. And I attend a parenting class, where day care instructors learn how their ancestors raised small children hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of years ago.

Across the board, all the moms mention one golden rule: Don't shout or yell at small children.

Traditional Inuit parenting is incredibly nurturing and tender. If you took all the parenting styles around the world and ranked them by their gentleness, the Inuit approach would likely rank near the top.
(They even have a special kiss for babies, where you put your nose against the cheek and sniff the skin.)

The culture views scolding - or even speaking to children in an angry voice - as inappropriate, says Lisa Ipeelie, a radio producer and mom who grew up with 12 siblings. "When they're little, it doesn't help to raise your voice," she says. "It will just make your own heart rate go up."

Even if the child hits you or bites you, there's no raising your voice?

"No," Ipeelie says with a giggle that seems to emphasize how silly my question is. "With little kids, you often think they're pushing your buttons, but that's not what's going on. They're upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is."

Traditionally, the Inuit saw yelling at a small child as demeaning. It's as if the adult is having a tantrum; it's basically stooping to the level of the child, Briggs documented.

Elders I spoke with say intense colonization over the past century is damaging these traditions. And, so, the community is working hard to keep the parenting approach intact.

Goota Jaw is at the front line of this effort. She teaches the parenting class at the Arctic College. Her own parenting style is so gentle that she doesn't even believe in giving a child a timeout for misbehaving.

"Shouting, 'Think about what you just did. Go to your room!' " Jaw says. "I disagree with that. That's not how we teach our children. Instead you are just teaching children to run away."

And you are teaching them to be angry, says clinical psychologist and author Laura Markham. "When we yell at a child - or even threaten with something like 'I'm starting to get angry,' we're training the child to yell," says Markham. "We're training them to yell when they get upset and that yelling solves problems."

In contrast, parents who control their own anger are helping their children learn to do the same, Markham says. "Kids learn emotional regulation from us."

I asked Markham if the Inuit's no-yelling policy might be their first secret of raising cool-headed kids. "Absolutely," she says.

Playing soccer with your head

Now at some level, all moms and dads know they shouldn't yell at kids. But if you don't scold or talk in an angry tone, how do you discipline? How do you keep your 3-year-old from running into the road? Or punching her big brother?

For thousands of years, the Inuit have relied on an ancient tool with an ingenious twist: "We use storytelling to discipline," Jaw says.

Jaw isn't talking about fairy tales, where a child needs to decipher the moral. These are oral stories passed down from one generation of Inuit to the next, designed to sculpt kids' behaviors in the moment. Sometimes even save their lives.

For example, how do you teach kids to stay away from the ocean, where they could easily drown? Instead of yelling, "Don't go near the water!" Jaw says Inuit parents take a pre-emptive approach and tell kids a special story about what's inside the water. "It's the sea monster," Jaw says, with a giant pouch on its back just for little kids.

"If a child walks too close to the water, the monster will put you in his pouch, drag you down to the ocean and adopt you out to another family," Jaw says.

"Then we don't need to yell at a child," Jaw says, "because she is already getting the message."

Inuit parents have an array of stories to help children learn respectful behavior, too. For example, to get kids to listen to their parents, there is a story about ear wax, says film producer Myna Ishulutak.

"My parents would check inside our ears, and if there was too much wax in there, it meant we were not listening," she says.

And parents tell their kids: If you don't ask before taking food, long fingers could reach out and grab you, Ishulutak says.

Then there's the story of northern lights, which helps kids learn to keep their hats on in the winter.

"Our parents told us that if we went out without a hat, the northern lights are going to take your head off and use it as a soccer ball," Ishulutak says. "We used to be so scared!" she exclaims and then erupts in laughter.

At first, these stories seemed to me a bit too scary for little children. And my knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss them. But my opinion flipped 180 degrees after I watched my own daughter's response to similar tales - and after I learned more about humanity's intricate relationship with storytelling.

Oral storytelling is what's known as a human universal. For tens of thousands of years, it has been a key way that parents teach children about values and how to behave.

Modern hunter-gatherer groups use stories to teach sharing, respect for both genders and conflict avoidance, a recent study reported, after analyzing 89 different tribes. With the Agta, a hunter-gatherer population of the Philippines, good storytelling skills are prized more than hunting skills or medicinal knowledge, the study found.

