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Why ungoverned play is crucial for children

We've all seen a thousand articles reminiscing about how children used to roam freely through woods and city alike, inventing their own games and choosing their own playmates. But it's rare to find an explanation of WHY that's so important for children's development.

Think about the saying, "I'm taking my marbles and going home!" Would our children and grandchildren even know what that means? It is the fact that play is voluntary - - that your playmates are free NOT to play with you - - that makes us learn lasting lessons in how to get along with others; and that requires truly voluntary play, not a "playdate" or an "activity", Peter Gray writes in The Independent:

 I’m a research bio-psychologist with a PhD, so I’ve done lots of school. I’m a pretty good problem-solver, in my work and in the rest of my life, but the real problems I’ve faced in life include physical ones, social ones, moral ones, and emotional ones ... . They require the judgement, wisdom and creative ability that come from life experiences. For children, those experiences are embedded in play.

I grew up in the United States in the 1950s, at the tail end of what the historian Howard Chudacoff refers to as the “golden age” of children’s free play. School days were six hours long ... half-hour recesses in the morning and afternoon, and an hour at lunch. Teachers may or may not have watched us, from a distance, but if they did, they rarely intervened. We wrestled on the school grounds, climbed trees in the adjacent woods, played with knives and had snowball wars in winter ... we were free – free to play for hours each day after school, all day on weekends, and all summer long. Homework was non-existent in primary school and minimal in secondary school. There seemed to be an implicit understanding, then, that children need lots of time and freedom to play. ...

The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practised by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.

All mammals play when they are young and those that have the most to learn play the most. ... Play is the natural means by which children and other young mammals educate themselves. ... Children everywhere are born with a strong drive to play with other children and such play is the means by which they acquire social skills and practise fairness and morality. Play, by definition, is voluntary, which means that players are always free to quit. If you can’t quit, it’s not play. All players know that, and so they know that to keep the game going, they must keep the other players happy. The power to quit is what makes play the most democratic of all activities. When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. Each player must recognise the capacities and desires of the others, so as not to hurt or offend them in ways that will lead them to quit. Failure to do so would end the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs. The most fundamental social skill is the ability to get into other people’s minds, to see the world from their point of view. Without that, you can’t have a happy marriage, or good friends, or co-operative work partners. Children practise that skill continuously in their social play.

In play, children also learn how to control their impulses and follow rules. All play – even the wildest-looking varieties – has rules. A play-fight, for example, differs from a real fight in that the former has rules and the latter doesn’t. In the play-fight you cannot kick, bite, scratch, or really hurt the other person; and if you are the larger and stronger of the two, you must take special care to protect the other from harm. While the goal of a real fight is to end it by driving the other into submission, the goal of a play-fight is to prolong it by keeping the other happy. In sociodramatic play – the kind of imaginary play exemplified by young children’s games of “house” or pretending to be superheroes – the primary rule is that you must stay in character. ... The art of being a human being is the art of controlling impulses and behaving in accordance with social expectations.

"Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less" - - Peter Gray, The Independent, 1/12/14

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