Beyond Working & Learning: Peter Gray on Play

“Play, by definition, is self-controlled and self-directed, it is the self-directed aspect of play that gives it its educative power.”

In an ever increasingly and rapidly changing world, more and more of us are feeling like we have lost a sense of control of our lives. Peter Gray’s 2014 TED Talk reveals how children today are feeling the same way, primarily because of The Decline of Play. By reintegrating play back into our daily lives though, not only can children benefit from this, but I believe we all can. We just need to redefine play in a much bigger context, just as we are redefining working and learning within a larger context as well.

Peter begins by recognizing the fundamental nature of play and how integral it is to our lives.

From a religious perspective, we might say that play is God’s gift that makes life on Earth worthwhile.

Now, here’s the sad news, here’s really what I am here to talk about. Over the last 50 to 60 years, we have been gradually taking that gift away. Over this period of time, there has been a continuous erosion in children’s freedom and opportunity to play, to really play, to play freely.

And he reveals how an essential aspect of play for learning is its self-directed nature, which mirrors how autonomy is seen as an essential aspect of The Future of Work.

Play, by definition, is self-controlled and self-directed, it’s the self-directed aspect of play that gives it its educative power.

More importantly though, Peter reveals how critical this is in creating a sense of control of one’s life, rather than feeling tossed around uncontrollably by circumstances which can often lead to anxiety and depression.

We’ve also seen a decline of the young people’s sense that they have control over their own lives. There is a questionnaire called the internal-external locus of control scale. There is a version of this for children, as well as for adults. It’s been given since about 1960. Ever since it’s been given, we have seen a decline, a continuous decline, in children’s and young adults’ sense that they have control over their own lives. They have more and more of a sense that their lives are controlled by fate, by circumstance, by other people’s decisions.

Now this is significant in terms of the relationship between anxiety and depression because one thing clinical psychologists know very well is that not having an internal sense of control sets you up for anxiety and depression.

Most importantly of all though, in learning to take control of our lives, we’re learning to be creative and innovative, not only solving our own problems but also learning to be empathetic in seeing other points of view.

Play is where children learn that they are in control of their life, it’s really the only place they are in control of their own life. When we take that away, we don’t give them the chance to learn how to control their own life.

Play is where they learn to solve their own problems and learn therefore that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy and they learn the world is not so depressing after all.

Play is where they learn to get along with peers and see from others’ points of view, and practice empathy, and get over narcissism. Play is by definition creative and innovative.

In his closing comments, similar to how research on The Future of Work is revealing how we need to go beyond just “work, work work”, so too does Peter reveal how schooling needs to go beyond just “learning, learning, learning”, micromanaging every second of our free time towards it.

And perhaps, most of all, we need to be brave enough to stand up against the continuous clamor for more schooling. Our children don’t need more school. They need less school. Maybe they need better school, but they don’t need more school.

So it’s not so much about playing with LEGO bricks more often but rather playing, experimenting, and socialstructing our lives in a new way from the basic “building blocks” of it. In effect, we don’t have to play the existing “game”, becoming the things we’ve conventionally been told and expected to become. We can let go of these old, outdated beliefs and “play a new game”, one where we are more in direct control of our lives and our choices which resonates more clearly with our true selves, at which point our work becomes play, as Richard Barrett notes below.

You will know when you are operating from this level of consciousness because there will be nothing else to do. You will not want to “retire” because that would stop your life from having any meaning. There will be no division between work and the rest of your life. What you considered before as your work now becomes play.

Richard Barrett, Evolutionary Coaching

Featured image by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash