Peter Gray writes: “Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. 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. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. …The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.” (p.5)
It’s a familiar argument, but he goes on to argue that “Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.” (p.6)
“The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time. This attitude is seldom explicitly articulated….” (p.8) “Related to this anti-play attitude is an ever-increasing focus on children’s performance, which can be measured, and decreasing concern for true learning, which is difficult or impossible to measure. What matters in today’s educational world is performance that can be scored and compared across students, across schools, and even across nations to see who is better and who is worse. Knowledge that is not part of the school curriculum, even deep knowledge, doesn’t count. By “true learning” and “deep knowledge,” I mean children’s incorporation of ideas and information into lasting ways of understanding and responding to the world around them…. This is very different from superficial knowledge that is acquired solely for the purpose of passing a test and is forgotten shortly after the test is over.
“Parents, teachers, schools, and whole school districts – not just the children themselves – are evaluated these days on the basis of the children’s test performance. Children are pawns in a competitive game in which the adults around them are trying to squeeze the highest possible scores out of them on standardized tests. Anything that increases performance short of outright cheating is considered ‘education’ in this high-stakes game. Thus, drills that enhance short-term memory of information they will be tested on are considered legitimate education, even though such drills produce no increase at all in understanding.
This focus on performance has moved beyond the classroom to all sorts of extracurricular and out-of-school activities. In the eyes of many parents and educators today, childhood is not so much a time for learning as a time for resume building.” (p.9)
Note: Gray defines free play as “play in which the players themselves decide what and how to play and are free to modify the goals and rules as they go along. Pickup baseball is free play; a Little League game is not. Free play is how children learn to structure their own behavior.” (p.7)
Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Gray (c2013) Free to Learn Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York