Is Play the Cure?

October 12, 2015 at 12:12 am

Over the past few weeks, I have devoured Peter Gray’s Free to Learn, a book recommended by one of my readers. Gray is a psychology research professor at Boston College, author, blogger, and a parent. I added that last title because parenthood has a huge impact on how people view children and education. This point was made almost humorous in The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn who cited example after example of teachers who revised their homework policies after their own children began bringing homework home. This particular passage is underlined and surrounded by stars in my copy of Kohn’s book:

“Now that I’m a parent myself,” one fourth grade teacher in North Carolina said, “I realize they have lives at home” (The Homework Myth, p. 23).

freetolearnHa ha! I realize they have lives at home. Cracks me up every time. So it was important to me that Free to Learn‘s author Peter Gray was a father himself in addition to being an “expert.” In fact, the first words of his book come straight out of one of his most painful challenges as a fatherthe day his nine-year-old son told him to “Go to hell” as they sat in the school principal’s office. Gray explained:

We were there to present a united front, to tell Scott in no uncertain terms that he must attend school and must do there whatever he was told by his teachers to do. We each sternly said our piece, and then Scott, looking squarely at us all, said the words that stopped me in my tracks (p. ix).

Both Gray and his wife immediately began to cry, and in that moment they both knew what they had to do. They pulled him out of the school, and “not just from that school but from anything that was anything like that school” (p. x). Free to Learn presents educational history and research through the lens of Gray’s own experience as a father striving to provide his son with a learning environment suited to his needs.

I was utterly blown away by this statement in the first chapter of Gray’s book:

Since 1950, the US suicide rate for children under age fifteen has quadrupled (p. 15).

Also disturbing was this statement, citing a large-scale Columbia University study, from the last chapter of the book:

High school students from affluent suburban families in the northeastern United States reported even more anxiety, depression, and illicit drug use than did those from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. Moreover, those who reported the most such problems were those who felt most pressured by their parents to achieve (p. 222).

Gray also gave the results from a study of happiness and unhappiness in public schools including participants from 6th through 12th grades from 33 different schools around the country: “The lowest levels of happiness, by far, occurred when children were at school, and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school and conversing or playing with friends” (p. 19). Gray then asked: “How did we come to the conclusion that the best way to educate students is to force them into a setting where they are bored, unhappy, and anxious?”

playOne of the biggest things I took away from Free to Learn was that anxiety is utterly detrimental to the learning process. This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. I have seen first-hand what happens to my ability to think creatively when under the effects of anxiety. My thinking brain pretty much turns off, and my survival brain takes over. It’s always such a relief when I can feel my mind emerging from the fog of fear. Ideas flow, I feel driven to create, my ability to make connections is re-awakened, and I feel so much more alive and enthusiastic about life and learning and the future.

As I read Gray’s explanation of how our brains are impacted by stress/anxiety and playfulness/joy, I kept thinking about babies and the benefits of babywearing. One of the primary sources of stress for infants is maternal separation. Infants are not able to recognize that their mother, who may be simply in another room, has not disappeared forever. The prospect of losing their only source of security and nourishment is absolutely terrifying for them. In that state, fight-or-flight mode highjacks the brain, flooding it with stress hormones, preventing meaningful learning from happening. This is one reason babywearing is ideal. The constant presence and security a worn infant feels allows her brain to be free to observe the world and learn rather than spending her brainpower stressing out about survival.

The same is true for older children, teens, and adults. Anxiety kills learning. In Gray’s words, “Negative emotions narrow our perception and thought to focus almost exclusively on the most salient source of distress–the fearsome tiger, the hated enemy, the evaluator, or the negative consequences of failure. Such distress activates our autonomic arousal system, which . . . interferes with creativity, learning, and reflection. . . . From an evolutionary perspective, fear and anger arose to deal with emergencies, and emergencies are not the proper occasions for trying out new ways of thinking and behaving” (p. 153). The ideal state for enhancing learning and creativity is what Gray calls “the playful state of mind.”

