The play deficit

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The play deficit

Photo by Alex Webb/Magnum

Children today are cossetted and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play they will never grow up

Peter Gray is a psychologist and research professor at Boston College. He writes the Freedom to Learn blog, and is the author of Free to Learn (2013) and Psychology (2011).

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When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it.

For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play, and the same is true in many other countries. In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time. But then, beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.

In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

I recently took part in a radio debate with a woman representing an organisation called the National Center on Time and Learning, which campaigns for a longer school day and school year for schoolchildren in the US (a recording of the debate can be found here). Her thesis — consistent with her organisation’s purpose and the urgings of President Barack Obama and the Education Secretary Arne Duncan — was that children need more time in school than currently required, to prepare them for today’s and tomorrow’s competitive world. I argued the opposite. The host introduced the debate with the words: ‘Do students need more time to learn, or do students need more time to play?’

Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.

I’m an evolutionary psychologist, which means I’m interested in human nature, its relationship to the nature of other animals, 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 away safely 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 called The Play of Animals (1898), Groos argued that play came about by natural selection as a means to ensure that animals would practise the skills they need in order to survive and reproduce.

This so-called ‘practice theory of play’ is well-accepted today by researchers. It explains why young animals play more than older ones (they have more to learn) and why those animals that depend least on rigid instincts for survival, and most on learning, play the most. To a considerable degree, you can predict how an animal will play by knowing what skills it must develop in order to survive and reproduce. Lion cubs and other young predators play at stalking and pouncing or chasing, while zebra colts and other prey species play at fleeing and dodging.

Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked?

Groos followed The Play of Animals with a second book, The Play of Man (1901), in which he extended his insights about animal play to humans. He pointed out that humans, having much more to learn than other species, are the most playful of all animals. Human children, unlike the young of other species, must learn different skills depending on the culture in which they are developing. Therefore, he argued, natural selection in humans favoured a strong drive for children to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play. He suggested that children in every culture, when allowed to play freely, play not only at the skills that are valuable to people everywhere (such as two-legged walking and running), but also at the skills that are specific to their culture (such as shooting bows and arrows or herding cattle).

My own research and ideas build on Groos’s pioneering work. One branch of that research has been to examine children’s lives in hunter-gatherer cultures. Prior to the development of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago or so, we were all hunter-gatherers. Some groups of people managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into recent times and have been studied by anthropologists. I have read all the writings I could find on hunter-gatherer childhoods, and a number of years ago I conducted a small survey of 10 anthropologists who, among them, had lived in seven different hunter-gatherer cultures on three different continents.

Hunter-gatherers have nothing akin to school. Adults believe that children learn by observing, exploring, and playing, and so they afford them unlimited time to do that. In response to my survey question, ‘How much time did children in the culture you observed have for play?’, the anthropologists unanimously said that the children were free to play nearly all of their waking hours, from the age of about four (when they were deemed responsible enough to go off, away from adults, with an age-mixed group of children) into their mid- or even late-teenage years (when they would begin, on their own initiatives, to take on some adult responsibilities). For example, Karen Endicott, who studied the Batek hunter-gatherers of Malaysia, reported: ‘Children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens.’

This is very much in line with Groos’s theory about play as practice. The boys played endlessly at tracking and hunting, and both boys and girls played at finding and digging up edible roots. They played at tree climbing, cooking, building huts, and building other artefacts crucial to their culture, such as dugout canoes. They played at arguing and debating, sometimes mimicking their elders or trying to see if they could reason things out better than the adults had the night before around the fire. They playfully danced the traditional dances of their culture and sang the traditional songs, but they also made up new ones. They made and played musical instruments similar to those that adults in their group made. Even little children played with dangerous things, such as knives and fire, and the adults let them do it, because ‘How else will they learn to use these things?’ They did all this, and more, not because any adult required or even encouraged them to, but because they wanted to. They did it because it was fun and because something deep inside them, the result of aeons of natural selection, urged them to play at culturally appropriate activities so they would become skilled and knowledgeable adults.

In another branch of my research I’ve studied how children learn at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, not far from my home in Massachusetts. It’s called a school, but is as different from what we normally think of as ‘school’ as you can imagine. The students — who range in age from four to about 19 — are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order.

To most people, this sounds crazy. How can they learn anything? Yet, the school has been in existence for 45 years now and has many hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world, not because their school taught them anything, but because it allowed them to learn whatever they wanted. And, in line with Groos’s theory, what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

Even more important than specific skills are the attitudes that they learn. They learn to take responsibility for themselves and their community, and they learn that life is fun, even (maybe especially) when it involves doing things that are difficult. I should add that this is not an expensive school; it operates on less than half as much, per student, as the local state schools and far less than most private schools.

The Sudbury Valley School and a hunter-gatherer band are very different from one another in many ways, but they are similar in providing what I see as the essential conditions for optimising children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. They share the social expectation (and reality) that education is children’s responsibility, not something that adults do to them, and they provide unlimited freedom for children to play, explore, and pursue their own interests. They also provide ample opportunities to play with the tools of the culture; access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults, who are helpers, not judges; and free age-mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is more conducive to learning than play among those who are all at the same level). Finally, in both settings, children are immersed in a stable, moral community, so they acquire the values of the community and a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves.

I don’t expect to convince most people, any time soon, that we should abolish schools as we know them today and replace them with centres for self-directed play and exploration. But I do think there is a chance of convincing most people that play outside of school is important. We have already taken too much of that away; we must not take away any more.

Daily Weekly

President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, along with other campaigners for more conventional schooling and more tests, want children to be better prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s world. But what preparation is needed? Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked? Schools were designed to teach people to do those things, and they are pretty good at it. Or do we need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam? I bet Obama and Duncan would agree that all children need these skills today more than in the past. But schools are terrible at teaching these skills.

For more than two decades now, education leaders in the US, the UK and Australia have been urging us to emulate Asian schools — especially those of Japan, China, and South Korea. Children there spend more time at their studies than US children, and they score higher on standardised international tests. What US Education Secretary Duncan apparently doesn’t realise, or acknowledge, is that educational leaders in those countries are now increasingly judging their educational system to be a failure. While their schools have been great at getting students to score well on tests, they have been terrible at producing graduates who are creative or have a real zest for learning. 

In an article entitled ‘The Test Chinese Schools Still Fail’ in The Wall Street Journal in December 2010, Jiang Xueqin, a prominent Chinese educator, wrote: ‘The failings of a rote-memorisation system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning…. One way we’ll know we’re succeeding in changing China’s schools is when those scores [on standardised tests] come down.’ Meanwhile, Yong Zhao, an American education professor who grew up in China and specialises in comparing the Chinese educational system with the system in the US, notes that a common term used in China to refer to graduates is gaofen dineng, meaning ‘high scores but low ability’. Because students spend nearly all their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative, take initiative, or develop physical and social skills: in short, they have little opportunity to play.

Unfortunately, as we move increasingly toward standardised curricula, and as we occupy ever more of our children’s time with schoolwork, our educational results indeed are becoming more like those of the Asian countries. One line of evidence comes from the results of a battery of measures of creativity — called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) — collected from normative samples of US schoolchildren in kindergarten through to 12th grade (age 17-18) over several decades. Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, has analysed those scores and reported that they began to decline in 1984 or shortly after, and have continued to decline ever since. As Kim puts it in her article ‘The Creativity Crisis’, published in 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal, the data indicate that ‘children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle’.

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play

According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called ‘creative elaboration’, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average elaboration score on the TTCT, for every grade from kindergarten onwards, fell by more than one standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85 per cent of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. If education ‘reformers’ get their way, it will decline further still as children are deprived even more of play. Other research, by the psychologist Mark Runco and colleagues at the Torrance Creativity Center at the University of Georgia, shows that scores on the TTCT are the best childhood predictors we have of future real-world achievements. They are better predictors than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most.

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood. Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play’. A great deal of research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun. As the psychologist Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, has shown in her book Creativity in Context (1996) and in many experiments, the attempt to increase creativity by rewarding people for it or by putting them into contests to see who is most creative has the opposite effect. It’s hard to be creative when you are worried about other people’s judgments. In school, children’s activities are constantly being judged. School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.

When Chanoff and I studied Sudbury Valley graduates for our paper ‘Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education?’, we asked about the activities they had played as students and about the careers they were pursuing since graduation. In many cases, there was a direct relationship between the two. Graduates were continuing to play the activities they had loved as students, with the same joy, passion, and creativity, but now they were making a living at it. There were professional musicians who had played intensively with music when they were students, and computer programmers who had spent most of their time as students playing with computers. One woman, who was the captain of a cruise ship, had spent much of her time as a student playing on the water, first with toy boats and then with real ones. A man who was a sought-after machinist and inventor had spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked.

None of these people would have discovered their passions in a standard school, where extensive, free play does not occur. In a standard school, everyone has to do the same things as everyone else. Even those who do develop an interest in something taught in school learn to tame it because, when the bell rings, they have to move on to something else. The curriculum and timetable constrain them from pursuing any interest in a creative and personally meaningful way. Years ago, children had time outside of school to pursue interests, but today they are so busy with schoolwork and other adult-directed activities that they rarely have time and opportunity to discover and immerse themselves deeply in activities they truly enjoy.

To have a happy marriage, or good friends, or helpful work partners, we need to know how to get along with other people: perhaps the most essential skill all children must learn for a satisfying life. In hunter-gatherer bands, at Sudbury Valley School, and everywhere that children have regular access to other children, most play is social play. Social play is the academy for learning social skills.

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learnt a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.

Watch any group of children in play and you will see lots of negotiation and compromise. Preschoolers playing a game of ‘house’ spend more time figuring out how to play than actually playing. Everything has to be negotiated — who gets to be the mommy and who has to be the baby, who gets to use which props, and how the drama will unfold. The skilled players use tag questions to turn their assertions into requests: ‘Let’s pretend that the necklace is mine. OK?’ If it’s not OK, a discussion ensues.

We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met

Or watch an age-mixed group of children playing a ‘pickup’ game of baseball. A pickup game is play, because it’s directed by the players themselves, not by outside authorities (coaches and umpires) as a Little League game would be. The players have to choose sides, negotiate rules to fit the conditions, decide what’s fair and foul. They have to co-operate not just with the players on their team, but also with those on the other team, and they have to be sensitive to the needs and abilities of all the players. Big Billy might be the best pitcher, but if others want a turn at pitching he’d better let them have it, so they don’t quit. And when he pitches to tiny Timmy, who is just learning the game, he’d better toss the ball gently, right toward Timmy’s bat, or even his own teammates will call him mean. When he pitches to walloping Wally, however, he’d better throw his best stuff, because Wally would feel insulted by anything less. In the pickup game, keeping the game going and fun for everyone is far more important than winning.

The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practise that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important. That’s also, I think, the best interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s line that all men are created equal. We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.

I don’t want to over-idealise children. Not all children learn these lessons easily; bullies exist. But social play is by far the most effective venue for learning such lessons, and I suspect that children’s strong drive for such play came about, in evolution, primarily for that purpose. Anthropologists report an almost complete lack of bullying or domineering behaviour in hunter-gatherer bands. In fact, another label regularly used for such band societies is egalitarian societies. The bands have no chiefs, no hierarchical structure of authority; they share everything and co-operate intensively in order to survive; and they make decisions that affect the whole band through long discussions aimed at consensus. A major reason why they are able to do all that, I think, lies in the extraordinary amount of social play that they enjoy in childhood. The skills and values practised in such play are precisely those that are essential to life in a hunter-gatherer band. Today you might survive without those skills and values, but, I think, not happily.

So, play teaches social skills without which life would be miserable. But it also teaches how to manage intense, negative emotions such as fear and anger. Researchers who study animal play argue that one of play’s major purposes is to help the young learn how to cope emotionally (as well as physically) with emergencies. Juvenile mammals of many species deliberately and repeatedly put themselves into moderately dangerous, moderately frightening situations in their play. Depending on the species, they might leap awkwardly into the air making it difficult to land, run along the edges of cliffs, swing from tree branch to tree branch high enough that a fall would hurt, or play-fight in such a way that they take turns getting into vulnerable positions from which they must then escape.

Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates

Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it. Such play must always be self-directed, never forced or even encouraged by an authority figure. It’s cruel to force children to experience fears they aren’t ready for, as gym teachers do when they require all children in a class to climb ropes to the rafters or swing from one stand to another. In those cases the results can be panic, embarrassment, and shame, which reduce rather than increase future tolerance for fear.

Children also experience anger in their play. Anger can arise from an accidental or deliberate push, or a tease, or from failure to get one’s way in a dispute. But children who want to continue playing know they have to control that anger, use it constructively in self-assertion, and not lash out. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates. There is evidence that the young of other species also learn to regulate their anger and aggressiveness through social play.

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.

Researchers have developed ways to raise young rats and monkeys in such a way that they experience other forms of social interaction but not play. The result is that the play-deprived animals are emotionally crippled when tested as young adults. When placed in a moderately frightening novel environment, they freeze in terror and fail to overcome that fear and explore the novel area, as a normal rat or monkey would do. When placed with an unfamiliar peer they might cower in fear or lash out with inappropriate and ineffective aggression, or both.

In recent decades we as a society have been conducting a play-deprivation experiment with our children. Today’s children are not absolutely deprived of play as the rats and monkeys are in the animal experiments, but they are much more deprived than children were 60 years ago and much, much more than children were in hunter-gatherer societies. The results, I think, are in. Play deprivation is bad for children. Among other things, it promotes anxiety, depression, suicide, narcissism, and loss of creativity. It’s time to end the experiment.

Read more essays on childhood & adolescence, education and sports & games


  • Tornike Khomeriki

    Thanks for a great article showcasing another diseased thinking of our current social system.

  • fonz

    Didn't Jung write about the importance of play for adults as well as for children?

  • aelena74

    Very good piece. I am no anthropologist or educator, but I've felt and reached or intuited the same conclusions on my own. Especially regarding the increase in mental disorders and the unhealthy system of cram schools and relentless dedication stemming from the Asian countries.

    Then maybe what government wants is individuals with an impaired critical thinking (or none at all) who are good at following orders and doing their jobs?

    • EP

      Lol - the idea that "the government" as a single entity can want anything is absurd. Think of it this way, there's a million special interest groups and fractions all pulling this way and that - education is a consequence of the democratic parties policies and talking points, not a conspiracy.

      • aelena74

        yes and no... it's a blind force if you will or a certain instinct that certainly pulls in definit directions as ultimately is driven by a elite that seeks to gain and/or maintain certain benefits

        "education is a consequence of democratic parties" but there could be a long debate on the health of democracy in different countries, the true spirit of parties. You mus thave misunderstood me if you think I suggest education to be a conspiracy, but bad weakening education can certainly be

      • CapnRusty

        EP: Given that you have about 3,000 years of recorded history at your fingertips, you have no excuse for being so naive. Read and you will discover that all governments, everywhere, and for all time have wanted power. We Americans were blessed to be given a government of limited powers, but of late, we are letting it slip away as it promises to give us all the material things we want, if we only give it more power.

        • EP

          Sorry, I had my "dealing with paranoid raving" hat on - I totally agree with your point. But when you're wearing the hat, you say stupid things, because the debate is incredibly stupid. The idea that US government wants to dumb-down citizens on purpose so that people won't question anyone is... well, again, to defend against, you have the put the hat on. I don't want to do that because it makes me sad.

