One of the key elements of a free society is that people avoid potential conflicts peacefully, using consent not coercion. One way to do this is through market exchange, but another way is through cooperative agreement, such as we see in small groups who have to solve problems (think about organizing a group project in a class) or in larger groups who have to manage a common property resource like a water source. If we can successfully avoid conflict in this way, we can avoid having to use private coercion, in the form of force or theft, or public coercion, in the form of government to get people to collaborate. Liberal societies, therefore, require that people have skills in solving problems through voluntary processes.

But what if an increasing number of young people have not sufficiently developed the skills to resolve conflict peacefully on their own? This would not bode well for the prospect of peacefully resolving these small moments of potential conflict. I would argue that this is exactly what is happening, and one reason is because fewer kids have the opportunities to engage in the unsupervised play that allows them to learn those skills.

In his 2013 book Free to Learn, psychologist Peter Gray documents the ways in which the ability to truly play is central to how children learn and how it thereby contributes to their growth into functional adults. In particular, he focuses on what he calls “free play” or “play in which the players themselves decide what and how to play and are free to modify the goals and rules as they go along.” He adds, “in social play, children learn how to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate the anger that can arise from conflicts.” One other element that defines play is that it continues only with the consent of those playing: “the ultimate freedom in play is the freedom to quit”. This matters because it means that the playing will only continue if those engaged in it can resolve conflicts and mollify complaints in ways that keep everyone interested in playing. Gray (159) also argues that free play causes children to develop an important kind of empathy, as they have to be able to “see from others’ perspectives, to understand what others want, and provide at least some of that for them.”

If we parent or legislate in ways that make it harder for kids to develop those skills, we are taking away a key piece of what makes it possible for free people to be peaceful, cooperative people by devising bottom-up solutions to a variety of conflicts. Like play, such solutions rest on the consent of the players and must be created in ways that keep everyone happy. When we understand play as a consent-based activity structured by rules created by the players, learning to play becomes the way we practice, in a world removed from reality, the skills we need for the very real world of social and political interaction.

This point might contribute to our understanding of the conflicts around sexual consent that have characterized US college campuses in recent years. If large numbers of late adolescents have never acquired the skills that are involved in unstructured play, it makes sense that they would find it difficult to engage in the unstructured play that might characterize a great deal of sexual interaction. Without the ability to compromise and empathize, or the experience at negotiating rules and having difficult conversations about conflict, it is not surprising that they might want an external authority (such as college administrators and their judicial processes) to settle conflicts, or insist on an explicit set of rules that describes what is okay and what is not. I am thinking here of the sexual contracts or forms of “affirmative consent” that have become in vogue in recent years.

Sexual activity can be fruitfully understood as a form of play, and one that involves a set of rules and understandings among the participants and that relies on their continued consent. This form of play, however, does not have a given set of rules for every situation. As a result, potential sexual partners have to determine those rules and be able to recognize consent or the lack thereof by the other participants. In the absence of that script, sexual partners have to have the skills to negotiate these limits and recognize when they might be crossed. Without enough experience in the kind of unsupervised play that Gray discusses, college students might find these situations particularly challenging, which might explain the conflicts we see around such cases on so many campuses. It might also explain the desire to have a scripted set of rules in the form of “affirmative consent” or explicit contracts, and it might also explain how quickly young people turn to external authorities with the power of coercion to help avoid or settle such conflicts.

It is worth asking whether the demise of unstructured play will have major effects on the broader society by undermining the development of the negotiation and cooperation skills needed to resolve conflicts on our own. Free societies rest on a bedrock of informal conflict resolution and the skills necessary to make that happen may well be developed through forms of unsupervised childhood play. As we may be seeing with the problems involved in sexual communication, declaring such play to be too risky, either through the law or the irrational fear of parents, is a decision fraught with risk.