All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

Research reaffirms childrens' need to play as part of their growth

Kids playingWe all seem to know the proverb yet we do not give the freedom to our children to play and have fun. We underestimate the importance of play that's crucial for children's healthy psychological development and ability to thrive in life, according to Peter Gray, a Boston College developmental psychologist and author of the new book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life [Basic Books, March 2013: www.FreeToLearnBook.com].

"Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others' perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends," says Gray, an expert on the evolution of play and its vital role in child development. "In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives."

We are all born with an inherent curiosity, playfulness, sociability and deep desire to learn, but schooling seems to rob that from us. Anxiety and stress levels among students are at an all-time high: they are burdened with too much homework, over-scheduled with extracurricular activities, deprived of free play, and faced with the pressures of getting into a top college.

"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?" Gray asks. "Our compulsory education system features forced lessons, standardised tests, and seems specially designed to crush a child's innate and biological drives for learning." The traditional 'coercive' school model, he adds, was originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth.

Reasons why we are conditioned to be this way

But schools, Gray notes, aren't only to blame for the decline in play—due to parental fears, outdoor play has declined significantly in recent decades. Gray cites a decline in knowing and trusting neighbours and a rise in fear of letting children out into circumstances where there is no adult supervision as part of the problem. He also adds, these are partly driven by exaggerated media reports; increased time in school, at homework and in adult-directed activities outside of school; and most significantly, a rise in the societal attitude that childhood is a time for building resumes and free play is wasted time.

He presents scientific evidence that self-directed learning and free play allow children to realise their optimum abilities to learn, grow, and develop naturally and positively. Gray even explains how the hunter-gatherer way—where children spend their days in mixed-age groups, engaging in self-directed play and exploration—leads to the development of socially, intellectually, and emotionally healthy adults.

He cites a direct correlation between the decline of play and the rise in emotional and social disorders among young people, and provides recommendations for what parents and communities can do to promote and reinstitute play in children's lives.

This study presents a compelling evidence that over the past 50 years—as children's opportunities for free play and exploration have declined—there has been a dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide in young people, who have not had the opportunity that free play provides to find meaning and joy in life.

"Peter Gray is one of the world's experts on the evolution of childhood play, and applies his encyclopaedic knowledge of psychology, and his humane voice, to the pressing issue of educational reform," according to Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology and author of How the Mind Works.

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