          • CapnRusty

            It makes me sad, EP, that you have studied so little that you think the US government is immune from those forces which, throughout history, have corrupted governments and enslaved people. But it cheers me up that thus far, 7 people like what I said, but none for you.

          • Mama2Reckon

            Wow was that well said Capnrusty! Made me want to message you personally for a commiserating convo- lol!

        • Jeff Blanks

          Huh? Is this about the ACA again? I fail to see how that constitutes what you're talking about in any serious way. What we're trying to do is lay a RESPONSIBILITY on government, not a POWER. If you don't like it, well, We The People have a right to do something about it. It's called "the democratic republic".

  • theharrisonfordemotercompany

    Peter, hello. Thank you for the great article. I'm no expert, but I agree with your points about the importance of play and the issues you take with the education systems in both the US and Asia. I am currently teaching English in Thailand and I plan to continue doing it for the foreseeable future. Do you have any suggestions/ideas as to what a teacher can do at an individual classroom level, if anything, to create a more playful and creatively-minded environment; one that is less authoritarian and less based on rote memorization? I realize that schools are built on authoritarianism and rote memorization, but with that understanding, what can be done? Thanks again.

    • Peter Gray

      Thank you for this great question.

      It is very difficult to teach in modern classrooms, because of the great emphasis on standardized tests and the top-down restrictions on what teachers can and cannot do. In the United States, many of the best teachers are quitting because they can no longer teach in ways that truly take children's needs into account; many feel that they are doing more harm than good, despite their best intentions.

      My suggestion is that you do whatever you can, to the degree that you can, to allow the students in your class to exert their own influence on what happens in the classroom. In an English class, find out what they like to read, and then have them read that (even if that means that different people are reading different things) rather than what the curriculum says they should read. Allow them to discuss, in English, the issues that most interest them. Sometimes, even in college teaching, I find it helpful to take myself off the stage and let students chair the discussion. Then I just take part as a participant. I don't know if that would work for you or not. These are just suggestions. The main point, though, is to begin, to the degree possible, to think of the students as educating themselves, with you as helper. That means that, to the degree that the system allows, you would let the class be about their questions and concerns rather than about the prescribed curriculum. I bet they'll learn more English that way as well as enjoy it more.

      For much more on my views on education, see my book, Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013). I might also recommend this new website, which is about the future of education:

      Best wishes,

  • Beth

    I love this!

  • EP

    Wow - this is an incredibly well-done article. May I, first of all, congratulate Aeon from finally doing that thing that everyone else should have figured out a while ago - let the experts contribute articles on their field! No need for filtering through a science journalist or third party here, these people can write!

  • Maitre Capello

    A little detail it's "Le Grand Meaulnes" not "Le Grande Meaulnes"

  • Ronald in Amsterdam

    Really, yours is a great article. You're taking the words right from my mouth, as our Dutch saying goes. However, in our urbanised society, there's less outdoor room for play than half a century ago, physically and psychologically. Traffic is a constant threat and working parents prefer to have their kids under surveillance, rather than let them roam the streets on their own without adult oversight. So, they're institutionalised from the start.

  • Alex

    This is a great article, thank you for sharing!

  • Bob Totans

    I have your book "Free to Learn" on my IPad, on Kindle on my cell phone and on my home computer. I use it as a reference source almost daily. I find solace in knowing there is hope for our future generation of children to be able to experience the true wonders of play.

    At every opportunity I've tried to introduce to younger children, starting with my granddaughter, the old-time classic games. I believe, if you give a child a piece of chalk, some rope, a rubber ball and lots of room for imagination, a playground will be born. I find too many experts trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to child play.

    For the past five summers I've been, along with the aid of my five grown children, starting up games of freeze tag, kick the can, red rover, red-light, green-light, jump rope,etc. I've found the kids, ages from 4-12 years old, are extremely receptive to the games, especially when the older ones initiate and teach the little ones. Always, there can be heard the precious sounds of joyful laughter and often kids can be seen smiling from ear to ear. The parents on the other hand, look at their watches, cell phones, etc., and astonishingly enough, seem almost indifferent to what their children are experiencing.

    I realize the children leave, and things quickly return to "normal" for them. I wonder how and what it would take for the kids to continue playing the games on their own. I feel the answer should, "be as easy as child play", but know better.

    • Peter Gray

      Thank you, Bob. And thank you for doing your bit to keep those great games alive. The Boston school system has an interesting program of trying to teach elementary school children how to play outdoor games, because they come to school not knowing how. At recess they don't know what to do unless someone tells them. But sadly, the recess is only 15 minutes long! Hardly enough time to get a game started and then it's over. When I was a kid in elementary school we had a total of 2 hours of outdoor recess: 30 min. in the morning, a full hour at lunch, and 30 min. in the afternoon. -Peter

      • eileenruth

        I remember those wonderful days as well...30 minutes in the morning, a run home for lunch for an hour and another wonderful recess in the afternoon and school was over at 3..not like some day schools where children are still waiting to go home at 6:30...we all couldn't wait to get outside and play!!

  • Mike

    Hi, Peter—

    Really thought-provoking piece. My wife and I are about to have our first child together, so we are thinking about issues like the ones you raise.

    The first question that occurs to me is: in our over-regulated pedagogically-restrictive world, where do we find other like-minded parents who will allow their kids to "play" in the manner you describe? (It'll be hard if our little Izzy has to buck the system all by himself.)

    Also, given the very real dangers kids face in 2013 that were not so prevalent in 1963, how can parents allow the level of unsupervised "play" that you suggest w/o also feeling like they are being derelict in their duty and exposing their kids to situations that could harm them?

    Thx again,


    • edorrington

      Hi Mike,

      First off, congratulations! My wife and I have a two and a half year old, so we've also been thinking about these issues quite a bit.

      One suggestion as to your first question would be the web site "Playborhood" ( It's also a book. The author gives a bunch of ideas about how to find like-minded parents in your area, and suggestions for turning your neighborhood into a more play-friendly place.

      The other comment I wanted to make is with respect to your second question. It's hard to know what the real risks are, but there is definitely evidence to show that our kids are actually safer now than they have been for many many years, and that in any case, our fears are often over-stated. I would just suggest keeping an open mind about just how dangerous the world is.

      We live in Oakland, CA, which is pretty well acknowledged as one of the most violent cities in the U.S. And we live in a part that is, while not the worst, certainly not a secluded haven. And yet, our experience has been that our neighborhood is a pretty safe place, other than the fact that it's an urban environment, and so is full of traffic.

      Congratulations, again, and have a great time raising Izzy!

      • Mike

        Thx, Ed. Will def ck out Plyborhood—sounds like exactly the kind of thing we're looking for! Best, Mike.

      • VegasDude73

        "It's hard to know what the real risks are". In my personal opinion, it's actually not hard to know what real risks our children face these days. There are real world risks that say a 4 year old faces vs. a 4 year old in a hunter gatherer band.

        I wouldn't let my 4 year old go to the convenience store unsupervised in the "bad" part of town much less the "good" part of town. I don't think that is what the author is suggesting though.

        I'll still be supervising my children to make sure they are safe, but less interference to allow them to play and solve social situations is what I gleaned from this article.

      • Sara

        At the risk of sounding racist, try to find a neighborhood with a lot of Eastern immigrants and other lower class minorities. That's the type of neighborhood we live in and there are constantly kids outside playing with little supervision so my son almost always has playmates. It seems to me that we white yuppies are the ones most likely to over structure our children's lives.

  • Anon

    I am a student in the 7th grade and have to agree with this. I often spend most of my time doing homework, and when it's done it's already mid-evening. In earlier grades, I liked learning new things, but it got old, now I don't really remember things and just say who cares. I hope something is done to change this for the future generations.

    • ES

      Dear anon...I am amazed that you found this article. I am sorry you're caught up in the school's system of endless homework & rather brain-numbing activities, but have hope that you will make a goal of finding something you LOVE to play or do, that's for you and no one else.

      • Sam M

        I found this article from Hacker News. I'm a prodigy software engineer. Check out my website!

    • Becky

      Anon, Good for you for reading this article on your own! There ARE other options even now for you. What about homeschooling? There are many other kids & teens who homeschool. You can decide what & how you learn and there are many homeschool groups where you can get together for socializing as well as special interest groups. Even if both of your parents work, this still may be a possibility for you. Don't give up hope! =)

      • Sam M

        I'm investigating this possibility. Starting homeschool in high school might not be the best ideas though.

    • Einelorelei

      Hopefully you can lead your generation to make changes.

      • Sam M

        I'm trying.

    • Sensitive Whining Black Guy

      Youre destined to fail kid...youre 11 years old and you already view education as who cares... you better learn the phrase is that to stay or go.

      • Ethan

        Did you READ the article?

    • Gwyneth

      Be the change you wish to see. :) The education system sucks at the moment, but hopefully you won't give up on everything. Try to get through school, find something you really love, and focus on that. I hope your generation works with mine to fix this crazy world. But please, don't give up just yet... there are ways you can make revising fun, like making silly tests/quizzes for your friends or using Anki to test yourself on knowledge... They definitely give too much homework, though.

      • Sam M

        Agree with you on that. I've started a business over the past year as a software engineer.

    • Kaber Vasuki

      Try getting into one of the Summerhill type schools in your country.

      • Sam M

        Unfortunately that isn't an option.

    • Elizabeth_Reed

      Sam M, I see that you posted this comment a long time ago, but I really sympathize with you and so, in case you happen by this page again...just want to say a few things. I had a similar experience when I was in school (not all that long ago - I'm in the post-1984 group, though at the older end of it). I loved learning as a little kid, but the longer I was in school, the more tedious it became. By the time I was your age, I felt just the way you describe and had the same "who cares" perspective.

      At some point, though, I realized that it wasn't learning itself that had become tedious, it was the way I was taught. I know it's a long, hard slog through the 12 grades -- I'm 30 now, and I feel a heavy sort of sadness and pity whenever I, for example, see kids getting on a school bus -- but please do whatever you can, in the limited free time you have, to preserve your curiosity and enthusiasm for discovering. It would be wonderful if changes are made that help restore play in the childhood's of future generations, but please don't consider yourself a lost cause.

      You are obviously bright; it would be such a shame if your experience in school permanently confiscated your love of learning. We live in a very strange, sometimes terrible, but always fascinating world. It's like the master of intellectual play, the great Bill Watterson, said through his comic strip protagonist, "it's a magical world...let's go exploring." Hang in there, I hope you flourish.

      PS I think it's a good sign you have that "who cares" attitude -- as long as it doesn't take over too completely. After all, it means you realize that much of what you're taught is a bunch of nonsense :)

      • Sam M

        Thanks! I have very supportive parents and am doing very well, still loving learning on my own.

        • Elizabeth_Reed

          Very glad to hear that! Thanks for replying - it sounds like you have a very bright future ahead of you, best of luck!

    • Andy Lai

      To be honest with you Sam, I personally applauded that you share visions with people like myself because I found that there are other alternative education schools that are looking into alternative solutions to the problem. I found that I am also trying to make such change myself as I am from a charter school that gives tons of homework but almost carries no meaning behind it.

      • Sam M

        Thanks for your work!

    • Dorthy Buchholtz

      ì want to guíde you to$ amazíng online work opportunity.. 3-5 h of work a day.. payment at the end of each week.. performance dependíng bonuses...earnings of six to nine thousand dollars /month - merely few hours of your free time, a computer, most elementary familiarìty wìth www and trusted web-connection is what is needed...learn more by headìng to my page

  • Inverness

    Thank you for this article. I left teaching in the US because the emphasis on standardized teaching was making learning and teaching so very dull. I wish that there was more freedom for young people in middle and high school, instead of them being glued to their desks. I couldn't take the kids out for even a poetry lesson, and many resist these feelings of confinement.

  • cambia

    Great article, with a huge, wrenching whole in the center: parents like Dr Gray (BC or BU, Cabot Academy, guessing Needham or Wellesley residency). can afford to build lives where their children can play, have free time, wander, create. Particularly if the Dr. Gray's of the world have wives who give up their careers to make that happen - at enormous cost and risk to themselves. It doesn't look to me like Dr Gray is taking that risk himself or that he is likely to. The early half of the 20th century may have been glory days for children. For their mothers? Not so much. They are now living on SS checks and are among the most impoverished in the country. Dr. Gray seems to either gotten a little too creative - and ignored economic reality of most American families or has lived in such a cloistered world he is unaware that there are people who do not even live in neighborhoods where it is safe for children to go to a library, let alone wander and play.

    As a policy statement - yes. We test far too much, we've put art aside for 'mad math" and recess aside for more drills - under the last three Presidents and it is time for a change. After school? It is going to take a much bigger change than a Dept of Education policy to change that.

    • Sarge

      That hole may not be so big. I teach in a community that is very diverse in the true sense of the word. I have literally had children of drug addicts and ex-cons and the children of PhD's in the same classes. The range of socioeconomic levels is very great. One thing we are noticing these days, is that in terms of classroom and school behavior, the low socioeconomic students are starting to outshine the high socioeconomic ones. My theory has been that the "better off" students' lives out of school consist primarily of practices, lessons, and play dates, with very little time for self directed play.

      • Angelica

        thats an interesting idea. do you think that a contributing factor could also be that poorer people are trying harder to 'break free' of stigma and generational hardship and nowadays there is more opportunity to do so due to more equal access to education and not so much of a 'glass ceiling' as there used to be? coz back in the day, a poor black girl (for example) would have had no chance whatsoever, and now we have these amazing women out there who started out that way and they advanced to a level that would have been impossible 50 years ago. it could very well be a case of shifting levels on both ends rather than just the higher socio-economic one.

    • VegasDude73

      I see your point and what you are getting at, obviously there are inherent constraints based on your socio-economic status. I grew up in a low income family. I was homeschooled before it was popular because of my parents dislike for the school system in LA at the time.

      My mother was fortunate enough to be able to teach us via curriculum and my father worked hard to support us. Through this, I was able to learn and play quite frequently. I was required to learn in all subjects but allowed to spend time learning what I loved and enjoyed. I loved learning computers, and how things worked. I was allowed plenty more time to do that then forced to do the same amount of work in other subjects.

      I went to a 2 year college, (really didn't enjoy school), but I graduated with a high gpa and enough life experience to be well rounded socially.

      By the age of 21 I was making more than my father had made at the peak of his career working in computers. Now I make a healthy income to support myself and my family, and I'm still doing what I love.

      It can work, and it does work. However, it does require the right mindset and in this day and age the right supervision without interference. I however, still believe as a parent that kids need to understand that while they have free time and play time I am still the one in charge and there are still real world rules to be learned.

    • Laura

      The way to make this accessible to all, regardless of economic status, is by taking the vast sums (($650 billion!!) that are currently being used to fund an education system that doesn't serve the needs of kids, and use them in better ways that allow lots more freedom and opportunities for play. Here's a description of how this could work: (That web site also contains many links to places that are already making that happen. Quite a few have sliding tuition scales. But you're right -- for now, they are all private, because our tax dollars are still being used to exclusively fund the system that doesn't work. But this is a democracy, and we have a say in whether we use our taxes to prop up that system or replace it with a better one. Maybe someone could start a petition and/or an email-our-elected-representatives-and-their-officials campaign.)