Today many American parents outsource their oral storytelling to screens. And in doing so, I wonder if we're missing out on an easy - and effective - way of disciplining and changing behavior. Could small children be somehow "wired" to learn through stories?

"Well, I'd say kids learn well through narrative and explanations," says psychologist Deena Weisberg at Villanova University, who studies how small children interpret fiction. "We learn best through things that are interesting to us. And stories, by their nature, can have lots of things in them that are much more interesting in a way that bare statements don't."

Stories with a dash of danger pull in kids like magnets, Weisberg says. And they turn a tension-ridden activity like disciplining into a playful interaction that's - dare, I say it - fun.

"Don't discount the playfulness of storytelling," Weisberg says. "With stories, kids get to see stuff happen that doesn't really happen in real life. Kids think that's fun. Adults think it's fun, too."

Why don't you hit me?

Back up in Iqaluit, Myna Ishulutak is reminiscing about her childhood out on the land. She and her family lived in a hunting camp with about 60 other people. When she was a teenager, her family settled in a town.

"I miss living on the land so much," she says as we eat a dinner of baked Arctic char. "We lived in a sod house. And when we woke up in the morning, everything would be frozen until we lit the oil lamp."

I ask her if she's familiar with the work of Jean Briggs. Her answer leaves me speechless.

Ishulutak reaches into her purse and brings out Briggs' second book, Inuit Morality Play, which details the life of a 3-year-old girl dubbed Chubby Maata.

"This book is about me and my family," Ishulutak says. "I am Chubby Maata."

In the early 1970s, when Ishulutak was about 3 years old, her family welcomed Briggs into their home for six months and allowed her to study the intimate details of their child's day-to-day life.

What Briggs documented is a central component to raising cool-headed kids.

When a child in the camp acted in anger - hit someone or had a tantrum - there was no punishment. Instead, the parents waited for the child to calm down and then, in a peaceful moment, did something that Shakespeare would understand all too well: They put on a drama. (As the Bard once wrote, "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.")

"The idea is to give the child experiences that will lead the child to develop rational thinking,"
Briggs told the CBC in 2011.

In a nutshell, the parent would act out what happened when the child misbehaved, including the real-life consequences of that behavior.

The parent always had a playful, fun tone. And typically the performance starts with a question, tempting the child to misbehave.

For example, if the child is hitting others, the mom may start a drama by asking: "Why don't you hit me?"

Then the child has to think: "What should I do?" If the child takes the bait and hits the mom, she doesn't scold or yell but instead acts out the consequences. "Ow, that hurts!" she might exclaim.

The mom continues to emphasize the consequences by asking a follow-up question. For example: "Don't you like me?" or "Are you a baby?" She is getting across the idea that hitting hurts people's feelings, and "big girls" wouldn't hit. But, again, all questions are asked with a hint of playfulness.

The parent repeats the drama from time to time until the child stops hitting the mom during the dramas and the misbehavior ends.

Ishulutak says these dramas teach children not to be provoked easily. "They teach you to be strong emotionally," she says, "to not take everything so seriously or to be scared of teasing."

Psychologist Peggy Miller, at the University of Illinois, agrees: "When you're little, you learn that people will provoke you, and these dramas teach you to think and maintain some equilibrium."

In other words, the dramas offer kids a chance to practice controlling their anger, Miller says, during times when they're not actually angry.

This practice is likely critical for children learning to control their anger. Because here's the thing about anger: Once someone is already angry, it is not easy for that person to squelch it - even for adults.

"When you try to control or change your emotions in the moment, that's a really hard thing to do," says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University who studies how emotions work.

But if you practice having a different response or a different emotion at times when you're not angry, you'll have a better chance of managing your anger in those hot-button moments, Feldman Barrett says.

"That practice is essentially helping to rewire your brain to be able to make a different emotion [besides anger] much more easily," she says.

This emotional practice may be even more important for children, says psychologist Markham, because kids' brains are still developing the circuitry needed for self-control.

"Children have all kinds of big emotions," she says. "They don't have much prefrontal cortex yet. So what we do in responding to our child's emotions shapes their brain."

Markham recommends an approach close to that used by Inuit parents. When the kid misbehaves, she suggests, wait until everyone is calm. Then in a peaceful moment, go over what happened with the child. You can simply tell them the story about what occurred or use two stuffed animals to act it out.

