Picture children climbing in the trees, building sand castles or mucking around at the creek, immersed in their fantasy game. Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, and author of Free to Learn and Psychology was invited this year to the Online Positive Parenting Conference hosted by Sumitha Bhandarkar, to speak about the need for children to have open, self-directed play. This form of play means children initiate the game themselves and make their own rules.
Unlike children activities structured by adults in which competition is often instilled, self-directed play allows children to explore freely their environment and try new things without being afraid to fail. There is no trophy on the line and no adult judgment, so the children are free to take risks and immerse themselves in whatever experiment they are carrying out.
“Play is never random or unstructured,” claims Peter Gray, “it is structured by the kids.” When children make their own play rules, they learn to negotiate, assert their own needs and practise problem solving. How to get along with other people and how to control their own emotions constitute valuable lessons, which will also serve them well in their future.
In addition, through the use of imagination to create their own activities, children develop a sense of identity and discover their own passions and interests.
Peter Gray mourns the simplicity of old times where children of a same neighbourhood were playing together in the streets – with (almost) no adult interference – in lieu of after-school scheduled activities.
In all honesty I was beguiled by the evolutionary psychologist’s case in favour of free play but it turned out to be an introductory argument to the eulogy of un-schooling. I don’t particularly embrace this alternative approach to mainstream education and although some of his allegations were absolutely valid, I was disappointed to see the interview unfolding into a praise of this system rather than offering practical tips to enable safe self-directed play to happen in busy cities like London.
For more information about un-schooling and self-directed education, you can check Peter Gray’s website self-directed.org