    • TornadoNate

      This sentiment baffles me. It is similar to the oft-expressed criticism of people working to change the food system. "It's a nice idea for priviliged folks, but it isn't possible for everyone, so it is elitist codswallop". What? The author is arguing for more play for children, and gives a pretty good list of reasons why. Is he also responsible in this article for re-orienting the entire class structure of the United States as well?

  • Curious George

    I couldn't agree more with the author. As a kid in a frenetic and rat-race-inflicted Indian city, I consider it my fortune to have had a hunter-gatherer childhood. We, a closely knit group of friends, defined our own rules while playing cricket. We gathered cube-shaped stones to act as stumps. And summer vacations were when we camped in a nearby field, so to say, playing all day. I believe those experiences have contributed more to making me the person I am and am proud of having such a childhood.

  • GBrunetti

    I'm with you on having too much supervised activities for children. But you still need schools to solve the knowledge problem. If you want to continue to enjoy the perks of our global economy, you must educate people that can operate this economy. No hunter-gatherer will ever discover Pythagoras' theorem, let alone computers or quantum physics. You need to stand on the shoulders of the people who have discovered this knowledge over thousands of years and this means accumulating an awful lot of strucutred knowledge before you can ever hope to get creative in one of those fields. Now, not every child needs to get a quantum physicist, but unless you want us to return to a hunter-gatherer culture (after losing a few billion of earths current population because you cannot feed them), you somehow have to get enough knowledge into them to keep our economy going. And since children are the fastest learners, you somehow have to get this done during childhood. I don't see any realistic proposal here to solve this dilemma.

    • Peter Gray

      Hi GBrunetti,
      No hunter-gatherer will discover Pythagoras's theorem because their culture has no need for it. Nobody knows too much about Pythagoras's education, but he certainly didn't experience anything like what we today call school--it would have driven his interest in mathematics out of him. He apparently traveled a lot, especially in Egypt, and learned much of his mathematics by talking to Egyptians who were playing with these ideas. Einstein, by the way, hated school and always said that his accomplishments in mathematics and theoretical physics (which he referred to as "combinatorial play") occurred despite his schooling, not because of it. In my recent book I give the example of a person who is today a college professor of mathematics, who attended a democratic school where he could play and explore all day as he wished. He developed his interest and much of his skill in math in this way, before deciding to pursue it formally at the university. Children everywhere play at the kinds of skills that are valued by their culture, when they are free to do so and have access to people who have those skills. Best, Peter

      • Ha Jin Wallace

        While I am sympathetic to their claims, Peter, I think its problematic to distill everything that people do into the relatively crude and simplistic categories of "structured" and "unstructured" time. Pythagoras and Einstein - examples you have mentioned of people who benefited from unstructured play - achieved what they did because they were highly intelligent individuals who viewed the world differently and in ways that other people before them had not. Simply saying that the benefited from unstructured play and arguing that our children could be more like them if only they (the children) just had more unstructured time to play around is, quite frankly, dubious armchair-psychology. It is a sad fact of our highly mediated world today (where children are the target of product advertisement as soon as they can speak) that most children today, left to their own devices and held responsible for their own development would fall into the perpetual trap of instantaneous gratification perpetuated by our consumption-oriented society.

        Some balance between structured and unstructured time must be had but it is not all idyllic and nostalgic as you point out in your childhood.

        • Richard Dalton

          I doubt that anyone would deny that Pythagoras and Einstein were most likely more creative in their thinking than many of those who came before them, just as you suggest. However, the fact that these men may have been innately intelligent shouldn't be taken to mean that the role of play is only significant in their particular cases BECAUSE of their uncommonly high intelligence, as if to suggest that less intelligent children would not benefit from play as Pythagoras or Einstein had benefited, and that therefore, we should be cautious about extending a program of unstructured learning opportunities to others. It seems to me that, regardless of intelligence level, the role of play would have to be significant, even for all the non-Einsteins of the world, since play operates as a form of social exercise, at least according to what Peter seems to be saying.

          I also don't share your cynicism about unstructured learners being disproportionately at risk of falling prey to unscrupulous advertisers. Peter has gone to considerable lengths to show how play teaches children to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. If anything, such a lesson would assist with the task of discovering when one is being manipulated by special interests later in life. Structured learning would be less likely to give people the social awareness they need to avoid becoming a victim of scams.

        • Peter Gray

          Ha Jin. Thank you for your comment here. I will let others deal with the substance of it, but I do want to interject one point. I never use the term "structured" or "unstructured" in my discussions of play and learning. All play is structured. The dichotomy is not between structured and unstructured, but one of who is doing the structuring. In play, children structure their own activities. In school, their activities are structured for them by others.--Best, Peter

        • EP

          Only point worth addressing: "that most children today, left to their own devices and held responsible for their own development would fall into the perpetual trap of instantaneous gratification perpetuated by our consumption-oriented society."

          True, but that's up to the parents. If you give your 7 year-old an ipad you are a horrible parent. If you push them out the door, that's a good parent. It's honestly pretty simple.

          • Mama2reckon

            EP : This article is long but well written. I got so much great info out of it and I thank you.
            However your comments baffle me. You are calling people "stupid"

          • Mama2Reckon

            and then saying " people are horrible parents for giving a 7 year old an ipad" my daughter is exactly 7 and uses an ipad and she learns a lot by using it correctly as I guide her to great learning websites. I am an educator with a Masters degree and I certainly would not call myself a " horrible parent". Your judgements are sweeping and without sound reason I am sorry to say. Who's to say my 20 month old who loves to navigate her toddler apps using motor skills that many adults don't even have is not going to be a computer programmer someday. Seriously EP, your article was well written and justifiable. Your opinions, however, are not.

          • Mama2Reckon

            My apologies, mistook EP for Peter Gray- great article PG.
            Intelligently and thoughtfully written, thank you for sharing this pressing problem that is quietly taking American schools by storm with the new Common Core Curriculum. Everyone must share this article and shout it from the rooftops!

          • CS

            I just want to point out that EP is not the author of this article. Peter Gray is the author and his comments are as well written as his article.

      • Nate Whilk

        'Einstein, by the way, hated school and always said that his
        accomplishments in mathematics and theoretical physics (which he
        referred to as "combinatorial play") occurred despite his schooling, not
        because of it.'

        You might say that relativity was "child's play" to him. That's because learned enough math and physics, and his genius took him the rest of the way. You won't like doing something if you're not good at it. And the only way to become good is to practice and learn.

        There's a story that he once said "Relativity is easy. Income taxes are hard." His wife replied, "You say that because you are Einstein."

    • majgr

      What if some kid wants to learn how to write games? probably it is easy
      using some tutorials to write code that rotates a thing. If kid is
      curious enough and wants to show more complex things, he/she start
      studying geometry and encounters Pythagoras' theorem. This is top-bottom

      I saw countless of examples where school education is
      useless because we can't see connection between mathematics being taught
      in the void vs real world. Can you estimate volume of your smartphone?,
      what tools schools give to do that?

    • EP

      "Educating people that can operate this economy" - honestly, that's things like coding (notorious for kids learning on their own outside of classrooms) and tech skills (again, kids predominately learn that on their own) and the always important people and managerial skills (learn through play).

      Also... yeah, so many things wrong here. The author is not advocating that there should be no school, or the absurd straw-man of "returning to a hunger-gatherer society", but rather that play and free time are integral to development and we are starving children for it and they are worse off not just socially, but intellectually.

  • David Flanigan

    What a powerful article! It brought back memories of when I was a kid and made me realize how fortunate I was to have opportunities to play that were self-directed and not forced. I have 2 young kids now so this article really hit home for me. While I make sure that my kids are able to play on their own, I sometimes get nervous when the go beyond my sight. I wish that was not the case, but we live in a different world. Nonetheless, they need free play, they need to discover, tinker and question. These are skills and experiences that are essential as they grow into adults.
    Thank you for shining the light on the importance of play! Our kids need it.

    • ErikasPowerMinute

      I wonder what you mean by "we live in a different world." If you mean that it's somehow more dangerous, that's actually not true, as extensively chronicled by the Free Range Kids crowd. If you mean by "different world" that we are surrounded by peers who believe the authorities should be called and a child is being neglected if they do not have an adult standing at arm's length directing them at all times--then yes, unfortunately we do. And we can, as I do, say the heck with those people, I don't care what they think--but sometimes there are real legal consequences to face thanks to the recently absurdly redefined definition of "adequate supervision."

  • Sean

    Great article. It's confirming of a lot of home truths and anecdotal evidence I've come across and talked about with friends. Nice to hear the sentiment is shared and backed by an academic with some scientific rigour!

  • carlopecchia

    Very good piece, thanks for sharing it!
    As a youg parent I find it really valuable...

  • Julia

    I'm impressed with this article! Thank you for writing it. Can you please send it to Arne Duncan who in my opinion is living in the dark ages regarding what is best for US children?
    On another note, we raised our children media free with lots of outdoor time and no adult supervised games until middle school (ie baseball and basketball). It was very lonely unless we had play dates. We lived in a low-income neighborhood precisely so that I, the mother, could stay home and make this happen. (I would've had to work full-time for us to live in a better neighborhood.) Our neighbors thought we were crazy. All that to say you can know about this and try to make it happen but as they grow it's practically impossible to find places where the child can play freely without an adult accusing you of neglect. This happened to me when I allowed my children to play alone outside of my house. We lived on a dead-end with no cars driving by and I had allowed them to play in the front yard. Suddenly I heard a knock on the door and a Child Protection services of our city was at the door. He said: "I'm not here because of your children, I'm here because of your neighbor, but if I ever come back again and see them playing outdoors again without you standing next to them, I'm turning you in".
    Good luck to parents of the young! If you try to give them freedom be aware!

    • Laura

      Wow. First of all, I'm glad you had the fortitude to do right by your kids. But it is crazy that a neighbor would call Child Protective Services about something like this, and it is also crazy that CPS would have the power to prevent you from letting your kids play in your own yard unsupervised!! The perceptions of risk are totally skewed. There's the harm that results (with pretty much 100% probability) from loss of freedom vs. the harm that might result (with a miniscule probability) if playing unsupervised. If we're going to be more alarmed by the second scenario, then maybe we shouldn't let anyone touch spinach or cantaloupe again (people have died from eating them!) or cross the street even when the walk sign is on (drivers have run red lights before!).

      Your story also highlights the consequences of running our society on rules rather than principles, and of turning over community responsibilities to outside officials (most of them are well-meaning, I'm sure, but they have to rely on rules rather than principles, because they need efficiency and uniformity to be able to carry out their jobs).

      The good news is that more people are waking up about this issue and building a new reality. Once we started talking to people about what we really wanted for our kids, we found a bunch of families in our neighborhood that felt the same way and just didn't want to be the only ones not cooping up their kids in schools. So we all got together, and now our kids play together every day.

      • Tedd

        "Your story also highlights the consequences of running our society on
        rules rather than principles, and of turning over community
        responsibilities to outside officials..."

        Well said. I once returned to my car to find an angry note on the windshield threatening to report me to "the authorities" because I had left my dog in the car for 15 minutes. This was when the weather was a cloudy -5 degrees C, with two windows slightly rolled down. In other words, a more comfortable environment for a husky would be difficult to imagine. The dog was surely more comfortable there than in my house, other than the slight anxiety a well-socialized dog normally feels when it doesn't get to go along with everyone else.

        The kind of thinking that lead that person to put a threatening note on my car is not sane, but it is unfortunately quite common.

        • Laura

          I should note that I got the "principles over rules" notion from another great book (also called "Free to Learn") by Pam Laricchia. It describes several paradigm shifts that her family went through when they decided to "unschool" their kids, and that was one of them. She was talking about using principles over rules when dealing with kids in general (ie. not "don't ever eat outside the kitchen," but rather "we don't want to leave messes in the house.") The book made me look at a lot of things about parent-child relationships differently, and some of them apply to broader contexts too.

          • Tedd

            I really like your food/mess example. "Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools."

      • libertysuzyq

        "Once we started talking to people about what we really wanted for our
        kids, we found a bunch of families in our neighborhood that felt the
        same way and just didn't want to be the only ones not cooping up their
        kids in schools. So we all got together, and now our kids play together
        every day." This is wonderful and gives me hope. I live in a neighborhood with lots of kids, but I just don't see them out and about. I so want my kids to be able to meet up randomly with their neighbors, ride bikes together, etc. I may have to start knocking on doors and taking some initiative.

        • gabbyherm

          Check out the book Playborhood. It gives good tips on how to set this up! Good luck!

  • Laura

    As one of the many, many families that have abandoned the school system in large part because we want to give our children more freedom, I totally agree with this article. Our daughter has never received any formal lessons; we just let her play (most of the time it's with her friends, outside), and we answer her questions and explain things in which she shows an interest. In this way, she's been learning plenty (she is even one or two years ahead of her schooled peers in "academic" skills), and she is having a blast.

    We had always assumed that our children would attend schools, but based on a lot of reading and talking to people and touring many types of schools, we've come to the firm conclusion that children's most fundamental needs can't really be met by schools as we know them today. (The reasons are described in detail in this other article by Dr. Gray: The flip side, though, is that there are very practical and much more cost-effective ways to apply a better educational paradigm (one that emphasizes play) on a mass scale:

  • nick012000

    Such is the result of the feminisation of the school system. Restricting play hurts both genders, but it hurts boys worse, so of course the feminists are all for it!

    • Byard Pidgeon deserve some sort of prize for compounding misogyny, anti-feminism and ignorance in only two short sentences!

      • CarbonaNotGlue

        I would give that prize to you.

  • Raymundo

    Ostracizing and committing physical violence against kids from minority groups or those suspected of being gay was much more prevalent in the 1950s America that that the author wistfully reminisces about. I'm sure the children subjected to that abuse back then didn't feel that their peers showed much empathy, nor would they agree with the author's contention that there has been a "decline in empathy" over time.

    Unstructured, unsupervised time may yield the benefits the author writes about for some, but it is also exactly that time where the most vicious bullying occurs. Our child's elementary school recently began supervised, organized sports during lunchtime in order to reduce the bullying that was happening when all the kids were just hanging out with little supervision. The environment has become a lot less toxic, and a lot of children are enjoying school a lot more because of this.

    I'm not saying that the author doesn't raise some good points, but it is important to remember not to whitewash our memories of the past and to remember from whose perspective we are remembering the good ole days. Things were great in the 1950s if you were white, male, athletic, and popular (and they're not so bad today for those kinds of kids either). But some other kids had a much tougher time.

    • Peter Gray

      Hi Raymundo,

      Thank you for raising this valid and very important point. As a society we have made great advances in civil, human rights--for African Americans, for women, and, most recently, for gays. In many ways we are a better world than we were in the 1950s. But we are not a better world for children. The rates of childhood anxiety, depression, suicides, and feelings of helplessness are far higher today than in the past, by unchanged measures, and that appears to be true across race, economic class, and gender.

      We need now to focus on the rights of children--their rights to play, explore, and learn in the ways that nature intended. Because of the larger changes in society, children (as well as adults) are far more tolerant of racial and sexual orientation differences than they were in the past, and that is a very good thing. But yet, the data show, there is more narcissism and less empathy, on an individual basis. I don't think these two observations are contradictory.

