5 Favorite Quotes From Peter Gray’s Free to Learn

I was nearly ready to push “submit” on this one when from across the crowded coffee shop I hear one adult talking to another about kids and technology, and how sad it is that today’s kids are so, “tweaked out on the internet”.  I couldn’t hear every word, much to my eavesdropping chagrin, but they went on to say that kids used to be allowed to ride their bikes around town and “wouldn’t that be nice”.  YES, it would, but is technology the problem?


My family and I attended “Rethinking Everything”, an Unschooling Conference, where I had the pleasure of hearing Peter Gray speak.  Afterward I immediately ordered his new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (there’s that word ‘Unleashing’ again!).  I was intrigued by what Dr. Gray, who is an Evolutionary Developmental Psychologist and research professor at Boston College, had to say about the decline of play since the middle of the last century, and the resulting detrimental effects on children’s development and learning.

Three chapters in Dr. Gray’s book are focused on children’s play, and they are packed full of research findings and specific examples of how multiple forms of play benefit children, so I thought I’d point out five of my favorite quotes.  In case you’re worried, this isn’t that movie preview thing where all the best scenes are in the trailer!  I had to narrow down my list of great quotes from 19 quotes that dealt directly with the concept of play.  I really enjoyed thinking about many of the Ed Psych theories I have long been familiar with through the lens of play!

What is play, then? To frame the chosen quotes I begin by sharing Gray’s operational definition of play (p. 140).

(1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) play is activity in which means are more valued than ends, (3) play has structure or rules that are not dictated by physical necessity, but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

It is important to note that Gray himself generated this list from the previous work of philosophers and researchers such as Johan Huizinga and Lev Vygotsky, who he acknowledges in the references.

Here we go, in my own order of ascending awesomeness (just because):

5) “…children are naturally motivated to play not just at the skills that are most prominent and valued among adults around them, but also, even more intensely, at new skills that lie at the culture’s cutting edge.  Because of this, children typically learn to use new technology faster than do their parents. (p.125)


4) “The route to getting our kids outdoors is not to throw away the computer or the television set, no more than it is to throw away the book we have in our homes.  These are all great sources of learning and enjoyment.  Rather, the route is to make sure kids have real opportunities to play freely outdoors, with other kids, without interference from adults.” (p. 180)

3) “In our culture today, parents and other adults overprotect children from possible dangers in play.  We seriously underestimate children’s ability to take care of themselves and make good judgments…Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.” (p.174)

2) “When children play imaginative games together, they do more than exercise their imagination.  They enact roles, and in doing so they exercise their capacities to behave in accordance with shared conceptions of what is or is not appropriate. They also practice the art of negotiation… Getting along and making agreements with others are surely among the most valuable of human survival skills.” (p.124)


Loving how he makes the word ‘profundity’ playful in this last quote,

1) “Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life skills, “ but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity. (p.156)

I thought I’d also share the quote that relates most closely to my own work thus far as an Educational Psychologist, you know, in case you were wondering what I’ve helped contribute to the topic!

“Research studies have shown repeatedly that adults who have a great deal of freedom as to how and when to do their work commonly experience that work as play, even –in fact, especially– when the work is difficult. In contrast, people who must follow others’ directions, with little creative input of their own, rarely experience their work as play. Moreover, dozens of research studies have shown that when people choose to perform some task, they perform it more fully and effectively than when they feel compelled by others to perform it.” (p. 142, referencing a meta-analysis by my very own professor, Erika Patall, with whom I have published!)

One final thought from Gray’s book.  I’m not a huge fan of the term “reform”, but I like the sentiment here.  “It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children’s play and controlling what they learn.  If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit.” p. 169

Okay, so I snuck in a few more than 5, hope you enjoyed!

Want more on Play?  Read Dr. Gray’s book, or this NPR article on schools that ARE keeping recess (although its focus on organized recess activities was somewhat disappointing).

With Love,