Guest Column: Our children are suffering from a deficit of play

Guest Column by Peter Gray 

I’m an evolutionary psychologist which means I’m interested in human nature and how that nature was shaped by natural selection. My special interest is play.

The young of all mammals play. Why? Why do they waste energy and risk life and limb playing, when they could just rest, tucked safely away in a burrow somewhere? That’s the kind of question that evolutionary psychologists ask. The first person to address that particular question from a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective was the German philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos. In a book titled The Play of Animals (1898), Groos argued that play evolved as a means to ensure that animals would practice the skills they need to survive and reproduce.

This “practice theory of play” is well accepted by researchers today. It explains why young animals play more than older ones (they have more to learn) and why those animal species that depend least on rigid instincts, and most on learning, play the most. It also explains the different ways that different species play. To a considerable degree, you can predict how an animal will play by knowing the main constraints on its ability to survive and thrive. For example, young predators play at stalking and pouncing or chasing, while the young of preyed-upon animals play at dodging, darting, and getting away. From the perspective of Groos’ theory, it is not surprising that young humans, when given the opportunity, play far more, and in far more different ways, than do the young of any other species.

My own research and ideas on play build on Groos’ work. One branch of that research has been to examine children’s lives in hunter-gatherer cultures, by surveying anthropologists who have studied such cultures. During all but the most recent smidgeon of our biological history, we were all hunter-gatherers, so our play instincts were shaped when we lived in that way. I learned that children in such cultures were free to play and explore, in their own chosen ways, essentially all day long, every day, from the age of about 4 on to mid- to late-teenage years.

They played at the whole range of skills that are essential for success in their culture, including tracking and hunting, tree climbing, defending against imaginary predators, cooking and building huts and other artifacts crucial to their culture. They playfully danced the traditional dances of their culture and sang the traditional songs, but also made up new ones. They made and played musical instruments similar to those that adults in their group made. They did all this and more, not because any adult required or even encouraged them to, but because it was fun and because something deep inside them, the result of eons of natural selection, urged them to pay attention to the valued activities of their culture and play at those activities, so they would grow to become skilled and knowledgeable adults.

In another branch of my research, I’ve studied young people in our present-day culture who were not required to attend a standard school, but who, like hunter-gatherer children, were allowed to educate themselves in their own ways. This work has included studies of young people at a democratic school, which facilitates children’s self-directed learning, and of unschoolers, defined as homeschoolers who are free to follow their own interests rather than a prescribed curriculum. This work has convinced me that young people’s instincts to educate themselves, through self-directed play and exploration, can operate just as well in our culture as in hunter-gatherer cultures if we provide appropriate conditions. When children in our culture have ample time and freedom to play, and ample exposure to the larger culture, they play at the whole range of skills that are essential to success in our culture. Such work has led me to found the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, a nonprofit organization aimed at freeing children from coercive schooling and enabling them to educate themselves in their own natural ways.

A third branch of my research concerns the dramatic decline, over the past 60 years in our culture, in children’s freedom to play and its link to dramatic increases in depression, anxiety and other disorders. This research is the main subject of my lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, July 11, in the Amphitheater. I will present there the logic and evidence behind my conclusion that our current societal restrictions on children’s freedom to play and explore amounts, truly, to child abuse and is responsible for the high rates of psychological suffering we are witnessing among young people today. I will show how play is not just how children learn physical and intellectual skills, but also how they acquire emotional skills. This work has led me to coordinate with Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, to found another nonprofit group, Let Grow, which is working with schools and whole communities to bring free play back into children’s lives.

Much more about all of these lines of research and ideas can be found in my book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. More can also be found — including references to my academic articles and chapters on these three branches of my research — in the blog I write for Psychology Today magazine, called “Freedom to Learn.”

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College, where his fields include children’s play; self-directed learning; evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, educational psychology, and the role of play in human biological and cultural evolution.

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