Act: Inspiration

Talking Play and Imagination with Peter Gray

October 30, 2019

One of the very best books I read while researching ‘From What Is to What If’ was ‘Free to Learn’ by Peter Gray. Peter is an evolutionary psychologist who taught for 30 years at Boston College as a Professor. He is now retired from teaching but still does research on children’s learning and children’s development.  ‘Free to Learn’ became the most-underlined book out of all the books I read, rich in insight and wisdom and research about why play matters, and what happens when we starve our children of it.

I was recently in Louvain le Neuve near Brussels to speak at Festival Maintenant, and was delighted to see that Peter and I were on the same bill, albeit a day apart. I was similarly delighted when he agreed to my request for an interview, and so one morning we sat in a hotel lobby and chatted about play and the imagination. Later in the interview, a group of business people arrive and start chatting nearby so the background noise increases, as you’ll hear. I started by asking Peter, given the focus in his writings on play, if he might share an experience from his own childhood that for him captures the beauty and freedom of play:

Very interesting that you ask that. In my book I start the first chapter with a discussion of my memories from when I was 5 years old and we had moved to a new village and I met, right across the street, a girl who was just a little bit older than me. Ruby Lou was her name. I have such wonderful memories of our playing together.  I don’t remember any adults being around at all. She taught me how to ride her bicycle. She was a little braver and wiser than I was. She encouraged me to climb trees higher than I otherwise would have. It’s interesting that just two weeks ago I met Ruby Lou for the first time in 68 years…

No way. 

… so it’s interesting that you ask that question because she’s very much on my mind! This little town we lived in was in southern Minnesota and I was invited to give a talk there. Not too far from where she now lives. Somebody else – one of the readers of my book – shortly after the book was published, for some reason – he lived in Minnesota – he made it a project to find Ruby Lou.

He went to that little town and of course she had moved away. I moved away when I was seven. She moved away when she was nine. But he found somebody who knew somebody who might know who she was. I didn’t know her last name even when she was living there, let alone now, her married name. But through his investigation he found her, and then we had some email communication and telephone communication.

I was a little nervous at first – would she remember it the way I remembered it? Did I make up these stories? I know that childhood memories are not always completely accurate. Fortunately, she remembered things pretty much as I did. When we met, we actually went back to that little town. Her house and my house are pretty much as they were.

One of the things that she remembered differently – I talk in the book about how she taught me how to ride a bicycle by starting at the top of the little hill on the road between our houses. She said, “I don’t remember there being a hill there. I think that town was flat as a pancake.” I was a little worried about that when we went. Indeed there is a little hill there!

Just deep enough to get a little momentum up if you’re learning to ride a bicycle. It was a wonderful little visit to reminisce. I wrote a blog post, if you’re interested, on my Psychology Today blog and it shows pictures of us as children and a picture of us as 75 year olds holding hands and skipping across the street. It was a great adventure to do that.

Why is play so important and so fundamental? What happens when a culture starts to forget how to play or lose play? 

That’s a good question. Play is so important because over the course of natural selection, play is the means by which children learn what they need to know, by which they develop. It becomes really obvious when you look at hunter gatherer cultures.  I’ve never had the opportunity to live or observe a hunter gatherer culture directly but I have done a survey of anthropologists who have.

What I’ve learned is in these band hunter gatherer cultures, children play. They are free to play all day long. There’s no such thing as anything like school. There’s no sense that it’s the adults job to educate children. Children learn on their own and they learn in play. They learn by watching, observing, and incorporating what they see in to their play. That’s how children are designed to grow up.

They learn all the things that they need to know in a hunter gatherer culture. What I have discovered, when children have the opportunity to play that much, they also learn everything they need to know in our culture. Of course our culture is very varied. There are different paths in life, and not everybody learns everything about the culture. Of course, who could? You can’t possibly.

But if you think about it, children play at all of the kinds of skills that human beings everywhere need. They play at physical skills and that’s how they play physically. That’s how they develop their physical bodies. They play with imagination. Little children imagining that there’s a troll under the bridge. This is hypothetical reasoning that they’re engaged in.

They play with language, which is how they really learn language. Nobody teaches children their native language. They hear it, they play with it and they become good at it. We are the animal that builds things. Children always play at building things. Constructive play is part of play. Children play. We are the animal that has to follow rules. We can’t just behave in accordance with our instincts and whims, and so no surprise, children everywhere play games with rules in which they are learning how to follow rules. Reminding one another about what the rules are. They’re creating the rules, varying the rules.

Children more than anything else, no matter what else they’re playing, want to play socially with other children. That’s probably the most important thing people have to learn, is how to get along with other people. We are absolutely dependant on other people. How to negotiate differences. When children are playing together they have to figure out what they’re going to play, how they’re going to play it. How they’re going to balance each others’ needs because if one person is unhappy in play that person will quit, and then you’re left alone, so you have to learn how to pay attention to whether your play mate is having fun.