What is the playful state of mind?

  • It involves “an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind” (p. 140).
  • It is “an expression of freedom” (p. 141).
  • It is “always accompanied by a feeling of Yes, this is what I want to do right now” (p. 141).
  • Inherent in this freedom and playfulness is “the freedom to quit” (p. 141). I like Gray’s real-world example of this: “To be required to act like Wonder Woman in real life would be terrifying, but to act like that in playa realm you are always free to leave–is great fun” (p. 149).
  • It is a place without authoritative evaluation or fear of failure. Gray’s words: “The playing child feels free to try things out in a pretend world that would be too risky or impossible to try in the serious world” (p. 154).

As I have been navigating through our first two weeks of homeschooling, I continue to reflect on Gray’s research and the importance of play. When I hear that critical voice in my head suggesting that we didn’t do enough school today or that the kids aren’t doing anything right now, I stop and remember that freedom and play are crucial parts of the learning of childhood. Instead of letting guilt take over, I am striving to celebrate when my children are involved in free, spontaneous, creative play.

Play is so crucial, in fact, that its absence can create dire consequences. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and professor, interviewed twenty-six convicted Texas murderers. Most of the killers shared two things in common: “they were from abusive families, and they never played as kids” (Source). He later explained (in a post for the National Institute for Play) that social mammals deprived of the ability to play in laboratory settings demonstrate an “inability to deter aggression” or “to socialize comfortably with fellow pack members” (Source). Gray shared similar points in Free to Learn: “Without play, neural pathways running from frontal areas of the brainareas known to be crucial for controlling impulses and emotionsfailed to develop normally” (p. 176).

For human children, there are also practical reasons to control impulses while engaged in play: “The child’s desire to play is so strong that it becomes a motivating force for learning self-control” (p. 149). I have seen this process as an unobtrusive observer of my own children at play. They are usually able to successfully resolve conflicts without my interference because the drive to continue playing together in their “game” is so strong that spontaneous or kid-negotiated compromises inevitably override any selfish impulses. As they work things out among themselves, they learn conflict-resolution, diplomacy, empathy, and other valuable skills.

Could the rise in tragic campus and school shootings/stabbings be, in part, triggered by the way we have robbed children of free playtime through the stress and demands of our ever-more-performance-driven educational systems? Does the lack of free play and the lack of positive adult-child interactions (with both teachers and parents) contribute to the perpetuation of stress-induced anxiety/depression, social isolation, bullying, and violence? I have come to believe that all of these things play at least a partial role.


All of this has awakened within me a powerful drive to promote play as a way to prevent and reduce many of modern humanity’s woes. More and more children (and adults) are feeling driven to kill each other and/or themselves. But I don’t think these problems would be quite as dire or widespread as they have become if our children were spending their formative years in a safe place with the freedom of play and joy and creativity. Homeschooling isn’t the right road for everyone, but it’s encouraging to me that homeschooling has “exploded by 919% in the last 30 years” (Source) and by 75% since 1999 (Source). I know that one of the primary motivating factors in my decision to pull my kids out of school was the desire to provide my children with more freedom and time to play and pursue their own creative interests.

Gray’s final chapter in Free to Learn also ends with his optimism about the future: “I am cheered by the ever-growing stream of people who are leaving coercive schooling for relaxed homeschooling, unschooling, Sudbury schooling, and other forms of education that allow children to control their own learning. The more oppressive the school system becomes, the more it is driving people away, and that is good” (p. 231-232).

I am striving myself (with varying degrees of success so far) to make our family’s homeschool experience play-filled and joyful. I am having a great time, and most of the time I think my kids are too. When it’s clear they’re not, I try to learn from their responses and make adjustments as necessary. This old saying from Finland has become a daily mantra for me: “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”


Next up on my reading list

  • How Children Learn, by John Holt
  • Learning All the Time, by John Holt
  • Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown
  • Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children, by David Elkind