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Lecture Focuses on the Importance of Play

Peter GrayLike gazelles and lion cubs, children are designed to be free, to learn through adventure, trial and error the skills and behaviors necessary for survival in the culture into which they are born. And to the degree that adults interfere with this voyage of self-discovery, whether by confinement at school or in the home, so they hamper a child’s development.

That was the message delivered Thursday night by Peter Gray, PhD, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

Gray’s lecture, which was free and open to the public, was the first in Creighton University’s Ware-Johnk Lecture Series, sponsored by longtime faculty member Mark Ware and his wife, Connie Johnk, BA’82. The couple funded the series to promote interest in psychological scholarship and its relationship to everyday life.

Gray, an evolutionary psychologist, spoke for more than an hour at the Harper Center’s Hixson-Lied Auditorium, during which he emphasized the critical importance of children being encouraged to play, as much as possible, without adult guidance or even supervision.

“We are in the midst of an experiment in which we are in some ways for the first time in human history raising children without real free play,” he said. “In the past it’s happened during times and places of child slavery, it’s happened when children were in sweatshops and had to work, but with those exceptions, throughout human history children have always spent huge amounts of their time outdoors playing with other children away from adults.”

Time spent playing, he said, as in the animal kingdom, serves a critical role in enabling human children to develop reasoning skills, to learn the art of compromise when conflict arises and to hone problem-solving skills that can include mathematical and spatial awareness.

Like language, he said, which children learn through observation, and which is not taught, so they gather knowledge and wisdom by playing and interacting with each other.

Gray said widely accepted research suggests that American children during the past 60 years have seen a consistent decline in the amount of time allowed for independent play. Three generations ago, he said, children growing up in the first half of the 20th century wandered far from home, often miles from home, without interference. Today, he said, child welfare agencies allege child neglect if children as old as 8 wander even a modest distance to play, unsupervised, on a public playground or park.

Such a rigidly ordered life — school, home and organized sports — has negative consequences, he said, which include depression and anxiety, as a feeling takes hold that they have little control over their own lives.

Creativity is also suffering, Gray said, as American children live regimented lives and this is a particular problem as the world moves away from rote work and toward a need for independent and creative thinkers who solve problems others cannot solve and ask questions others do not ask.

Gray, whose humorous presentation drew laughter on several occasions, urged the audience to visit his website at letgrow.org, whose mission statement reads: “Treating today's kids as physically and emotionally fragile is bad for their future – and ours. Let Grow counters the culture of overprotection. We aim to future-proof our kids, and our country.”

The website, while rebutting common fears about childhood dangers, offers tips and tools on enhancing the role of play in the life of children.

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