The point I’m making, if you think of all aspects of human development, children develop through play. In every realm, their physical realm, intellectual, linguistically, manual, constructive, social. Moral lessons are being learned in play all the time. And play away from adults, with other children, is how children learn to become adults. Where they have to assume the responsibility because there’s no adult there taking the responsibility to make the play happen, and to negotiate differences and solve problems.

This is how children grow up. This is how children are designed biologically to grow up. And of course in our culture we don’t allow children to play as much as they should, or in the United States, real play, away from adults, is almost banished. We have this belief that children are in danger if they’re not being supervised and directed. We also have this belief that school is so important, and school-like things outside of school, so children go from school to adult-directed activities and they have very little opportunity to play freely with other children where they’re learning to take responsibility. And we’re seeing the consequences of that.

What would you say are those consequences? How is that manifesting in the culture around us?

The data I am aware of is in the United States. Essentially over the last 60 years, pretty much over the course of my adult life, there has been a continuous decline in children’s freedom to play. It’s been a gradual decline from the 1950s when I was a kid until today. We’ve been gradually taking away more and more of children’s freedom to just go out and play with other children. Over this same period that we’ve seen this decline in play, we’ve seen a continuous increase in all sorts of pathologies of childhood.

We’ve seen increases in depression, in anxiety, in suicide rate, and it’s not just that people are diagnosing these things differently from before, or that they’re identifying disorders that they didn’t look for before. There are standard questionnaires, clinical questionnaires, that assess depression and anxiety that have been given to school age children over the decades and to young adults. On the basis of those questionnaires it’s estimated that the rate of what would be called major depressive disorder among teenagers and young adults is now somewhere between 5 and 10 times what it was in the 1950s, and similarly for what would be called today generalised anxiety disorder. The suicide rate is now at least 6 times what it was in the 1960s among children of school age.

You could say this is a correlation that doesn’t by itself prove cause and effect, but to me I can make a number of cases for why I believe it’s cause and effect. But one is just simply the obvious, that boy, life without play for a child, isn’t that going to be pretty depressing? There’s a famous play researcher Brian Sutton Smith who died not too long ago, who used to say “the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression”. I don’t say that because the grammar doesn’t work for me but I would say that you take play away from children, and of course they’re going to be depressed. Life without play? Wow, that is depressing.

Life where you are more or less constantly in adult directed, in adult evaluated things, where instead of just going out to play where you’re free to fail and nobody cares, nobody’s judging you. That’s part of the power of play, is nobody is judging you, so you’re free to try new things. You’re free to do things that are hard for you, and where you might fail because it doesn’t count. It doesn’t matter if you fail. So instead we’ve got children in situations where they’re always being judged. There are always adults watching them.

In school the evaluation has become more and more severe. More and more testing. More and more comparing. If you’re falling behind children get the idea that they’re going to be forever last. They’ll grow up homeless if they don’t get high grades in school and make it into university. That’s really severe pressure on young people. Then when they’re out of school, instead of just going out to play with other children, they’re put in adult directed sports where there’s, “Am I going to make the team? Are we going to win the trophy?” It’s still being evaluated. Still being judged. So no surprise that they’re more depressed, more anxious.

The other thing I can tell you from data in the United States is I said the suicide rate has been increasing. Well, the suicide rate also, which is little known – these data have not been published, except in a couple of papers which I’ve managed to dig out – the suicide rate in the United States for school age children, during the school year, is twice what it is during the summer when they’re not in school.

It doesn’t have to do with daylight. It doesn’t have to do with winter because the suicide rate for people who are not in school is actually somewhat higher in the summer than it is during the winter. Moreover, the suicide rate is very high in April and May. You could say they are beautiful months in terms of the sunshine and so on, and yet those are part of the school year, they’re a stressful part of the school year, and that’s where the suicide rate is the highest amongst school age children. There was also a study a couple of years ago by the American Psychological Association called ‘Stress in America’ where they interviewed people of all ages to assess the degree of anxiety they were feeling. They determined that teenagers are the most anxious people in America, and that 83% of them cited schooling as the source of their anxiety. So it’s pretty obvious.

To be blunt, school is driving many children crazy. It’s more or less compulsory, unless you have parents who can figure out how to find something alternative and are wise enough to do that and have the means to do that. But more and more, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is become state mandated child abuse. Little children are increasingly being subjected to long periods of time in their seats. Taking homework home. Being evaluated. It’s even going down into the pre-schools.