"Those approaches develop self-control," Markham says.

Just be sure you do two things when you replay the misbehavior, she says. First, keep the child involved by asking many questions. For example, if the child has a hitting problem, you might stop midway through the puppet show and ask,"Bobby, wants to hit right now. Should he?"

Second, be sure to keep it fun. Many parents overlook play as a tool for discipline, Markham says. But fantasy play offers oodles of opportunities to teach children proper behavior.

"Play is their work," Markham says. "That's how they learn about the world and about their experiences."

Which seems to be something the Inuit have known for hundreds, perhaps even, thousands of years.


FOTCM Member
I read that article with a lot of interest. I really like most of it.

I admit that I had a similar knee-jerk reaction as the author to some of the stories the Inuits tell their children. I get that lessons have to be delivered in a way that children can understand, and storytelling has it's place, but my reaction was more about where there was false information in the stories. I'm sure they could be reworked to deliver information that was closer to the truth even if some storytelling devices were used to give good impact. I also agree with the article in that good storytelling is a valuable skill, and perhaps there is more to the Inuit stories than what is reported in the article. Also, perhaps there is something in rites of passage that acknowledges that these were just stories to help protect/save the lives of children.

The reason for my reaction is that I was told a story, with similar intention, when I was a kid that had an impact that was probably not planned. I've talked this story over with my cousin who is a teacher in preschool and the impact is a common one apparently. We were told that we couldn't go to the toilet by ourselves or with strangers if we were away from home because monsters and boogie men hid in toilets. So when I started school, I avoided going to the toilet if I could. Sometimes I couldn't and I'd be terrified of using the schools toilet block. I'd stand outside the door for a while to make sure I couldn't hear anything, then I'd walk as quietly as I could down the whole length of the toilet block checking the there were no monsters/boogie men in any of the stalls, all the while ready to run out as fast as I could. If a door was closed, I'd look under the door to make sure I could see kids shoes rather than the feet of a monster or boogie man. Finally I'd relieve myself, but I tried to do it as quietly as possible so that I didn't attract the attention of any monsters/boogie men that I might have missed. Of course most of these habits faded over time, but one hung on - relieving myself as quietly as possible, no noise ever, not from the toilet lid or the toilet paper dispenser or from urine or faeces hitting the water in the toilet bowl! And I used to feel very disturbed by noisy people in public toilets! It wasn't until in my 20's that I realised the source story of that disturbance and the need to be supernaturally quiet in a public toilet!


Jedi Council Member
FOTCM Member
For me if I perceived something is boring soon or later I will drop it. So, I tried that material comes to me in natural way in my life. In that way it feels more like a dance or play.

I found great article about Inuit way of caring for children - Inunnguiniq: Caring for children the Inuit way

Inunnguiniq is, perhaps, the most important of these as it is the process of socialization and education described within the cultural context that supports it. Inunnguiniq is literally translated as “the making of a human being.” The cultural expectation is that every child will become able/enabled/capable so that they can be assured of living a good life. A good life is considered one where you have sufficient proper attitude and ability to be able to contribute to working for the common good—helping others and making improvements for those to come. As such, it describes culturally situated ethical and social/behavioural expectations, specific competencies and skill sets, and an adherence to a well defined set of values, beliefs and principles which are foundational to the Inuit life view.
It is understood that every child needs to be made able. This is a holistic child development approach that ensures strength in attitude, skill development, thinking, and behaviour. The specific process for ensuring this result— inunnguiniq—is a shared responsibility within the group. Inunnguiniq is the Inuit equivalent of “it takes a village to raise a child.” Inherent in the process are a set of role expectations for those connected with a child to nurture, protect, observe, and create a path in life that is uniquely fitted to that child.

So, for example, a child named for someone’s mother would be called “mother” by the family members of the namesake and they would give the child the respect they would give to their mother. The result of this and other tuq&urausiq practices is that children are supported by the broadest possible network of relationships (Bennett & Rowley, 2004).

Some teachings may not be understood at first, but Inuit say “so that our words will come back to us,’’ meaning that when we need to understand a teaching it will be there. Many teachings are described in stories. Inuit know that stories will be understood at different levels throughout life and that an individual will take the teaching from a story as s/he needs it and when s/he needs it most. For this reason, stories are never explained. The individual is expected to develop reflective and critical thinking in order to be competent in life. There is a requirement to follow the teachings of faithfulness and respect to the parents/ancestors, even though you disagree with or are not yet aware of the significance of a teaching.