      It's interesting that you note so much bullying at recess today. I would attribute that at least partly to the play deficit. I have observed this in the Boston Schools. Children don't know how to play, how to resolve their own conflicts in play, because they haven't had practice in it.

      I attended many different schools as a child and teenager, in the 1950s and early 60s, and our recesses were always unsupervised. Bullying did indeed exist to some degree--the school environment, where children are age-segregated and are treated in an authoritarian rather than democratic way--is precisely the kind of environment that induces bullying. I have discussed bullying more extensively here: , here: , and here: .

      Best wishes,

      • Inquisitive

        Hi, Peter, I enjoyed your article and I liked your points about the need for more exploratory/experiential education vs. the test-centric education style of many public schools today.

        While reading, I also wondered if you have considered including the effects of television watching (and the hours children choose to spend or are allowed to spend on digital pursuits vs. true free play) on children and how they relate to free play and mental states.

        Also, I think we need to ask how increasing divorce rates have affected children's well-being. And, though this is highly unpopular to even broach, I think we need to at least ask if having two working parents has had any effect on children's sense of well-being. It is true that having a longer school day and longer school year would help parents' schedules. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but I think that should be examined because this is another way that the U.S. has changed from the 1950s.

        Thanks again for a thought-provoking article.

      • Curious

        Hi Peter,

        I appreciate this article. There was also an article on NPR recently about this--more about roaming, and how freely kids used to be able to leave their home milieu. It is another matter, but that does teach kids that they are capable individuals & responsible.

        I grew up in the 1970s in rural milieus with free play time and I am not, overall, nostalgic about it, in part because there was little supervision and I did get beat up & molested, etc. (It really did happen!) My parents grew up with freedom in the 1940s in NYC & its outer boroughs but they grew up in a world, first and foremost, with fewer cars. Also, there were so many more adults who did not work of all generations who could watch what was going on & felt free to jump in if someone was being truly hurt. Last, of course the males got terribly beat up & hurt & sometimes did die from free play--we can't forget that! People back then literally had more children & did not always expect them to survive, but if you remember the Polio epidemics, there were certainly times when kids were prevented from free play.

        Also, some of the comments here that growing up gay was not an issue are laughable. Of course it was an issue. Racism was an issue too.

        Last, I think it is specious, at least in part, to correlate a rise in mental illness with a lack of play. Sorry. The rise of diagnosing individuals is complex & hard to explain for any one reason, and may have a lot to do with our lockstep notions of conformity, but have more to do with our pharmaceutical approach to non-conformity & thus mental illness, and the brutal disparity of income that cause so much stress related to any disorder/lack of regularity (for children of the 1%, huge pressure to conform to parental expectations. For everyone else, pressure too but fewer resources to cope). In addition, we now have a diagnostic attitude toward children, in part because we are far more likely to integrate kids into the play/school milieu than we used to. The 1950s that you idealize still saw kids institutionalized, especially if they came from poverty, purely for low IQ. (That happens today too, but through the judicial system, unfortunately, and usually starting around middle/high school & in certain states.)

        In other words, I do think this is a great article, and I do believe that play belongs in the schools, but as a child of the 70s raised in some of those alternative schools you reference (Sudbury type schools which were a good alternative to the rigid schools of the then-mainstream), I can only say that clinging to any one explanation/solution for the complex problems our kids face today is limiting at best. Yes, kids (and adults!!) definitely need more play, more freedom, more chances to be themselves & other people (through pretend play). They need more chances to ask questions to which no one else has prepared an answer. They need the opportunity to be leaders as well as followers, and they need a chance to get off the criticism/blame treadmill. All those things are true, but we won't get there unless we acknowledge the complicated class/economic barriers that prevent us from this approach, and recognize too that it is important to learn "facts" and how to do certain things; to have experts who pass their knowledge on to kids, and to have a shared base of knowledge that all kids have equal access to. Thanks.

    • terry_freeman

      Bullying certainly hasn't gone away. We still hear of kids being killed for being different. It is right not to romanticize the past, but don't be romanticizing the present either. The best slogan which last year's anti-bullying campaign could come up with was "It gets better" -- that is, hang in, things won't be so bad when you graduate from school, we hope.

      We should rethink the idea that schools as we know them are the best way to teach socialization - in this or any age.

      • MS

        We "still hear of kids being killed for being different"? It seems to happen pretty regularly, today, but it is rarely found in treatises on the 50s. (I wasn't born yet, so I can't speak from experience, but all I've read suggests that more common school problems were chewing gum, instead of today's violence.) I'm sure it is far more complicated than just play, but it's worth pointing out that whatever the results of unsupervised play in the 50s, and whatever racial or other bullying may have occurred, it was very rare for it to lead to severe beatings or death.

        • Jeff Blanks

          TBH, I think there wasn't so much opportunity to be "different" in the first place before the '60s.

          • Angelica

            i agree. there were fewer 'differences' to cause conflict since there was a pretty standard template for living no matter where you were in the ladder, to which i am sure you were referring. however, i also think that 'different' was a much narrower specification then than it is now because people only think things are 'different' if they have not or have rarely encountered something, be it looks, dress, behaviour, socio-economic background, culture, habits, etcetera. if children socialised extensively (as they did), then it is not unfeasable to imagine that they would have encountered many examples of these children who were 'different', and having less structured, adult-directed interaction with these children would have allowed them to negotiate the sort of relationships they would have struggled to construct had the parents been there to impose bias and personal beliefs, or to intervene with the progression of forming friendships (which naturally includes some give and take before you know what offends and irritates your playmate and vice versa). so everyone had seen prettymuch all the common 'differences' and werent fazed by them because they'd worked out their issues long ago. which isnt really the case anymore since parents are so anxious they hover and pull their children out of any situation which may possibly be distressing or confrontational, regardless of the severity. i have seen women take their children home from the park because they didnt want to interact with the 'lunatic' mum who just showed up. talk about intervention. i mean, these poor kids might have just been denied the opportunity to make a new best friend for life (at the very least they've lost the opportunity to meet someone new and expand their social skills), because their mum doesnt like how this woman dresses 'like a hippy slob' or 'lets her kids run around screaming like animals' at a park. i dont know, sometimes i think we've all gone mad.

    • Oldflyer

      Raymundo, I don't know what your '50s experience was, if you are writing from first hand knowledge, that is. I grew up during that time. Part of my youth was definitely spent on the wrong side of the tracks; then, after my father re-established after WWII, we were fortunate enough to live in a middle class environment.

      I know there were problems. They are well documented. I challenge the idea that lack of supervision of youngsters was part of the problem. To be specific to your example, homosexual kids did not advertise the fact; in fact sexual activity was not an everyday concept for the average high school kid. Not to say that most boys didn't have their fantasies; but, if they did not involve girls it simply wasn't discussed, and thus was not an issue.

      Generic bullying happened. I was on the receiving end of a bit, and sad to say was on the fringe of the other side a little bit. But, it tended to be self regulating. My one in-school fight was defending a friend who was the butt of a bully. Actually, kids who were susceptible usually learned to avoid the obvious situations, or they got tougher.

      Now, in your improved world, bullying is no less prevalent; maybe more so. The difference is that it is carried out by Administrators armed with "zero tolerance" policies, and backed by the power of the state.

      I submit that this trend is much more destructive. The media abounds with stories of (mostly) boys who are singled out for rather draconian punishments because of trifling deviations from the accepted norm. More seriously, I need not cite the examples of Europe in the 1930s to illustrate where this mind set of overbearing officialdom can lead.

      Liberty and Independence are a wonderful concepts. Some folks thought that they would lead directly to responsible behavior. I agree.

    • Tedd

      I think it's more likely that the targets of ostracizing and violence have merely changed. That's a welcome change for those who might have been the targets in an earlier time, but it's only progress when viewed from that perspective. There is still a lot of intolerance around.

      There has also been a general trend toward less violence for centuries (see Steven Pinker's work). That is progress, but it's probably not related to the subject of this article.

    • CarbonaNotGlue

      There was definitely NOT more violence between races in the 1950s than there is today. The complaint about the 1950s is not that the races mistreated each other on a regular basis, but that the force of law tended to back a cultural segregation. In other words, they did not have as much opportunity as today to mistreat one another. (And when they did, it did not involve weapons or deadly force as it does today in mixed black/Hispanic neighborhoods).

    • heathermama

      i find this interesting. i grew up in the 70's and early 80's. we had lots of recess and lots of play time after school and during the summer. i think it helped that i grew up in a diverse neighborhood and we had gay neighbors. no one ever bullied or teased or hated on those who were not white or where gay. i think a lot of that sort of thinking starts at home. if the parents are racist or homophobic or both, that is what the kids know. and they act it out... IE what the author was saying. acting out their culture.
      if you want kids not to hate... YOU as the parent must teach them. model that behavior. be the sort of person you want your kids to be. kids bully because they are bullied (at home, by teachers, by the government) we can't be all shocked because kids act a certain way when our society acts that way as well.

    • Vinnie Yeh

      Raymundo, I was a child from a minority group who grew up in the 70's and endured physical and verbal bullying daily. Today I'm an educator who finds that with all of today's excessive attention to protect children from bullying, they are actually worse off. Why? Because before our society was completely feminized as it is today, there was a sense that children could stand up for themselves. When Timmy kicked me in school and I told my father, he said so? Kick him back. Within a couple of years kids left me alone because they knew. I'm not promoting a cycle of violence, but pointing out that self-reliance is LOST when you try to over protect, over structure and over domesticate. These children we're raising today will still be running home crying to mommy when they run into problems in their 20's and 30's. If you want a society of oversensitive and reliant, oversized babies, keep ignoring the points the author and I made.

  • Brian

    The fundamental need for play and the corresponding benefits in the developmental process of humans is critical. I have long questioned the benefit of the early high learning curve. There is no question that we can induce young brains to develop a variety of skills more rapidly than those skills would mature naturally. However we have no evidence that this is helpful or healthful for the development of the whole person. In fact much of the research cited in this article speaks to the contrary. There are some educational forms which still prize play, Waldorf Education is primary among them. I was fortunate to encounter this approach to education when my children were small and have had to opportunity to see how both "free" play and "semi-structured play" contribute to timely development of human beings.

  • Kevin

    An excellent piece, thank you! Just a quick thought I had. Our friend Carl Sagan characterizes true science as the fusion of theory (our ability to wonder, imagine, and create new ideas) with observation (our ability to systematically record and compare results against these ideas). A major failure in our science education is an inability to capture student imagination by showcasing the true wonder of reality as revealed by science. It's baffling, really, because there is literally no end to the questions that can be asked - and often answered - about the world around us. Certainly, play and exploration should be a huge part of this.

  • Gwen Gordon

    Bravo, Peter! Thank you so much for writing such a clear, compelling, and much needed case for free play in childhood! I'm very interested in lifelong play, which, as you note, only really thrives when there is free play in childhood, which in turn, depends on the infant's experience of not only secure attachment but a whole community of playmates. I am currently working on a film that shines the light on play's vital importance throughout life . I look forward to speaking with you about it. You can contact me through the film's website...and I just emailed you through your Psychology Today email. I look forward to connecting!

  • Derick Winkworth

    I would argue that this actually also applies to adults to some degree. Adults need to engage in fun for the sake of fun too. Can't wait to have this book in my hands though... great article!

  • Dr. Michelle

    Hey Peter. Love you article. I used to work in the field of recreation and leisure. I taught a college leisure education class at several universities and one of the aspects of this subject was to talk about play. Students in my class thought the concept was archaic.

    Now I am a performance psychologist ( and I marry forms of play with performance. Without play (balance) burnout happens. The performers I work with become unidimensional. They lose their ability to be inspired and get creative. And on and on. I hope to be speaking at the US Play Coalition on this topic. It is an important one to me.

    My 15-30 year old clients are the manifestation of the children that you are talking's children. We are only at the start of this and I think its going to get much worse not only because school days will get longer but because of technology. At some point there is not going to be a person who will know how to have fun, play, socialize, deal with fear & anxiety or lack of confidence...there will be no balance, creativity or inspiration; at least as we have known it to be.

    It's sad!

    Thanks for your research and your candor!

    Dr. Michelle

  • Ben Goodrum

    Such a great article! I'm beginning to speak in schools about finding purpose through finding passion, because since I've left school/university and have been directing my own learning/playing I've found that the things I'm inspired by are the gifts that I need to give to the world. I can't wait to be able to refer to your article in talks/workshops. If you or anyone here is interested in what I do, please check out my website!

  • terry_freeman

    Oh my. Seldom has a single article resonated so much, covered so much of what I intuit about my surroundings.

    I am 57; in my youth, pick-up games were the norm. They weren't always perfect, but the author is correct - players learned and practiced social skills without having to be instructed by superior adults. We learned to take care of each other, to allow for different skills and attributes.

  • terry_freeman

    If you ask anyone who is really good at something - whether it be math or music or sports or computer programming - you'll often find somebody who liked it well enough to spend lots of time in self-directed play.

    I sometimes, while waiting in lines for fire drills and other times, created math problems and played with them and discovered patterns. This led to knowing many things about arithmetic and math which were not explicitly taught. The same with computers; I taught myself to program, using only reference manuals; I set myself problems and found ways to solve them, at a time when personal computers and the internet were literally a pipe dream -- hardly anybody could even imagine them.

    Self-directed play is a powerful way to learn. It can be precisely focused on one's current weaknesses, and designed or selected to improve those areas of concern. It turns one's interests into strengths.

    • Tedd

      As an engineer, I'm aware that some of my technical knowledge I likely would not have learned outside of a formal education. But I also know that most of my understanding of engineering is the result of a personal interest in the subject, and of "playing" with engineering, whether at work or at home.

      For example, I love testing equipment because, for me, it's like a game, not like work at all. On the good days, my job is like being in an episode of Myth Busters. And a considerable portion of my engineering knowledge and understanding comes from hobbies and other non-work activities to which I apply engineering principles.

      • Laura

        "As an engineer, I'm aware that some of my technical knowledge I likely would not have learned outside of a formal education."

        This kind of education doesn't come in only one flavor anymore. In other words, it doesn't have to be K-12 schooling in a schoolhouse. It can come from videos (Khan Academy, etc.), from one-off classes (many places are springing up to offer voluntary, individual classes, either online or in physical locations). You can also learn such things from books and tutors and mentors and apprenticeships.

  • Baba

    What a wonderful write-up.

  • mmoser

    My daughter was at a Democratic school in Israel last year, and things did not work out for us quite well for us.

    One problem I see that they don't like to discipline any wrongdoings, the proper way for that is for the collective to decide at the 'commission for discipline''; my daughter was in constant terror of being referred to the 'discipline commission'; kids who where more violent generally ignored this threat, as a result there are few means of handling/discipline real offenders. In a way the result that stronger and more rowdy kids are favored and so they tend to impose their will on others.

    Another problem is that somehow humans always build hierarchies, so there is no such thing as a egalitarian society, even in grade A. So unconstrained 'Bullying
    Betty' again tends to get her will against all others; now if her parent is a teacher in the institution than that will somehow get 'bullying Betty' another head start; In our place I could discern several hierarchies, somehow at the center there always were the kids whose parents worked at the institution.