I’ve heard from parents who say, “My four year-old brought home a note saying that he’s academically behind and we have to work on getting up to his peers.” Can you imagine that? This is become absurd, what we are doing to children. And it’s occurring world-wide. I see it in the United States. It’s probably worse in East Asia where I’ve also spoken. It’s probably not quite as bad here. But I think it’s been moving in that direction here.

John Dewey’s definition of imagination was “the ability to see things as if they could be otherwise”, which I love. What is the link between being able to play, and being able to be imaginative? 

We know there’s a sense in which all of play is imaginative. When you’re playing, you are stepping out of the real world into an imaginary world. That’s really true with all play. You say, “I’m making a sandcastle.” I’m making a castle but I know it’s not a real castle, it’s a pretend castle. It stands for a castle. We’re imagining it. Little children, especially when they’re playing, whether they’re playing house, or they’re playing superheroes, or whatever they’re playing, they’re imagining that they’re this character. If I’m this kind of a character, how do I have to behave?

Jean Piaget used to argue, and a lot of people still believe because his work was so publicised, that children can’t think hypothetically until they’re 11 or 12 years old, and then they’re able to think. But you watch little children and they’re thinking hypothetically all the time in the context of play. Well this is the highest form of human reasoning. This is the kind of reasoning that distinguishes our ability to think from that of other animals. We can think of things that aren’t there. That’s what allows us to be inventors. It’s what allows us to plan for tomorrow.

We can think about tomorrow even though it doesn’t yet exist. We can imagine what might happen tomorrow and we can prepare for it because of our ability to imagine. This is such an extraordinarily important ability for all aspects of life. It’s not just for those people who are writing novels or whatever. We all have to make use of imagination.

So it would be logical assertion to you that if we’re seeing a decline in play in a culture, it would be accompanied by a decline in imaginative capacity? 

Yeah, absolutely. One thing we know in the United States, certainly creative thinking is very closely related to imagination. Requires imagination. There’s actually – believe it or not – a standard test to assess creativity in school age children.

The Torrence Test? 

The Torrence Test of Creative Thinking. This test had been given for decades to school age children of all ages in the United States – a researcher analysed the scores over time and at least since the mid-1980s, so for the past more than 30 years, the scores have been going down continuously. Every year they’re lower than they were the previous year, such that the most recent scores in her analysis, the average score for school age children at the time that she published this a couple of years ago, was at what would have been the 15th percentile in the mid 1980s.

At least in one of the sub-tests of this test, ability to elaborate on an idea creatively. But all of them were down close to that. That’s a significant drop. And at a time when creative thinking is more important in the job market than it’s ever been before.

It’s all we’ve got left!

We’ve got computers and robots to do all the non-creative things, right? All we need to hire people for is creative things, right? Yet we’ve got a school system now that is driving the creativity out of people. It’s not that you have to teach people how to be creative. You can’t teach people how to be creative. But you can teach them not to be creative by really suppressing the opportunities to be creative. Play is the most creative and imaginative thing that people do. If children can’t play, then this natural creativity that you see always in little children is going to atrophy over time.

I read an article that you wrote in 2012 where you wrote, “Well, surprise surprise, for several decades we as a society have been suppressing children’s creativity to ever greater extents and now we find their creativity is declining.” One guy I interviewed for the book talks about “the Donald Trump disimagination machine”, a phrase that really leapt out at me – this idea that we live with various different forces around us which are having that erosion on our imagination. You talked about the decline on play, the influence of education. Are there other things you see in the world that are having that similar sort of contracting impact?

To me the primary things are the decline of play and the rise of a more narrow approach to what’s happening in school. Even the more creative things that people used to do in school – writing poems and stories, and doing art, and so on – have, at least in the United States, been gradually taken away. Children are more and more in a situation where basically they’re studying for one right answer on multiple choice tests, and that’s the least creative thing you could be doing.

I really think it’s the rise of testing in schooling that is the primary source of the deprivation of opportunity to be imaginative and creative. That coupled with the fact that even out of school there’s less and less opportunity for children to just play.

What would the restoration of play in our culture look like?  If you were elected as President and you said, “Okay, we’re going to prioritise the return of play to our streets, to our culture” where would you start? What would you do?

Let me answer it in a little bit of a different way. I’m actually part of two different non-profit organisations. Both of which really are working, in different ways, towards restoring children’s freedom, restoring play. One of the organisations I’m involved with is the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. What we are trying to do there is we’re trying to make it more possible for children to not go to imposed curriculum-based schooling where they can do home schooling freely, including what’s commonly called unschooling, which I prefer to refer to as ‘Self-directed Education’ at home. Organised at home.

