WE’RE in the middle of a great and substantive debate about play in Scotland (if we can suspend the party-political tribalism for a moment).

On one side are those who want to bring formal tests in a school setting to five-year-olds (P1), in order to best monitor their progress. On the other are those who believe play-based kindergarten, from three to seven, would be the best developmental start for future learners.

READ MORE: Testing times demand a grown-up debate about measuring P1s progress

I’m on the latter side (being on the board of Upstart Scotland, the campaign group behind #playnottests), and I could make my case by diving into Upstart’s considerable research base, sourced globally and across many disciplines.

READ MORE: Academics divided over merits and risks of P1 assessments

But I’d actually prefer to start with the laughing granny, her grandwean, and their Wonky Donkey, and what that brilliant, soul-healing amateur video can tell us about the power of play in the lives of both adults and children – and its crucial importance to the process of learning.

According to the Sunday National last weekend, the phone clip of grandmother Janice Clark reading The Wonky Donkey to her grandson Archer has been viewed more than 3.4 million times. It triggered a 50,000-copy reprint of the original book, so great has been the demand.

There’s no accounting for taste, of course, and the whole thing might leave you cold. But if it gets to you, the first thing to note is how infectious Janice’s laughter is.

As she loses it, trying to keep up with the book’s joke – “he was a hanky panky cranky stinky dinky lanky honky-tonky winky-wonky donkey … this is gonnae kill me… nae mair” – we lose it too. There’s something powerful and elemental happening here, jumping right through the screen, all the way from New Zealand.

READ MORE: 'Wonky Donkey' reading Scots granny becomes internet sensation

On a simple level, the video shows just how exuberant and caring the moment of learning should be. Her grandson coos away appreciatively, cradled safely in her lap, as the verbal wit crackles around him.

Most parents and carers have been in that precious space with their child, when a picture book just clicks between them (Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the one for me and mine). This is an ancient human moment, where elders steadily enculturate the next generation of the tribe.

What’s special (and maybe what made it go viral) about Janice and Archer’s video is that we’re seeing an adult surrendering to helpless laughter. Mostly, on YouTube and other social media, what we crave are laughing babies.

It was my stepson who alerted me to this phenomenon. He’d come in after a stressful school day, and relax by watching endless clips of weans beside themselves with laughter.

I came upon another one this week. There’s a trend on Twitter at the moment where people write, “Because everything sucks, here is …”. It’s usually a video of some cute animal yawning. The one I saw, posted by American screenwriter Randi Mayem Singer, was a five-minute clip of babies laughing at dogs.

We’re at an even more primal stage here. The first instinctual response, as a parent, is mild alarm. Why are these infants having to fend off these toothed, clawed, excitable and often much larger creatures?

But play science will alert to you something that almost all these dogs do, while sending the wee humans into paroxysms. Their tummies go to the floor; their legs are splayed goofily before them. Ethologists (students of animal behaviour) call it the “play bow” – a physical sign that invites other mammals to have fun with them. Husky dogs have been seen to defuse predatory polar bears by presenting play bows as they advance. That’s how powerful the play moment can be between social mammals; it even defies the basic instinct of hunting food (which often means weaker species) to survive. The laughter of these babies, and their accompanying and evident physical vulnerability, is in fact their best shield against any aggression in these animals.

The National:

So we know how good laughter, and the play that often incites it, makes us feel. How (asks the adult in the room) does all that inform the serious business of how we bolt together the effective future citizens of Scotland?

Well, maybe because it is essential to them being able to bolt themselves together – and rebolt themselves again when required to adapt and respond to what this hypermodern world will bring to them.

The joy in these videos is often triggered by discovery, exploration and experimentation; in the company of trusted and beloved others; and across spaces which are varied and customisable, according to the whims of the moment.

This is the kind of situation that we play advocates mean by an extended kindergarten experience. The point is to create conditions that embed, as deeply as possible, the sheer pleasure that comes from playful learning. And precisely in those years when children’s neurological wiring is at its most malleable.

In a letter earlier this week, Brian Boyd, one of the crafters of the original Curriculum for Excellence framework, spoke of Scottish education’s commitment in recent years to a Nordic-style “deep learning”, rather than the “surface learning of an exams-based approach”.

And it needs to be deep indeed, as this century picks up speed. We need an education that cultivates what is most unique about us as humans – our capacity for creativity, care and delight.

Why? Because we face automations of the mind and hand, in artificial intelligence and robotics, which will take over the routines and repetitions that have comprised most human work up till now. The challenge is enormous, even civilisational.

What is most maddening about the current stramash is that, with Curriculum for Excellence, Scottish education has actually been decades ahead of the game. The truly tragic element of seeing the Scottish Government dig its heels in on early testing is that it’s probably because the country is decades behind in other areas.

As Boyd said, in comparison to Nordic systems, our relative poverty levels are far too high; our teacher numbers are half what they should be; and we don’t have “well-staffed early-years provision with a focus on play and creativity” to remotely the same extent.

There’s not much laughter to be had when considering the constraint of Scottish potential under the Union. But even if we can’t join up all the dots of Scottish governance at the moment, we shouldn’t regress when we have made advances.

She’s not exactly a laughing granny, but one thing that is notable about Nicola Sturgeon is that she quite explicitly keeps a zone open for play (though of an adult form) in her life – and that’s her love of contemporary literary fiction. Someone who raves about George Saunders’s Lincoln In The Bardo, as she has, is not averse to experiment and innovation.

So a thought, Nicola, for the conditions under which an imaginative hunger in the young Scots of the future is most richly and sustainably developed.

Chastened wee proto-workers put too early into uniforms and subject to P1 testing regimes, may not be ideal. The playful spirit of Janice, Archer and the Wonky Donkey – backed up by the best research, but as ancient as humanity itself – may well be more appropriate.