The Power of Play and How We Ruin It for Children

John Holt was an early champion of Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept; he felt her observations about how hunter-gatherer tribes live and learn provided important insights for today’s society. In Growing Without Schooling 13 Holt wrote:

. . . It is impossible for me to say how important I think this book is. I have spent most of the past twenty-five years of my life realizing, more clearly all the time, that our worldwide scientific and industrial civilization, for all its apparent wealth and power, is, in fact, tearing itself apart and moving every day closer to its total destruction. What is wrong? What can we do? Many people are doing good work and are pointing toward useful answers. But only in the last year or two has it become clear, at least to me, that one of the most deep-rooted causes of our problems is the way we treat children. I am equally convinced that no social or political change that does not begin with and include change in the ways we bear and rear children has any chance of making things better.

More than 30 years have passed since Holt wrote that, and few, if any, educators have picked up on that line of thought since, though many parents did (The Continuum Concept is still in print and homeschooling now has at least two million children as of 2013). This is why I found it particularly invigorating to read how Dr. Peter Gray arrives at a similar conclusion in his new book, Free to Learn.

Free to Learn is a welcome and penetrating examination of how much farther we’ve gone off track with our child-rearing practices since Liedloff’s book came out in 1975 and what we can do to get back on track. As more and more anxious parents wonder if their children will be “ready for school,” and thereby put them into school environments practically from birth to be sure they have what it takes to “succeed in school,” when they become “school age” this book challenges not just the rigid child development schedule of modern education but the very idea that parents have a duty to “do something educational” for their children. As Dr. Gray notes often in the book, children today need much less time being supervised and educated by adults and more time to play together without adult interference.

As a research professor in psychology at Boston College, Dr. Gray makes a strong case from the psychological, anthropological, and educational evidence he cites throughout the book. Gray decries the marked decrease in children’s free play, citing statistical and historical data as well as appealing to what many parents might remember from their own childhoods, before education encompassed so much of childhood. For example, I remember playing “Kick the Can” with loads of neighborhood kids in the middle of our street in the Bronx; no one got hit by cars because we and the drivers watched out for each other. Gray remembers playing with jackknives (I do too!), wrestling outdoors, and snowball wars. He cites Hilary Clinton’s memories of “playing hard” every day after school: “We were so independent, we were given so much freedom. But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today. It’s one of the great losses as a society.” Now, when kids play hard on their own it can easily cause a concerned citizen to report them to the police, or to shame their parents for letting them play without proper supervision.

Gray cites research that shows a connection between the decline of children’s freedom and the rise of psychological disorders, and he notes how we need to break our reliance of using more school as the solution to children who aren’t doing well in school. However, the “focus on performance has moved beyond the classroom to all sorts of extracurricular and out-of-school activities . . . the data indicate that young people’s sense of control over their own destinies has declined continuously.” So what is the solution?

Gray writes, “genetically we are all hunter-gatherers . . . the only stable way of life our species has ever known.” By studying the lives and education of children in hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world, Gray presents us with convincing evidence that much of how we are hard-wired to behave as human beings is actually short-circuited by modern institutions and social behavior. For instance:

By allowing their children unlimited time to play with one another, hunter-gatherer adults allow their children unlimited practice of the social skills and values that are most central to their way of life. Social play (that is, play that involves more than one player) is, by its very nature, a continuous exercise in cooperation, attention to one another’s needs, and consensual decision-making.

Gray’s evidence goes beyond academic studies when he shares stories about his own learning and schooling. Gray knows both from experience and research the limits of compulsory schooling and the joys of learning through play with other children. He tells the story of how his son suffered in school. Seeking a solution, Gray enrolls his son in the Sudbury Valley School and witnesses a great, positive change in his son that spurs Gray to formally research the methods, philosophy, and outcomes of Sudbury Valley students. The positive outcomes are largely attributed to the free age mixing and free play that occurs at Sudbury Valley Schools, but Gray doesn’t conclude his analysis by claiming that all children should attend Sudbury Valley Schools.

Gray takes care to outline the decline in social capital for children and families, how our neighborhoods have become less neighborly, how children’s informal sports, sociodramatic play, and “dangerous” play (there’s those jackknives again!) contain incredibly valuable life lessons that adults have taken control of or abolished for children in the twenty-first century.

Gray’s vision for the future is much like Holt’s: he wants society to change in ways that treat children better, such as making them welcome in adult society and not segregating them in compulsory schools during the day, providing them with their own spaces for play or reflection, and encouraging “a shift in our beliefs about what is normal and what is not normal. . . . As more people meet adults who didn’t go to a coercive school, or who don’t send their kids to one, it will be ever harder to think of that decision as aberrant or abhorrent.”

Gray cites a lot of academic research and rationales that unschoolers, in particular, often cite in their support, such as the work of Lev Vygotsky and Sugata Mitra. (By the way, I like this simple definition of Gray’s: “unschooling is not schooling.”). But he also cites other sources and arguments in favor of letting children use self-directed learning, play, and eclectic resources as the basis for helping children learn and grow without schooling.

Gray offers an optimistic view throughout the book—“that we as a culture will come to our senses and restore to children the freedom to take control of their own learning, so learning will once again be joyful, exciting, and an integral part of life rather than tedious, depressing, and anxiety provoking.” For people who don’t want to, or can’t, unschool their children, Gray’s emphasis on trustful parenting is something they can embrace. Gray notes how the rise of “directive-protective parenting” has led to subtle changes in our relationships to children and undermines trust in ourselves and our children’s abilities to learn and grow:

Directive-protective parents don’t beat their children, but use all of the other powers they have as providers to control their children’s lives. While trustful parents view children as resilient and competent, directive-protective parents view them as fragile and incompetent. While trustful parents believe that children develop best when allowed to play and explore on their own, directive-protective parents believe that children develop best when they follow a path carefully laid out for them by adults.

Today, as school extends its compulsory attendance age to capture even younger and older children in its buildings, Peter Gray provides us with historical, scientific, and educational evidence that other models work better, cost less, and harm children and families less, than compulsory education. This is a great book that presents the scientific foundation and the emotional support for letting children learn in their own ways that should be considered by everyone who cares about children.