“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives.”
Ask someone over 50 for their favourite moment in childhood, and most of them will raise a time when they were playing with other children, far from adults. Today, Gray argues, we deny children the same opportunity to be free to learn: we over-regulate and over-structure their lives, denying them the opportunity to develop essential skills through independent growth and learning.
Peter Gray, as he puts it, is an evolutionary development psychologist: he studies child development from a Darwinian perspective. That sounds a bit Hunger Games, but in truth what he means is he studies how child behaviours evolved. That leads him to a number of interesting insights, chief of which is the value of free play in childhood. Play, he argues, is how children evolved the ability to build skills, develop the ability to control their lives, and learn to be adults.
When children play, they don’t fear failure, they are forced to be creative, and they learn how to accommodate others and see things from the viewpoint of others: after all, if someone else doesn’t enjoy the game, they leave. Only in school and adult-run environments, where participation is mandatory, can you remain safely oblivious to the feelings of others, since they don’t have the option to leave. You also don’t need to come up with your own rules, settle conflicts on your own, or otherwise do much of value other than follow the orders of adults – hardly the first-best skill for our children.
The first half of the 20th century was a golden age for play – as children worked less and less, they had more time to devote to their own activities, closer to the pre-industrial era. In the last 50 years, however, school hours and structured time has steadily increased. Free play is increasingly a scarce resource.
The book is interesting, and it advances a compelling thesis, that children should be free to make mistakes and free to learn. Gray also studies several schools which have taken a low-regulation approach in depth, including Sudbury Valley School, which is entirely democratic: teachers and students all have one vote apiece. My sole criticism would be he discusses almost exclusively lab research: understandable for a biologist, but unfortunate. Economists and others have done some great working in actual schools looking at some of these questions, which could give his arguments more external validity. Still, a worthwhile and sometimes provocative read.