It doesn’t really mean they’re doing all their education at home. That’s kind of a misunderstanding, but that they’re in the community and so on. Or to a school like a Sudbury model school, or a democratic school of one sort of another. We’re trying to work to make that more possible so more people can do that. We’re working right now with libraries. With the idea of libraries becoming centres for self-directed education, so that instead of going to school you would go to the library. Library is a place where they help you learn what you want to learn, rather than tell you what you have to learn. That’s part of what I’m doing, and with some success.

But still of course for some time to come, the majority of people are going to be in the standard public schools. This other organisation I’m part of, called ‘Let Grow’, we’re actually working with schools and we’re having some effect. I often speak to groups of public school educators and what I try to encourage there is instead of continuously moving in the direction of more and more schooling, more and more testing, let’s go in the other direction. This is becoming wasted time for children, the more schooling they have, the more easily burned out they are, the less they’re learning. They’ll learn at least as much if they’re spending less hours at school.

Let’s do away with homework for elementary school. There’s a lot of data showing homework for elementary school students isn’t increasing even test scores. There’s no reason to do it. We’ve had some success. For example there’s a superintendent of schools on Long Island, New York, who has seven elementary schools in his district. He read my book ‘Free to Learn’ and he got in contact with me and the others involved with the Let Grow organisation and he said, “So what can I do? Help me out here. What can we do in our schools?”

That school district now for a couple of years has made some remarkable changes which have really made life better for the children at that school. He’s done away with homework in elementary school. In the United States it’s legal for parents to opt out of the standardised testing if the parent says I don’t want my child to be subjected to the standardised testing they have to abide by that. He’s supported parents doing that, so now half the parents in the school have opted their child out of standardised testing. He’s increased recess.

One of the most interesting things that he’s done is to institute free play – an hour of free play in the morning before school starts. It’s age mixed. All the grades together. They can use the inside of the school, the art room is open, the gymnasium is open, they can run in the hallways, they’ve got all this stuff to play with, and the outdoor playground is open. They can go in and out.

This was something I really would like to occur after school for the entire time between when school ends and parents get home from work. That would be 3 hours of free age mixed play making use of all of the resources of the school. It turns out there are lots of bureaucratic problems with doing that. And he ultimately wants to do it, but he found it easier to start by having an hour in the morning before school starts. It’s working out better than even I would have predicted.

I was worried, well, the children aren’t going to want to get up an hour early to get to school even for free play. Well it turns out they do want to. They’re making sure that their mom gets them up and gets them to school. I was also worried because they have to have a certain number of teachers observing. I didn’t want it to be teachers. I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to refrain from being teachers, teaching the children how to play, or intervening and solving their problems for them.

I said, well if it has to be teachers, have the principals explain to the teachers. I had a meeting with all the principals where we discussed this. Have the principals explain to the teachers that while you’re watching them freely play you’re not teachers. You are lifeguards on a beach. You’re just there to save a life if somebody is dying. You’re not there to tell them what to do or to worry if somebody looks lonely and needs help…

Give them a list of rules…

… or to solve little squabbles among the children. Let them work that out themselves. Remarkably, they’re actually following this. The principals say this and I was down there observing. Public television did a little segment on it and they wanted me to be there. The kids are doing things that they would never normally be allowed to do even at recess. They’re running in the hallways, they’re tossing balls down from a balcony. They’re just having a wonderful time, but they’re not destroying anything.

The only rules are you can’t destroy anything and you can’t hurt somebody. They’re following those rules. When little kids get into a little squabble, some older kid will come over and break it up, and tell them, “What are you doing here? What’s the problem here?” The teachers don’t have to do that. And they’re learning they don’t have to do it. If they let it go, the kids can solve the problems.

The kids value this. They want it to occur and so they make sure that nobody is ruining it by fighting or by breaking something. One of the consequences of this according to the principals of the schools is that the teachers are developing a better attitude about the kids than they had before. They’re learning that these kids are more responsible than I thought they were. And they’re seeing that even the child who might seem kind of stupid in the classroom seems quite brilliant out there playing with other kids.

They’re developing more respect for the children, and a different way of talking to them in the classroom. Also the teachers, by virtue of being involved with this, are becoming a bit more playful in the classroom. It’s not real play, but it’s more playful. Everything’s lightening up in the school. Even the parents who were initially sceptical about all of this are apparently raving about it on their Facebook pages and other parents in other school districts now want to have this. So I’m feeling some hope about that.

Unfortunately for that school district this particular superintendent has become somewhat famous because of what he’s done and he’s now been attracted to a bigger school district. I’m not sure what’s going to happen in this other school district. I can’t imagine that they’ll stop doing what they’re doing because the principals are so impressed by it, and the teachers too, and the parents. Whoever is now the superintendent there is going to have to continue this kind of thing.

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: alternative education, building resilient education systems, children, play