the play deficit

the play deficit

image links to full article in aeon

by Peter Gray, sept 2013

notes /highlights:

loc 18 –

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 a decline in empathy and a rice 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.

the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom.

loc 32 – 

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.

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.

loc 75 –

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.

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.

loc 89 –

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.

loc 103 – 

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 ll children need these skills today more than in the past. but schools are terrible at teaching these skills.

on the job..?

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.

Yong Zhao – term in China to refer to graduates is gaofen dineng, meaning ‘high scores but low ability’.

loc 118 – 

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 blossom in play.

side note – or smack in the middle note – this makes me think of the fb experiment/research people are obsessing over. yet we have done this to kids for years. yet – fb is an option. school – if it is an option – most people don’t know/believe that.

crazy how we spend our time on defense.. ruffling about .. when are in an opportune time to really change things up for good.

loc 132 –

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.

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.

section on correlation of activities played at youth and careers.. from Sudbury grads…

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 pursing any interest in a creative and personally meaningful way.

loc 147 – 

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.

loc 176 –

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.

loc 191 –

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

its’ 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 …

loc 205 –

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.

In recent decades we as a society have been conducting a play-deprivation experiment with our children.

again – fb –  as Peter ends – it’s time to end the experiment.


When the looking doesn’t require the finding, you’re free to see all that you could never find.  John Maeda (tweet)



Pat Kane – the play ethic