    Also kids tend to compare themselves to others, even if there are no grades they will create their own distinctions;

    Now another major problem is that still kids will have to get some input from grown
    ups; the requirement to learn how to read and write will put you in front of a teacher; the teacher in our case would have to handle a loud class where every pupil would be on a different level ( they can walk out of classes ), I think the teacher in our case was not up to the task; now of course the results were blamed on our daughter; interestingly once she got out of the institution my daughter started to learn well.

    So for me, as for other similar cases at our school the bright idea did not work out; We put our daughter into a general school, and she was thankful for the change,
    she does not look back;

    I would say that the ideal of democratic schools is similar to the ideal of Communism: the ideal sounds great, but the implementation always turns the idea
    into shit.

  • Ruturaj

    I really liked the article. Thanks a lot !

    I'm 33 I'm seeing the new kids grow, like u've put - a timid nature.. uninterested into the 'exploratory' kind of what I've / we had been as children.

    It seems education's practices beliefs are coming off a full circle.. From hunters, to ordered societies, schools.. and somewhat getting back again ? Interesting... how its gonna evolve in the coming century

  • Mike Bassett

    As an educator and father, I've long advocated this. But here in Japan, parents don't want to hear this because since WW 2 they haven't been allowed play time and don't know anything about it. Having grown up in the 50's in the US I know exactly what he is speaking about and sense that I have a distinct leg up over others who missed the play time that I had. Hoping more of us can keep this kind of preaching going - it's something that should not only be heard, but instigated by parents, educators and kids alike. Mike B.

  • SchoolOfFish

    Peter, thanks for the very eloquent article. This has been my position as i've grown in years and experience. I have paid heavily for this, ranging from the obligatory 'impractical' dismissive stances to ending of long-term romantic relationships because my could-be partner could not deal with how strongly i could back up my convictions (and of course how that could be generalized about my stupidity, irrationality and immaturity)

    A few related and unrelated musings ...

    1> I found the Sudbury example heartening. I couldn't seem to find alternatives to existing schooling systems other than home-schooling and that presented the problem of lack of peer company
    2> The other related positions e.g. deschooling (Ivan Illich) seems to veer off in other territories where it's possible to get lost. Do you find it relevant? What is it that we could learn from deschooling and deschoolers?
    3> I find that the things around me, the world we inhabit is changing in exponential ways. I won't go so far to call it a 'singularity' but as i move between countries (my work requires me to sometime), juggling with multiple SIM cards, documents, gadgets, cultures, processes, i get scared that our toolboxes (cognitive) are not keeping up. It would seem that schools should be places where we learn how to learn, think how to think. But certainly it isn't so.
    4> We hope and assume that we go to schools to learn. And play is a way to learn. I must wistfully note that i'm beginning to question the wisdom behind that assumption. Schools-as-they-are seem more to be assembly lines to churn out tomorrow's 'productive', 'efficient' workers. And that dogma is entrenches in every layer of population, society. Can that even be reflected upon, let alone questioned or changed?

  • Laura

    I just re-read part of this article, and I wanted to object to one thing. The scope of the changes Dr. Gray advocates is too limited. Why focus only on promoting play outside of school, when there are so many self-directed learning centers springing up across the United States (and across the world) that make free play and exploration the basis of children's core learning?

    • Peter Gray

      Thank you, Laura, you make a good point. I drafted this article several weeks ago, and even in the space of time since then I have sensed an accelerated interest in real educational transformation. The new website includes a preliminary, partial list of democratic schools and resource centers for self-directed learning, but we keep learning about new ones. More and more families are finding educational pathways for their children outside of traditional schools, pathways that allow children's natural ways of learning--their curiosity and playfulness--to blossom. -Peter

    • growleymom

      because the schools function with in the fear of being sued. The "some one could get hurt" restriction at my son's school kept the kids from playing baseball at recess, and there were no imaginary lightsaber fights allowed, ever, with the threats of suspension... I think there should be less homework in elementary school, and more free play at home.

  • Alison

    Nicely done. I have two small kids and am starting to think a lot about their education. Our oldest (almost 3) is in a local Montessori School. I think the teaching philosophy of Maria Montessori is in line with what you are saying. The children are free to do what ever they like in school (within the confines of rules of conduct, keeping the peace, and not damaging the materials), they are in mixed age classes, the materials enable them to help themselves (child size knives, glasses, chairs, aprons, cooking equipment... etc.), and consequently Montessori educated children to exhibit more empathy, initiative... they are just better at doing things and communicating with others. Do you have any thoughts on this, Peter Gray?

    • Laura

      I'm not Dr. Gray, but the Montessori comparisons are addressed on the web site he recently launched (see In brief, it says that Montessori and Waldorf and their ilk do offer children considerably more freedom and play opportunities, but they are still ultimately top-down by design and stop short of allowing children to really be the drivers and control their own educations (as a "democratic school" does).

  • Marsugoikawaii

    Great article on the idea of lost play. However I was disappointed to find that the article didn't address one of the great "free play" killers. Technology. Technology can be linked to suicide rates, anxiety, depression, lack of empathy, lack of imagination and all negative stats that we are seeing relating to children--and I don't think that the idea of education or "lost play" can be addressed without it. I do agree, however, that schools may find that they need to step-up to address this "loss of play because its not being done in the home. A majority of parents would rather plug their child into to media to keep them entertained and are just downright naïve to fact that cell phones, video games, tablets, etc, are depriving their children from social learning, creative thinking, and overall self exploration.

    • RoseMary

      Very sadly, most parents around us work ten hour days and the kids must come home and remain in the apartment because of real safety issues. There are no adults to go to for help. The children tend to lack creativity and believe that someone must teach them everything because they are incapable of learning on their own. I am their high school teacher and they do not know how to use scissors, are computer illiterate other than social media, are functionally illiterate because nobody was home to help them with homework, and live lives indoors. Questions such as, "Has anyone ever been to a lake?" are met with blank stares while we are surrounded by lakes that are on bus stops. That is the reality for many children today.

  • Sun

    I agree and I think most of us Finnish teachers do.

  • One Funny Motha

    Very interesting article. I've written about these things myself, not as an psychologist but as a parent. I agree children need more unsupervised, free play & have argued it myself, unfortunately I don't see our society willing to do so any time soon even for the benefit of the children. I also don't see school as the primary culprit. I do think kids don't have enough unstructured play time, but I don't think it's due to the amount of schooling (although I do see your point on self-directed learning and believe the educational system as it exists stifles creativity and passion independent thought). To me the problem comes from the quantity of free time the kids have that the parents now feel obligated to fill because they are hovering over their children, won't let them out of their sight and so now are left with the chore of entertaining them. I'm certain that is when you see the rise in organized after school activities and organized sports, which then turns into the pressurized NFL or National Baseball League by the 3rd grade. My kids (and many others) have tons of free time. They just don't use it to play. I think you have to take modern culture and technology into account. Most kids these days often choose TV or video games over actual play with kids. Even if other kids are around they are all inside playing video games or on their iphones. I've tried to curb these things myself but when other kids come over to play, this is what they want to do. So, yes, I agree it is a tremendous problem facing our society, but I don't see it as solely a school issue or think 6 hours of school a day is the main problem.

  • Karen Fogle

    I read Neil Postman's book Teaching as a Subversive Activity many years ago. He argued that schools should provide what homes and culture did not provide. We rarely see children playing outside so we (at Chrysalis) think schools need to provide opportunities to just play outside . We have 2 hours of outside play time every day at our K-7 building. (It only takes an hour or two to do academic work, so there is no compromise there). The yard is fenced and we adults keep our distance so they can play without a lot of interference. Our high school students love to go to the elementary building to "play" too. Our biggest problem is convincing parents how important this activity is, so thanks for your article and research.

  • 500_lb_Gorrila

    In a socialist and litigious "nanny-state" even the adults aren't allowed to grow up, let alone the children.

  • Oldflyer

    I grew up in the 1940-1950s, and I have realized for some time how fortunate I was. Of course our elders dealt with World War II, and it affected us as well (Dad was gone for 2+ years), and we were very cognizant of the Cold War and the Nuclear cloud; but, oh, the freedom. I wish I could say that we fully appreciated it at the time; but, I can say that I did not see many "Rebel(s) without a Cause" except on the movie screen.

    Now, it wasn't all play. Our parents also came into adulthood, and started their families, during the depression, so they greatly valued a job of any sort, and firmly believed that the work ethic was one of the more important attributes. At least in my home it was assumed that by early teens, a summer job, and perhaps a weekend or afternoon one was a natural state. Allowance was made to participate in organized sports. The reins were held remarkably lightly; at home and at school.

    Of course, in the environment in which I grew, the kids wanted to please their parents for the most part. There was a lot of peer discipline, as well. Reasonably good behavior was simply expected if you wanted to be part of the crowd.

  • jennifer

    Wonderful article! My husband and I homeschooled our four children. Many refer to our methods as unschooling, as we followed the leads or interest each child had. We had the children take the standardized tests and really taught them how to learn. We traveled, we hiked, we went to the library twice a week and came home with many books, and we raised four amazing people. All four have worked part time jobs before they were 16. Now my sons ages 20, 21, and 24 are employed as an ER tech taking classes as he can afford to become a nurse, a fireman(four years as he began at 17 as a volunteer then was hired on the local city department at age 20), and a deputy sheriff(after serving 4 years first in US Army). My daughter-almost age 18, has an associates degree and wishes to continue her education in the legal field, and she is employed locally in an entry level job. I see the times we live in and wonder if the key was something so simple and you seem to affirm what we did while raising the kids. Our homeschool group was filled with over 200 children and young siblings and the bi-weekly activities were as the days you mention. The kids interact with all ages and I am always impressed with how enjoyable it is to be around a group of homeschooled teens.


  • Sarah Masterson

    This is a good article, and I am concerned with the increasing prominence of long hours in sports practices and homework in children's lives. The homework is ridiculous because the children can learn so much more with good curriculum (like the ABeka we homeschooled with) without the effort and vastly more understanding. The sports have always seemed to take the kids away from their families, where they would learn practical skills like gardening, baking, plumbing, people skills. But I do think the increased anxiety and depression is tied to lack of the experience of family love (parents always gone and break down of family) and very much to diet. Malnutrition is rampant, fueled by junk food and nutrient deprived soils. Add to the malnutrition the stress of long hours of homework and sports burning up whatever few nutrients the kids did receive, and it is no wonder that the kids chemistry is overwhelmed. Premarital sex (and teen break up) is also a contributing factor to the teen suicide rates.

  • Nate Whilk

    "Anthropologists report an almost complete lack of bullying or domineering behaviour in hunter-gatherer bands. In fact, another label regularly used for such band societies is egalitarian societies."

    Margaret Mead believed Samoa was wonderful, too.

  • David Griffiths ADE

    Many schools can and do allow free play - we should fight to keep this and against the downwards pressure from high stakes tests and rote learning in Year 11.

  • David Griffiths ADE

    I should clarify that it is mainly primary schools and especially in Early Years. Why do we then lose that? Probably high stake tests in Year 11!

  • Chuck

    Thank you for writing and posting this. I grew up in semi-rural Texas and Oklahoma and your description of the hunter gatherer mixed age play groups is exactly how I grew up.
    I have grown up and become an engineer and a software developer. Like you, I credit my play time as being largely responsible for my intellectual development.
    Please stay an advocate for open unstructured play in childhood! I work with people who never had it and it is almost like working with blind people. What I mean is I see solutions to problems that my colleagues cannot see and I am positive that their lack of creative play has handicapped them.

  • WithheldName

    There are some brilliant insights in this sprawling, half-baked, sophomoric opus of an article. But it missed some key points:

    - All that happens inside a schoolhouse is not "memorization". Some of what happens in schools is analysis, discussion, hands-on laboratory projects, collaboration with peers, fine arts, other extracurriculars, and even self-governance. It also includes social ranking, social stereotyping, social pressures, flirting, subverting authority, drugs and alcohol, bullying, etc. But those are all part of adult life, too.

    - Much of the "memorization" in school is worthwhile and necessary practice for the same type of memorization needed as adults in our jobs. Whether you're an engine repairman or a corporate financier, you need to memorize thousands of business/operational/mechanical rules and facts.

    - If we closed all the schoolhouses tomorrow, we might have a generation chock full of brilliant rock stars and self-made inventors, but we'd have a very poor pool of potential accountants and lawyers. Our society needs both.

    - There are still a lot of "unstructured play" venues for kids today; summer camps, church groups, scout troupes, and after-school clubs all provide much more than typical school classrooms.

    - The romanticization of "playing all day from dawn until dusk" of our youth is somewhat exaggerated. There were plenty of structured activities back then, too. And there was a lot of "alone time". And there was plenty of media: whether it was television, old-time radio, or even obsession with books.

    - Young people's obsession with social media today is more unstructured play, albeit virtual. And it's excellent preparation for tomorrow's career world where work relationships in global markets are defined through digital communications.

    Do kids today need more play? Probably. Do they need less time in school? Not necessarily. We just need to improve our schools. Luckily, homeschooling is poised to disrupt our educational system in a revolutionary way. Our bad schools will quickly adapt, or they will become irrelevant. It's about time.

    • curmudgeoninchief

      Withheld - I think you missed the point of the article. "summer camps, church groups, scout troupes, and after-school clubs" are not unstructured play, in anybody's definition except yours. "improving the schools", code words for spending more public money on child warehouses, is not the answer. Getting teachers and school administrators to back off and give kids room and recess, convincing parents that helicopter parenting is harmful to kids, that might work.

  • curmudgeoninchief

    Those of us who majored in Recess in elementary school (K-6 for me) have to agree with you. School sucked, partly because I was so smart I got every thing immediately, and hanging with my friends was much more important. We built forts, took stuff apart, explored everywhere, dug and climbed, and learned our limits.

    School systems that have eliminated or minimized recess have two items at the top of their agendas: controlling the behavior of boys and keeping all children under close supervision during the daylight hours. Play still happens, but it is restricted to interacting with electronic media and evading authority. Not the best preparation for maturity for boys.

  • Cameron

    Surprised the article doesn't mention 'nature deficit disorder' -- the fact that children, along with adults, don't spend enough time in natural spaces, as proposed by Richard Louv in his book "Last Child in the Woods." Not just is play important, but a commune with wilderness -- where the air is cleaner, and restrictions don't linger...

  • Roie

    Couldn't agree more.
    I love learning, I remember that as a child I loved building and dismantling things... somehow, school succeeded in smothering that love for more than 10 years after graduation. I managed to return that feeling by degrees only 5 years ago at the age of 33. Now days, at any given time I'm in the middle of 2-3 books and studying for a degree.