In the inunnguiniq process, children are always given encouragement so that they will persevere and not give up. This is an expectation. Each child receives an informal kind of encouragement through a great deal of verbal encouragement and special attention. This is also very important to having good relationships with others. Although young children are seldom scolded,5 if they are not able to do something they have the ability to do, or do not follow rules or expectations, they are spoken to firmly. It is understood that every child should not be treated the same because teaching must be designed around each child’s specific interests and capabilities. It is also recognized that children learn at different levels and at different paces: “Inuit considered each child unique; as an individual who developed, learned and matured at his own speed. Rather than speaking of their age in years—people did not keep track of ages— they spoke of children in terms of physical development and capabilities” (Bennett & Rowley, 2004).

The rest you can read in article if you like. I'm amazed how Inuits raise children in so natural way, something that parents from West could apply also, at least partially.
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The Living Force
FOTCM Member
I admit that I had a similar knee-jerk reaction as the author to some of the stories the Inuits tell their children. I get that lessons have to be delivered in a way that children can understand, and storytelling has it's place, but my reaction was more about where there was false information in the stories.

I can see your reasoning behind that, and I feel the same way in some respects. One thing that I should mention about "boogie-men" is that it allows children to create an abstract of a threatening agent in general, which allows them to respond in an organized fashion against any observed instantiations of it. I know another indigenous group has a witch-like owl figure, which kidnaps children who are alone in the woods and eats them, or otherwise takes them away and makes them do chores for it. Older kids learn this figure also rapes. This figure can be a solitary psychopath, a wild, unknown predator in the woods, or an enemy tribe that will kidnap and exploit children. But whatever the case the children are taught how to best respond by staying together, staying close to adults and the camp, etc. If you had to explain to a four year old all the possible dangers out there, they may not catch it all. While if you give a generalization they can take the hint and act in a cautious manner. Just playing devil's advocate. :-)

The rest you can read in article if you like. I'm amazed how Inuits raise children in so natural way, something that parents from West could apply also, at least partially.

You can say that again! The childrearing conditions are definitely less abnormal than those of today. I feel like people are generally much more traumatized in modern society, and that makes parenting in an aware and conscientious manner all the more difficult. I feel like society is making progress in some places (like those that curtail corporal punishment of kids), but I feel like it's also getting worse in others (mandatory vaccinations, the immense amount of screen time children as young as two now have, GMOs, etc.)

Tuatha de Danaan

Dagobah Resident
FOTCM Member
Modern society has lost the art of story-telling and the saddest part is that they don't even know they have lost this art as it was never part of their upbringing. They allow their kids to learn from games and videos. Story telling is captivating to a child but modern life styles don't allow for this.

Times past allowed gatherings before a fire and telling stories and reminiscing which were easily absorbed by children. Even Caesar mentioned getting them young. What's also needed for that type of up-bringing are close knit communities,which alas, are also gone.


Jedi Council Member
When I think hunter-gatherer, I think of tribes with primative means. And so with limited means comes hardships, and in hardships, tighter bonding.

So, social life was less stratified, and more general. And people had an interest in each others talents, interests, ect. but without the stratifying effect of specialization. So, the smartest could get along with the dumbest, ect. No matter the difference, it was toward a common interest, and each person was a part of a order. And so in understanding the roles they played, they played on each others talents and in that - maintained a general knowledge that accounted for all. It was inclusive to all, and had to be because there was sickness, retardation, ect. and so their individual conditions were considered and evaluated and always factored in their decisions.

I think play was a bridge between the smartest and dumbest, to help the dumber know their place and be 'indoctrinated' insofar as it instilled a sense of enjoyment while giving them a purpose and meaning, and a path to higher understanding.

So, they were more like family than citizens in a specialized society. And all was accounted for, despite the difference in ability and intelligence. And play served manifold purpose in judging each others abilities, to teach each other, and bond.

So, hunter-gatherers are like us, but without the divisions and complexity that comes with higher civilization, and if all is not included, it is susceptible to failure as is the case in primitive societies - although the failing would be more protracted, and because of our specialized mindsets, we could be played against each other - no wiser than a retard in a primitive culture - taught to play his role in a manner the chief sees fit.
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