  • Wendy

    This was a fantastic article. Thank you! I'm a parent of three. My kids are aged: 20, 18 and 11. I also run a family daycare, so I'm very involved with early childhood.
    I think by far the biggest obstacle faced with children's current lack of free play time is fear. Parents are extremely fearful, thinking our world today is so much more violent than the past. It's simply untrue. I also don't think that this article means you should let young children play outside alone, or go to a store alone as another commenter mentioned (at the age of four). However, school aged children should be allowed to play outside with children in the neighborhood without parents hovering and they simply are not. It starts with fear. I live in the greater Boston area in a very safe community. When my oldest started middle school she walked (we don't have school buses), a twenty minute walk. Other parents were shocked. Someone may grab her off the street! My answer was 'when was the last time a child was grabbled off the street in this town by a stranger?' It has not happened, but parents are extremely fearful thinking 'todays world' is dangerous. Because of this children have been forced to stay by their parent (or other adult's) side at all times. This has led to either all sports/organized activities, the child left in the home to watch TV, or use technology. School aged children simply do not go out to play anymore. I was always adamant that my children only do one 'activity' (sport, art dance etc) at a time. It was very difficult for them to find other children to play with. Almost all had to be play dates planned with the parents. Most children spend all their time with homework and organized activities. Play dates tend to be in the home. Even with the idea of the children directing their own play, lets face adult was always close by to interfere at any issue. My older children have friends with stress related issues (even hospitalizations) I have NEVER seen when I was a child/teenager.
    I was a school aged child in the 70's. I did dance class and played softball (only in season, it was not offered year round like sports are today). I played with the children in my neighborhood. We were mixed ages. We had arguments, got angry with each other, figured out how to work though issues all by ourselves. Parents never had to get involved. That is unheard of today.
    As far as school goes; my youngest is a very high energy boy. He's currently in sixth grade. He has no recess (has not for years), and has much, much more homework than I did at his age. When I was in sixth grade we had a long lunch with recess and two other recesses. At recess we were allowed to run and play and adults were only involved if someone physically got hurt. Is it no wonder my son struggles with his energy level? I could not sit at a desk as long as he is forced to!
    As far as early childhood; I mentioned I run a family childcare. I have a small group of mixed ages. I firmly believe children need free play and always have. It's so important and that is how they LEARN. However, more and more and more 'academics' are trickling down, even to infants. We are now not allowed to have swings, or any climbing equipment for the children to play on. Any item where a child's feet leaves the ground requires such a wide and deep fall zone, I would have a couple of toys in my entire yard, so have to get rid of those climbing toys and slides. Instead we are told we have to do directed exercises with them. So young children (under K) are not even allowed to run and climb- play anymore. Their free play time is limited with the amount of organized curriculum they are taught. Although I have always implemented a play based curriculum (learning through FUN is my motto and always has been) now the government is very involved with curriculum and it has become less and less play based. I have parents pulling their children from my program as young as aged three and most by four to put them in center based care. They will learn all the need to know at my program to easily enter kindergarden. But parents believe they need to be in a larger 'school' environment even at that tender age. They cannot learn unless they are in a large building and classroom with many other children all their age. Why can't they have their childhood?
    I honestly hope this changes. I have been fearful for a while that these children will be raised fearful of the world, and unable to cope as adults. There will be no creativity or imagination as it will get stamped out at younger and younger ages. And it continues to get worse and worse.

  • Onyxys

    As a child, from the age of 8 or 9 onward, I used to wander for hours on my own in wooded areas near my house or neighbourhood. There weren't many, but usually, if I wandered long and far enough, I could find a wooded area, often with a little stream nearby well within the city. My imagination soared. I don't know what the kids of today are doing, but I don't envy them. I think that I would have succumbed to suicidal thoughts at an earlier age if I had been forced to do all of these ridiculous after-school activities on top of the already excessive homework that I was expected to do. People should stop enrolling their kids in absurdly expensive sports like hockey and football and just 'release' their kids into the wilds of urbanity. They may discover just who they are, and more.

    • libertysuzyq

      'release' their kids into the wilds of urbanity....Love it!

  • ADH

    I absolutely agree with the message of this article. I grew up in the '50s too and see my grandsons deprived of this freedom to play. However, when I talked to my daughter, their mother, about this, she pointed out that the traffic on the roads near her house is too dangerous to let the children explore on their own out there. The children are aged 2 and 6 and live in London, England. Although they live near a big park, it is taboo to let them explore it on their own, although in my opinion they could have a wonderful time if they did so. Too "dangerous." In fact it's considered so dangerous that my grandsons' parents could be put on a blacklist by the local authorities for not being present while they play. Where they live, there's a communal lawn and a car park (parking lot) for residents immediately outside. If they play ball games outside with the other neighbours' children, their parents have to suffer endless complaints from the childless neighbours about the noise and damage to their cars, so for the sake of peace and harmony the children are mostly kept indoors, where they too often stare at computer or TV screens. What is the solution to these problems?

  • Samantha Appleseed

    The trouble is free market capitalism is functioning very well, so despite lower crime rates we have the militarisation of the everyday, a sinister everyman for himself underground; amoral thugs, pedophiles and child traffickers. For children the world is now a scary and dangerous place. Combine this with a corporate media that sustains itself on fear mongering and it's difficult to let your child play freely.

    • CarbonaNotGlue


  • Samantha Appleseed

    Why stop at children, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" is a proverb. It means that without time off from work, a person becomes both bored and boring.

  • Kes

    Great article! I was homeschooled growing up, along with my eight siblings (ikr?) and it was ridiculous how everyone's first question was always "but what about socialization?". Other kids my age were being locked in a building with a set number of kids their own age, who they had no choice in selecting, learning a regulated series of things, for hours and hours every day...and taking tests every week. I did my schoolwork around the table with my siblings, a range of kids from kindergarten to college-age. We got it done in a couple of hours a day, elder helping the younger, and then we had time to do what we wanted! My younger brother loved making models and playing with building blocks, and now he's going to school to be an architect. I read, voraciously, every subject and every genre I could get my hands on, and now I'm a writer.

    And it's not like we only had our siblings as 'socialization' either (although they're amazing and I love them to death): we had soccer, or church group, or playdates at the neighborhood playground. We couldn't ever afford to go out to eat, and we perfected the 'staycation', and we wore second-hand clothes; but all I remember is a blissfully happy childhood, short on stress and long on exploring the world around me.

    • happyherbalist

      I came here to say something very similar. As an individual raised in a (much smaller) homeschooling family people are amazed that I'm not standoffish, or oblivious to the rules of social comportment. My siblings were my best friends as a child, but I lived at a camp and met hundreds of people from around the country and around the world each and every year. When I eventually went to school I found the overly structured type of 'socialization' that was encouraged a whole lot less satisfying on a number of levels.

      Finishing homework by noon and having the rest of the day to do as I wished was invaluable in the process of making me who I am. Every child deserves the chance to explore their own interests and not simply have the interests of their parents and other authority figures imposed upon them.

  • Pete

    In 2001, michael jackson gave a compelling speech about this... that children need to have childhood filled with love, play and acceptance. He speaks as one of the world's greatest authorities on the subject of children being robbed of their childhood... children no longer knowing what it means to be a child. "Constantly pressured to grow up faster". He proposes the restoration of the parent-child bond and the need for children to be carefree and not have to work hard at achieving, performing, or striving for acceptance. it is a classic speech ... and he himself is the object lesson.... having begun an entertainment career at 5 years old. He believes that when children are allowed to experience the joy, innocence, wonder and awe ... are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. It's only about 30 min and worth every minute.

  • Hanni

    I really appreciate this article. It reinforces the reason that I homeschool my daughter. We participate in an online charter school, so there are attendance and academic requirements that we have to fulfill, but I am totally fine with writing down that she spent an hour on her math lesson (the time the school says it should take) when in fact it only took her five or ten minutes. There is NO way that I'm going to make her do an hour of busy work when she quickly learns whatever concept is being taught that day. I'd rather have her use her time outside digging up anteaters and putting them in jars on our kitchen table, or building and re-building her train set, or digging and building roads in the dirt and playing with her construction vehicles. We're lucky that we live out in the country in a very safe environment - at times I think about leaving our place to live in/closer to town, but we have so much space here. Space to do whatever we want - garden, play ball in the yard, have a campfire, raise chickens, have a yard full of dogs. My husband is a hunter, so she's learning all about hunting and trapping and the outdoors, and as she gets older, she'll also learn about anatomy from these practices. There is SO much to learn from living out here, in the country - I think it's far more important than what she'll learn in school, for just the reasons mentioned in your article.

    And just as an aside, my daughter is almost seven and read her first Nancy Drew book on her own more than six months ago. She learned to read quickly when she was ready, with minimal help. I gave her the basic tools and when she really became interested in reading, she put it all together. It's amazing what we can/will learn when we're interested and ready!

  • giselahausmann

    This is an excellent article!!! You started it perfectly by stating "...and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it..." <= that's problemsolving skills. One of today's major problems is that even the best student is faced with an ever changing world, thus burn-out rates are so high. It seems to me that children's activities in the olden days taught them much better how to "re-focus". Thank you for sharing this excellent input

  • Leslie

    I would love to let my kids roam around the neighborhood. I did a lot of that as a child and it made me independent and self sufficient. Two main things prevent me from allowing my kids from having that kind of freedom; 1} The idea that I don't thing anything bad will happen, but god forbid it did I'd never forgive myself and 2} peer pressure so to speak. I've had other parents call me and tell my 4th grader shouldn't be walking home alone. As a culture we need to go back to the good old days in this regard.

  • LivingEqualsLearning

    I love Peter Gray and I'm so glad to see his work featured around the web! I highlighted this piece in my weekly news round up of young people and education. You can see it here:

    You can also check out the interview I did with Peter earlier this summer:

  • libertysuzyq

    Thanks for this article, and I just bought "Free to Learn." I was just bemoaning the lack of free play as I was helping my five-year-old learn to ride her bike a few nights ago. I know there are kids in our neighborhood, but I didn't see any--not at the park across the street, not outside playing. I did see a kiddie team practicing, of course, supervised by adults. I realized that by my daughter's age, I was walking to school by myself (with my brother, actually, who was in 3rd or 4th grade), riding my bike alone, staying outside until the street lights came on, randomly going next door to see if my neighbor buddy could come outside and play. On Saturdays and in the summer, I would be gone, outside playing all day long practically. That doesn't happen now, and it's sad. I think I'm going to get proactive and talk to some of my neighbors, see if can get some of our kids out until the streetlights come on.

  • Mark S

    This is a very interesting article. The comedian George Carlin had similar advice in one of his patented rants in one of his routines. His advice was essentially the same as Mr. Gray's, which he summed up as, "If you want to help your children, leave them the alone." ;)

  • Josh Whitkin

    I found this article convincing, but I'd like to hear Dr. Grey's reaction to these points: 1) Why is boredom good? Is there such a thing as too much boredom? Chabon made the same point in "Manhood for Amateurs" and I don't get either argument. 2) I see the main point of school as social learning. Where can unschooled kids find so many other kids their age to socialize with all day? 3) Can you discuss research on outcomes? e.g. longitudinal unschooling efficacy studies? 4) Are not video games today's backlot playground, where kids engage in social, self-directed play? (Google Osterweil,; Jim Gee; Kurt Squire) More generally, how does tech-mediated social play fit your argument? Again, great article -thanks for advocating the crucial importance of play.

  • Mama

    The good old days of so-called "unstructured" play relied a hell of a lot on stay-at-home moms, who supervised with one eye on the kettle. Betcha they weren't as free as we'd like to imagine. I mean, my dad watered the lawn an awful lot when the neighborhood kids ran amuck. Sadly, those days are mostly gone.

    • libertysuzyq

      True, but there are things we can do even in our modern day of two income families--get kids outside on weekends, avoid so much over-scheduling with after school activities, make a concerted effort to get to know our neighbors, turn off the TV/computer/iPad and unplug, etc.

  • Roxane

    I feel so instinctively in agreement with this that I ache for how wrong our society is right now. But the question I have, as the mother of a 2.5 yr old and a 6 month old: What are we to do? In a modern metropolis, in a homework-heavy school system, what is a parent to do?

    • Luba V.

      Here's one option: Find like-minded families and start your own play-based alternative to school. That's what we did, and it's working out very well. We've done field trips to the zoo and museums, and we've done insect hunts, music appreciation, cartography, etc. All of the activities are adult-led but pretty loosely structured, and participation is voluntary. There's lots of time left over for free play in a large, wooded urban park. The program is described here:

  • JayMan

    My own research and ideas build on Groos’s pioneering work. One branch of that research has been to examine children’s lives in hunter-gatherer cultures. Prior to the development of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago or so, we were all hunter-gatherers. Some groups of people managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into recent times and have been studied by anthropologists. I have read all the writings I could find on hunter-gatherer childhoods, and a number of years ago I conducted a small survey of 10 anthropologists who, among them, had lived in seven different hunter-gatherer cultures on three different continents.

    One book: The 10, 000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution - Gregory Cochran, Henry Harpending

    The gist of which is neatly summarized in this post by Cochran here:

    House O’Rats | West Hunter

  • SourceOfParentalAlienation

    Narcissists grew up to become parental alienators, who bring up children with little empathy and much narcissism. These mental disorders are inherited from one generation to the next. Narcissists are like black holes. They suck everybody around them.

  • Luba V.

    I agree with almost everything in this article.

    In schools, testing mania is one of the culprits -- it has shifted the focus to whatever can be measured, at great cost to students and society. It has sidelined play, undermined learning the skills that are most valuable for the future, and held teachers accountable for students' learning, which does the children another disservice. (My recent essay, which delves deeper into these topics, can be found at

    Outside of schools, the main issues seem to be misperceptions about what best serves children's needs, as well as an erosion of social capital, as the author and various commenters have pointed out. It takes effort, but social capital can be created. Judging from how things have progressed in our urban neighborhood, it requires one or two people to provide the "spark" and bring people together. That said, we didn't know all our neighbors when I was growing up, but we played outdoors unsupervised anyway. I guess parents trusted their children to take care of themselves more, by giving them more responsibilities from earlier ages. It can be either a vicious or virtuous cycle.

  • HP

    This is exactly what I needed to read. I have been so worried about my extremely verbal, creative, boisterous, unconventional, disorganized, immature child. He is so different from his peers, and I have failed to appreciate that his differences may lead to something wonderful. I have been trying to give him "structure" and "discipline," so he is now involved in too many organized sports and activities and spends too much time on homework. Maybe I just need to lighten up, and let him play.

  • Brenna Gutell

    While I don't disagree completely with some of your points and believe that play is very important I'm not sure I agree that it's the cause behind some of the things you have mentioned. A factor most definitely, but not the cause or the only cause. There are so many things that can be a factor from parenting styles, changes in society, cutbacks to education, reductions in physical education, art, music & extra circulars, vaccines, environment, food additives & preservatives, GMOs, chemicals, pollution & toxins in our food & environment

  • Brooks Elms

    Awesome article! Very much the same spirit of the indie film SCHOOLED which features a school inspired by The Sudbury Valley model...

  • MS

    One thing I don't see mentioned in the comments is the role that fear plays in parents and teachers. Parents fear bad guys (perhaps with good reason), getting hit by a car, getting lost, falling behind in school, bullies, getting in with a wrong crowd, not getting into a "good" college, etc. Teachers or school administrators fear lawsuits, injuries, low test scores, and violent outbursts. In the process, the needs of our children may be short-changed.

    As a homeschooler, when my oldest got to high school, I read all I could on the subject of teaching teens. At one point, I was highly stressed out about what all these teens were doing, what their applications would look like compared to my daughter's, and such. (I even read one author who said, "If your child doesn't have a resume by the age of 13, he is behind!") I finally decided, "I do not WANT my teen's life to look like this. It's training for being a work-a-holic, not for a real life, and I don't think it's healthy." So I deliberately chose against the rat race. My teens have thanked me profusely. It did not hurt their grades and college scholarships any, but did give them the opportunity to learn what they loved, and they have a zest for life that refreshes even their middle-aged mama.

    Thank you for this well-written and insightful article.

  • Sensitive Whining Black Guy

    Crap article

  • cdillman

    love play. Who doesn't? However, there are so many things wrong with
    the logic of this essay that one doesn't even know where to begin. The
    most basic is the causal link between the (alleged) rise in mental
    disorders since the 50's and less play in children's
    lives. As everyone knows just because two things are associated this
    does not mean that one caused the other. Literally millions of things
    have changed about children's lives since the 50's and one could devise a
    story to link at least hundreds of these things to rising rates of
    depression and anxiety: more mothers working, more technology of all
    kinds, more hours watching t.v., income inequality, increased diversity
    (read a very convincing book arguing this), more children seeing mental
    health specialist and so learning that they are "ill", etc.. Next, like
    the attachment parenting people before him this author sets up a society
    that couldn't be more unlike our own as a model. Where is his evidence
    that hunter-gatherers are more "creative"? If it is true that hunter
    gatherer children replicate the egalitarian, non-competitive structures
    of their elders when they play (and anyone who has studied the history
    of anthropology should be very skeptical of these "observations"), then
    is it any wonder that when our children play they replicate our
    culture's hierarchical, highly-competitive structures with
    Koch-brother-bullies running the show? And Sudbury MA! It doesn't matter
    how you teach these kids in the top 20% - tiger-mom, wolf-boy whatever
    they will remain in the top 20% (PEW did a study with the best evidence
    for this). Obama is trying to design an education system that will serve
    the poor and lower middle class who live in a modern, post-industrial
    society with challenges the Yanomami never dreamed of.

  • George Watson

    Why can't children just be left to play until they are 8 years old.

    Then attend school 4 hours a day - from 10 - 2 then let them play again.

    I learned so little in Grade School and yet it took up so much of my childhood.

    I do remember pick-up games before the Little League Game would begin

    as we all had to wait for the Adults to get off work - and those games were

    far more fun than any Little League Game and everyone was allowed to

    an at-bat until they got a hit - no strikeouts.

    I feel very sorry for kids who have their whole day and evening mapped out.

  • Lisa Howard

    I am a landscape architect who specializes in children's outdoor spaces and am particularly interested in free play (i.e. no adult directed play) and beneficial risk. Last week I presented on this very topic at Nature School Conference in Toronto. I was showing the beginning of some research I have done that looks at changes in the U.S. during the 20th C. for population, family composition, policies for schools (for recess and learning that creep into play), codes and guidelines, and children's health. My research is in the early stages and doesn't prove cause and effect but starts to lay the groundwork for possible areas to delve into more to determine the reasons why children have lost the right to roam, direct their own play or have quality play environments.

    I co-presented with Bernard Spiegal of PLAYLINK and Sharon Danks from Bay Tree Design. We are all members of the International School Grounds Alliance Steering Committee. Our group is made up of educators, landscape architects and non-profits who are interested in changing school grounds and school workings to allow for more free play, beneficial risk, outdoor and hands-on learning and more room, as you say, to let the children blossom.

    You mention PISA in your article but I don't recall Finland being mentioned. They score very high and the schools give their students over 75 minutes of recess time per school day and have a similar ethos to your description of Sudbury Valley School.

    I will purchase your book. What is the best place to buy it so you get a better sum than Amazon would pay you for your hard work? If you are interested I would like to continue this conversation.

    Lisa Howard, Principal, Bay Tree Design
    Berkeley, California

  • Jennifer Armstrong

    Yeah, for sure. Contemporary people are competitive and back-stabbing morons, in a lot of ways. They don't know how to set boundaries for proper behavior. They're a bit nutty.

  • leeroy

    Great article - thanks so much Peter Gray and Aeon

  • Mishell Baker

    This article is a classic example of mistaking correlation for causation. I can think of a hundred more plausible reasons that today's children are lacking in empathy, and it has more to do with lack of adult supervision than the reverse. This article seems not only flawed but dangerous, as it encourages the increasingly "can't be bothered" attitude that modern parents seem to have, where they try to maximize their time away from their children and then wonder why they turn out so badly.

    Empathy is not something that is learned naturally; it is learned by example and by discussion with those who already possess it. Turning children loose to play with other empathy-challenged children in an unsupervised free-for-all sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

    I'd rather spend time and effort actively demonstrating compassion and discussing other people's feelings with my children than turn them loose in the streets of central Los Angeles (where I live) and hope that they learn lessons about empathy as opposed to lessons about survival of the fittest in an urban wilderness. I don't even want to tell you what I saw a guy doing in the last park I walked through. I'm glad my child was in a stroller facing the other way at the time, and if she'd been older I would hope I'd be there to put it in perspective.

    The world is a scary, baffling place, even for adults, and it's our job to guide our children in their understanding of it, not to turn them loose to school each other.

    • Janet Warnock MacFarlane

      My kids always play outside because I know my neighbors. I actually know and talk to my neighbors, so I am aware of who lives on my street and they are aware of me and my kids. It is all about community, really. If you don't have one, your kids probably won't play outside. I grew up in an urban community and played outside. The difference between then and now is that then, people walked and knew who their neighbor's were. That has changed..unless you are fortunate, like me. If you know that your kid and a couple of the neighbor kids were heading to the playground and you knew that x, y and z lived near there and that they were good people, then you could do that without worry. Gross people and creepy people have always existed. If you have a community of people who look out for each other, then they protect each other from the bad people.

  • Brian

    Peter - first of all thank you for writing this thought-provoking article (and Go Eagles!)
    I'm in the toy business, and I'm curious to know if you have an opinion on the tools children are using in their play. There is a lot of discussion, in these comments alone, about 'free play' in school versus outside. The reality is that 90% of play involves a toy (e.g., baseball bats, computers, toy boats and instruments are necessary in each of your examples above), but this is not addressed in the article. Do you have an opinion here?

    Toy choices in schools are typically driven by curriculum and chosen by educators, whereas toys at home are most commonly purchased as gifts by relatives and friends.

    Or do you think children should 'find their own toys'? I'm not being facetious. I'm just trying to get some ideas from you, as a thought-leader in this space.

  • Norbert Madarász

    The article resonates with the thoughts expressed in Sugatra Mitra's TED talk about self organized learning:

  • Anthony Djuren

    We are turning our children into non-thinking, obedient robots.
    It's easier to control them when they are adults that way.

  • Anthony Djuren

    George Carlin had a point when he said that for one hour a day in every school that should be dedicated to daydreaming.

    We are killing our children's ability to create, dream, and to be inventive.

  • JRM

    Woo hoo! That was awesome!

  • Pat

    Impressive article ... great stuff ... hoping for better days ahead for our failing education system ... children deserve better!!

  • John S Green

    Thank you for this. I'm going to dig out my clay, colored pencils, and galoshes from the closet, right now.

  • Guest

    I totally
    agree with what I just read! Thank you for that opportunity... Based on my 12 years
    long observations of children, their educational programme and most of all, lack
    of free time for exploring their own needs, imagination and abilities here in the UK, I know
    one thing for sure! It all is just a part of the government plan, to make people
    more and more dependant, obedient and addicted to whatever they have been told
    to do. The government's desire is for us to become their puppets (or robots to
    be more precise). I knew that truth since I was 17 hence my and my husband's decision about
    having no kids and believe me guys, we love them to bits! But what was wrong with the pen and piece of paper instead of
    today's computer, with the phone connected by a pair of wires to its network
    instead of the mobile phone, with watching the movie in the cinema (with the
    whole family) instead of making silly faces while playing the Wii games (quite
    frankly, on your own), with counting in your head instead of using calculators?
    The list goes on... The authorities want us to become as narrow-minded as the
    ones could be, to control our lives with ease and comfort they expect to achieve
    in the near future ("we tell you- you do it", as simple as that). I was watching
    many intelligent creatures being 4, 5 or 6 years old who were gradually becoming
    less and less happy with their very young lives, having given not much choice of
    how to lead it the way they would like it. They were becoming tired, depressed,
    aggressive, ignorant, dyslectic etc. I was born in early 70s and when I was 7, I was only learning how to recognise
    letters and numbers and was expected to start reading when I was 8. It hasn't
    hurt me much as I can speak three foreign languages today, write books and poems
    (in second to my native, Polish language) and most of all, see what is wrong and what is
    still right. Our future generation is being deprived of sensible thinking! Some
    will fight against it, some will just give up out of laziness (which today's
    government wisely offers)...

  • Stella Kaswalder

    Este artículo está sensacional. Lo recomiendo. Coincido en la necesidad de reconocerle a los niños el mayor tiempo para poder jugar "libremente". Y es para reflexionar una de las frases finales

  • Stella Kaswalder

    Este artículo me pareció senasacional. Coincido con la idea de que los niños tienen necesidad de jugar el mayor tiempo posible y es bueno reflexionar sobre que la falta de juego es causa de depresión, ansiedad, suicidio y falta de creatividad. No se puede enseñar creatividad, sólo puedes permitir esa bendición y eso sucede en el juego.

  • Guest

    I bumped into this article because I'm working on a children's book these days, which has a lot to do with this subject. One of the common reasons kids are not playing outside too much these days, is because they are magnetized to the screens. Addicted to screens. Be it the TV, PC or tablet - they can stare for hours, the same hours we used to play outside when we were young... So I'm writing a kids book, to remind them (and ourselves) of the beauty of the physical world out there. You can have a look at my project here:

  • Lior Frenkel

    I bumped into this article because I'm working on a children's book these days, which has a lot to do with this subject. One of the common reasons kids are not playing outside too much these days, is because they are magnetized to the screens. Addicted to screens. Be it the TV, PC or tablet - they can stare for hours, the same hours we used to play outside when we were young... So I'm writing a kids book, to remind them (and ourselves) of the beauty of the physical world out there.

    Just like Peter Gray - I think kids should play more. They should also stare at walls, look at the clouds, and get bored. It never happens anymore...

    You can have a look at my project here:

  • Ann Mc

    If possible, indulge your children in a year or more at an "alternative" school that acknowledges the worth of self directed study and creative play. I sent my kids to the Riley School in Rockport, Me. Children walk to different campus small buildings for their courses. There are no competitive sports. They wanted to go to school EVERY day because people, staff and students were respectful and reasonable, according to my kids. Teachers were addressed by their first names. Older kids had scheduled time to help younger students. It was a healthy place for them to be.

  • patricktheonly1

    I love this article i can certainly relate to it. I did not live in the 50s but certainly my boyhood life was not far from what you described. My childhood was real fun exploring and socializing with my peers. Please keep these articles coming.

  • Gudi henriquez

    I am glad Peter Gray, wrote about
    the education that he calls hunter – gather education. The article remained me
    when I was in elementary school; I remember I had the opportunity to play
    during recess, and after school without supervision, my friends and I always used to spend long
    hours having free play after school in the afternoon, and also on weekends. For example, we used to have a huge store
    that we created and we could spend long hours in the dramatic play pretending
    and creating. I remember that my dad
    used to let us made our own clay, and we made cookies then we use to put them
    in the recycle cookies bag’s, and so on we use to expend hours having a good
    time in our free play. I also remember that during those years like Pitter said
    I learned so many things that without the free play I could not have those
    beautiful memories.

    It is evident that children learn
    trout expending time playing; leaving those experiences those cape unique
    moments for them. Also during free play children capture important scenes, and
    that is the way they develop their skills. They learn how to make their own decisions
    in their lives, also they become more
    independent which is good because they will need to confront the new world. Throughout
    the play children learn to socialized, also
    children get preparing, to become better parents and use their knowledge’s and
    abilities to contribute to develop a better society.

    I remember when I was eight or nine
    years old my brother, my sisters, and I use to play after
    we finished our homework during long hours until sunset time, I am so happy
    having those memories about how was my childhood, but on the other side I feel
    so sad about the lock of free play that children have, especially in the United
    State that the children have to expend the entire day at the school because some kids are into
    some after school programs participating in different activities, or doing home
    works, and when at the time their parents pick them up from school they arrive
    to their homes really tired, so they
    never have time have free play. However
    that’s why many problems increase such as, narcissism, mental disorders, and
    suicide, and luck of opportunities for children to socialize.

    Peter also talk about how the
    animals learn their skills during their play and he mention that the most they
    play they enriched more their know ledges, but humans has more to learn. But children
    and other species are capable to regulate their anger throughout collective

  • Michele Robbins

    Love your article and plan to look for your book. I choose to home school for many reasons: the most important one--I want my children to have a childhood, to play. We tried traditional school a couple times with kids leaving at 7:30 and returning home at 4:00 then doing homework for much of the evening. Sad. One thing you don't mention is the lack of interaction with nature when free play is removed. I have read many articles of the benefits of just being in nature. These outweigh memorization by tenfold. Thanks for your work!

  • twitter: @JeffreyBenson61

    Excellent article. For many reasons schools rely on obedience (rote learning and compliance) more than cooperation (a shared responsibility). Obedience is great in a fire drill, but a cognitive killer if the goal of class is to "Guess what the teacher is thinking;" i.e. obedience. You develop the skills of cooperation among peers in play AND with adults who share the purpose of their work with their students. When adults are limited by authorities above them to prescribed curricula and standardized tests, the skills of obedience trump the skills of cooperation.

  • Janet Warnock MacFarlane

    Not my kids! Be free! Get to know your neighbors! Walk outside. Be in the world. it is not as scary as you imagine!

  • Soul

    I'm a 16 year old student in England and i say i agree with everything you said. I remember as a kid you made compromises to keep the games going, eventually building a set rules for the game tag that everyone could get behind, even if they didnt agree with all of them. I never really looked back at it like this but it is true, we usually spent a lot of time trying to make sure everyone was included and would try to keep everyone in the game, not because we were told to but because we felt bad if they werent happy. I had this one friend when i was about 7 whos mum had become a dinner lady, if we did something he didnt like or we had rules he didnt like he would run to his mum and get her to come and "let him join in" to the point where we all disliked him and didnt want him anywhere near our games but were forced to let him in. I learnt he spent a lot of his time as a kid on his own getting all the toys he wanted since he was well off instead of socialising with our kids. I'm going to book mark this and see if i can get some other friends to read it, i think it's true about having emotional problems such as depression linking to not playing enough as a child as some friends who werent allowed out as much or at all as they were doing chores etc are now not as happy as they could be considering their life style.

  • wondering

    I wonder... can children who are growing up with earphones and flashing screens in front of them, structure their play? I've been a teacher for 40 years... in a school movement that advocates play and I see a change ... children need to unplug and heal in nature, then they structure play from the inside, not from outer screen-induced imagery.

  • Peekay

    I think parents are a big part of the play deficit too. We have our kids outside and at the local playground almost every day. And quite often we are the only ones there.

    We are fortunate in that both of us don't need to work. For families with two working parents, or only one parent, time is limited and play is probably low on the priority list.

    But even on weekends the playground is deserted and I wonder where all the kids are.

  • D. M. Mitchell

    I, too, grew up in the 1950s, part of the time living in a small town, part of the time living on a farm. We hiked the woods, rode our bikes all over town, built bark lean-to's, had camp fires, played army (Americans vs. Nazis, of course), and much more. This is an excellent article and I fully agree with Mr. Gray's conclusions.

  • Kerstin Castle

    As a scientist I always love to read articles by people that really think about their topic before speaking out. I am an avid fan of play, of allowing children the freedom to discover their own preferences, and anything that promotes creativity. As a mum of four I often question whether the amount of freedom I allow my children is the right one.
    Like you I enjoyed an amazing amount of freedom during my early childhood which I am sure shaped my adult thinking. I worry about my children, because whilst I am happy for them to play and explore, society has changed so much that there are no longer many playmates around. My older children frequently wanted to play outdoors during their early teens, but ended up on computers or game consoles, because that was the only place to connect with their peers. Very sad, I think. Or maybe it will prepare them for life as it will be for them. Time will tell.

  • Daniel Narvaes

    Thank you for the article. I am near the end of a long-term project to browse YouTube and create a list of my favorite pop/folk songs. In comparing the music of the 1970s to today's music, I have noticed that one reason I don't think modern music is generally very good is that it tends to be very narcissistic. I call this the "age of narcissism" in music, and I blamed it on the recording industry's pandering to the base consumer. Your argument shows that there is a deeper reason - society itself has changed as the average individual becomes more narcissistic. Based on my own observations of how music has changed over time, I think that the age of narcissism really began in earnest in the late 1990s going into the 2000s. Earlier examples exist: for example, as I recently was adding Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones" (1993) to my list, I looked at the lyrics for the first time, and noted that this song portended the age of narcissism. Listening to it again this morning, I noticed that the lyrics don't have to be taken at face value - it could be taken as a farce, or a commentary on the uselessness of a narcissistic point of view; but according to the Wikipedia article on the song, the author did take the lyrics at face value, as his actual point of view, at the time of writing, although he later recanted that position. Your hypothesis that lack of self-structured play-time leads to a lack of empathy and increased self-centeredness is a good one, and deserves to be widely known and further investigated.

  • AM

    Wrote a paper recently on the benefits of recess/play time for children and compelling research presented itself. Playing can be learning!

  • PierrePinkFlamingo

    What a fantastic article! We homeschool our three children and from time to time I feel shame that we don't rigidly direct our children. Then I watch my 10 year old son at "work" on his computer as he teaches himself programing. Right next to him his sister designs amazing houses on her software and I relax...

    No telling what my 16 year old is doing but she is such a remarkable young woman that I sent her along with her grandparents on a cruise to Europe to watch over them. heh...didn't phrase it that way to anyone but my wife but we both agreed that she would keep them from doing anything foolish. She was the hit of the cruise.

    We moved from Calvert which mimicked school curriculum to going mostly hands off with a tutor helping 4 days a week for 3 hours. Children are astounding when you have a little faith in them.

  • LisaBrownDesign

    Peter, great article! I just started reading Free To Play, and think it's amazing so far. It's incredibly well-written & you can tell this is a topic close to your heart. Could I get your permission to repost this article on my new homeschooling blog - ? You can email me at lisabrowndesign(at)

  • Joanna

    Very good article Peter, thanks!

    to follow up with Raymundo's comment about bullying (written 2 months ago), i would add that the school yards are realy "boring" places so this may also explain why kids are more into bullying, there is nothing else to do with only concrete around them! put those kids in the woods and there would be less bullying because woods, a river, a fire, a mountain, etc are setups where there is something to do for kids!

    Play and outdoor play especially is so important to me that with a bunch of other moms, we have created a new public alternative school in Montreal, QC, Canada which enphasizes on the need to be in touch with nature and thus adress the "nature deficit disorder" that Richard Louv talks about.

    We have also decided to extend the RECESS, there is NO homework, the classes are multi-age groupe (grade 1-2-3 together and grade 4-5-6 together) and there is one day per week (wednesday) where kids play outside all day long!!!

    the school started this september 2013 with 3 classes and is growing! if you want to have a look at the website of the school:

    there realy is a movemnet to change the trend, only parents, and other professionals (psychologists, educators, politicians etc) need to work to make it happen.

    Also, in the Netherlands, there is a great movement called "Speeldernis", it's a huge "Adventure- NATURE playground" outdoor in the middle of the city. it started in Rotterdam a very big city and now there are plenty popping up all over the country. It's play at it's best : have a look at this wonderfull initiative:

    I totally agree with the richness of the huntergatherer education, our genes are programmed to have that environment as we have been huntergatherers for so many centuries... yes we live in the modern world but there is so much we can inspire from that "style" of living that makes us more balanced and happy. Meredith Small, an anthropologist you may know has written a fantastic book about all that "our babies, ourselves, how culture and biology shape the way we parent". very interesting! I don,t know if you can read french, if you can, please have a look at this post i put on my blog i wrote a few years ago : "we are hunter gatherers in smoking and nice dresses". it realy connects with what you are saying!

    thanks again for this great article! i loved it!

    warm regards,

    Joanna from Montreal


    This is what we're all about- starting a PLAY-volution, reviving a community that values the true play experience rather than encouraging pre-schoolers to learn to read and write. The brain craves play that feeds the senses - move, touch, see, feel, hear, smell, imagine, create, master. Only through allowing children the time to play will they be able to deal with the influx of technology as healthy human beings. Straight Zigzag - Stretching Potential.

  • Dogma

    A few years ago I taught at a private international school in France. These kids had were in school from 8am to 5pm and had more homework than I did in American university.

    Their workload included difficult subjects such as calculus, TWO foreign languages, literature, science etc. etc.

    Plus they were painfully well-behaved and always addressed me as "Sir".

    In early Spring we did an exchange and spent a week at a school in Denmark. The Dane students by contrast were out of school by 1pm (if I'm not mistaken) and had very little homework.

    They essentially went to school in the mornings and had the afternoons to do what they wanted– which sometimes meant a part-time job.

    They were no less educated than the French students and seemed quite a bit happier.

  • Khürt L. Williams

    One of the best articles I've read this year. My kids are in a hyper competitive school district. They don't get a lot of homework but most of their classmates are in after school learning centers such as Kumon.

  • Helen K

    I agree with much of this article - and definitely the need for more play - however the bullying aspect being 'sorted out' I think is a little naive (unless the thought is that with more play time, these issues would be sorted out?)

  • Dr. Herby Bell

    Proprioceptive stimulation (movement) fosters global physiological homeostasis (makes Herby a happy boy). But alas, how will we continue to kowtow to the "health" insurance sick care industry and the malaise of corporate medicine with its sick litany of cottage industries with pesky truth telling articles like these? After all, when diet and exercise "are not enough", take poison then check your IRA. Wise wise human, heal thyself.

  • るっぴー

    I am a fitht grader and I agree!!!

  • Kat 2

    I am in 8th grade. Guess what? An average of 6.5 of my 7 evenings a week consist purely of homework, dinner, and sleep. About 80% of that is homework. I almost never have time to do ANYTHING fun. If it was not for a big Language Arts project given homework in the first place, I would have never found this article. I agree with this whole heartedly. At school, we have 20 minutes of free time called activity, during which most people either gosip or practice for whatever sport they take (soccer and football are really popular). However, I am a loner because I like to enjoy nature and read, and I don't have time to do that stuff after school. I think classes should be shortened and students will be given a maximum of 1 hour worth of homework a night, and even then it should not be more than half an hours worth. I have got to do other HW now. I think I'll find who is in charge of my school ditrict and send them this link, making it look REALLY IMPORTANT. Other students should do the same.

  • Navid

    I agree with the general concept behind the article. But I must point out a few "minor" things. (1) When you talk about children, please distinguish between the very young, elementary, pre-teens, and teenagers. They have very different needs of play. (2) Less school hours do not usually translate to more free play, unfortunately. Kids are allowed too much TV time nowadays, which is very different from the 50s when most household only have one TV, if at all, and all the shows are clean. (3) Please don't generalize other cultures. In most rural cultures, boys are allowed to play, but girls are required to do chores from before dawn to after dark, everyday, from the time they are old enough carry water without spilling.

  • Janene Dyer Womack

    Janene Womack - I am a teacher and I have to agree. There needs to be more time for play. A child learns more through free play. Children need a chance to explore and be children. If they want to play with manipulatives then let them play and I bet you will find they are learning through this play. Great article.

  • herecomesjohnny321

    I was lucky to grow up in Europe, on the outskirts of a big city, where I could see forests and nature for miles. The kids (me included) looked at school as a necessary evil, but at least we only needed to spend a few hours per day in it, such was the schedule (typically from 8am-12 or 1pm). However, teachers were truly interested in their job and took pride in it; some more, some less though. If someone snitched on someone, teachers would usually criticize the snitch for being a bad friend.
    Outside of school? I would run out before my parents came back home since I was grade 2 (age 8), and would pop in only for a snack, if that; or I would lie that I won't be long... There was a fresh spring where we used to ride bikes so water supply was plentiful. We would occasionally "steal" cherries and other fruits from nearby backyards, especially abandoned ones or those where we saw people leaving them to rot. Others, we politely asked.
    Summer break used to start in mid June, and school year started in September, which meant almost three months of non-stop play, am to pm. Bikes, soccer, hide-and-seek, stories of all kinds, playing with anything and everything except toys...
    The result? I fell into stinging nettle more than once on those bike excursions to places my parents never even heard off (don't tell them, they would get a heart attack even today), and in winter, some of the most amazing sled racing you have ever seen (they used to close our street to traffic so that kids could play in snow). Once I knocked a few of my teeth out, but it was in a school mandated "play" class which we all hated.
    Today I teach at a University. I used to think of myself as someone who will never amount to anything because I hated school and homework and studying (especially history). But, I noticed that when I am interested in something I learn way faster than anyone else. If I am not interested, well that's another story; and I am usually not interested in stuff that is boring, badly presented or false (e.g. - history - which is usually written with an agenda in mind and usually only about wars).
    Above all, I cannot believe how slow my students are. Could it be because they had no play time, no opportunity to develop their own interests and pursue them with all their childish passion and energy?
    I am tempted to believe so. The worst thing that has happened to education is - state mandated education itself.
    The most important job for a parent is to find or create an environment in which the child can play so much that you hear them scream and laugh with joy, and not even remember that you exist (until they get hungry). I have not heard a child scream in laughter and excitement since I was a child myself.
    What a terrible world this will become when children who don't know anything beyond adult-mandated "play-time" or competition sports grow up, and then start rising their children with no sense of joy or happiness.
    Recently Robin Williams, who was from a well-off family, well educated, who grew up in one of the nicest places on the planet (Marin County, CA), in a big house, with tons of toys and with millions of dollars in his bank account, died of suicide. Success and money is not a guarantee of anything, except maybe a depression in later years.
    Early education is only to be avoided; whatever is useful can be learned in less than a year. The rest is a waste of time and to make it worse - what is truly needed is not learned in schools anyway.
    The only thing I learned as a kid was how computers work, which my friend and I did in our spare time, outside of school. Since computers were a rarity then, we had to build one ourselves...

  • herecomesjohnny321

    My only disagreement with this article is that play deprivation is not "bad for children"; it is outright dangerous and destructive. A world which has replaced joy with material success is destined for self-destruction (a suicide on a global scale). If you don't agree, I urge you to check the number of suicides and armed conflicts in the world today compared to any other time in history.

  • Mauricio

    It'd be wonderful to have a TED talk on this subject. I find myself very fond of the ideas exposed in this text, and I believe Peter would be able to expand his audience by putting some effort at a TED conference. I'm extremely grateful for this article.

  • MVEducationServices

    Great article - so sad that we have lost sight of what is valuable learning

  • CrankyFranky

    'The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view.'

    excellent stuff - as a volunteer at after-school childcare I see this all the time - let free to play what they like, they are negotiating and learning heaps - and they love it !

    contrast that with a TV program I saw last night about autism - brains miswired - ever confused about why other people do things - because they are unable to get into the minds of others

    it's intrigued me enough to try with my next college class - here's today's topic - discuss amongst yourselves - and present your findings to the class in 2 hours !

  • Ramon Torres

    I couldn't agree more with this article...
    Found it by chance today and had to post here with my experience:

    I grew up during the 90s and early 00s, but was lucky enough to have a mom who listened to my pleas to leave school at a fairly early age. I was homeschooled (in the loosest possible sense of the term) from 7th grade on, and I'd recommend it to any free thinking or creative people.

    My mom was a single parent who worked full time so she really didn't have time for any formal lessons for me and my sister (also homeschooled, obviously). Also there was almost no money to be spared, but neither of these things really got in the way.
    With time to freely explore my interests and learn organically, plus a couple of free or very reasonable classes and groups with other local homeschoolers (very hands-on biology class in a state park, theatre group and illustration class at a local arts college, concert band and jazz band with very dedicated group of mostly homeschooled musicians at local church, plus super-cheap snowboarding trips with same group every winter, etc...) I think things went rather well.

    I think I'm a fairly intelligent, well-rounded individual, I make friends instantly wherever I go (and I like to travel so I often put this to the test), I'm a voracious reader, and most importantly, I still love to learn and continue to do so daily despite being past "school age". People are shocked to hear that officially I only have a 5th grade education (of course that's my own decision, I'm pursuing a path that can't be improved with documentation. My sister got her GED, went to community college for a year, then used that experience plus a paper about her time homeschooling to transfer to Cornell).
    My point is, learning this way was a huge success for both me and my sibling, and concerns about finances or parental availability shouldn't be a deterrent if you think this kind of freedom is what your child needs

    I'm not sure what would've become of me if I had to go through 6 more years of school, but I do know that I was on the verge of going in two very different directions, and leaving the awful environment of our school systems and being able to choose my style of learning and my friends (and honestly at that age, my whole world) naturally, and from a much wider pool, did wonders for me. I had the potentially to be severely, unhealthily introverted, and if I was forced to continue what I saw as an exercise in futility, with the addition of peer hostility and ostracization I doubt I'd be doing anywhere near as well as I am now, to say the least.

    Oh, last thing: people would always ask me or my mom "what about socialization?", which I always found funny, cause I don't know how being artificially grouped with kids of the same age, economic background, and probably race, helps with "socialization" when the alternative is naturally meeting all sorts of people, just like you will do for the rest of your life...

  • Thomfas Kember

    I was brought up in Australia during the Second World War. When I was about 9, my best friend and I would regularly go to the beach near where we lived to swim. At one end of the beach was a firing range where American soldiers would practice. They used to send a rocket like a fire cracker into the air. It would open a parachute and they then fire a machine gun at it. My friend and I would go and look at this and chat to the soldiers. I don't know whether my parents knew about this, I never mentioned it is them. I can't imagine that anything like this could happen now. Parents always know where their 9 year olds are and what they're doing. Whatever it is, the parents have most likely arranged and supervised it.

  • Thomas Kember

    My childhood was very much like this. I was brought up in a suburb of Sydney in the 1940's. At the end of our street there was an area called the Bush left over from what the whole district must have been like. It was a great place for children to play. My parents knew I went there, but never enquires what my friends and I did. My guess is, there is no where like it now in Australian cities.

  • MCope

    TV and its spawn, the internet, have a lot to do with killing play.