Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

'Society is psychologically abusing children' by restricting their freedom, researcher says

Parents: Would you let your 5-year-old wander around as he liked? What about at 10 years? 12?

That was Dr. Peter Gray’s experience growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, and he argues that roaming and playing is instrumental to a child’s development.

“I believe that children today are less free than children have ever been in the history of humanity (with the exception of times of high child labor and slavery),” he said. “It’s really fair to say that our society is psychologically abusing children right now because of the way we restrict their freedom.”

Gray is an evolutionary research psychologist that has studied the question of child play and has found correlations between the decrease in free play and the increase in anxiety, depression and narcissism in our society.  

“We’ve redefined childhood from being a time of fun to a time of resume building," he said. "Increasingly parents think that their goals as parents is to get that kid into the most elite college they can get the kid into – and play doesn’t go on a resume.”

However, Gray argues that play is key to practicing the skills needed to grow up and live a successful life. 

“The lessons that you learn in self-directed play are lessons that stick with you," he said. "They’re lessons that have to do with things that are really ultimately important in life."

Play is a concept that fills our minds with contradictions when we think about it: Play is serious and yet not serious. It’s trivial, and yet it is profound. It is imaginative and spontaneous, yet it is always bound by rules. Play is not real, and yet it is about the real world and it is how children learn to cope with the real world. Play is childish, and yet it underlies most of us would agree is the major accomplishments of adults.

Here are  Gray’s five characteristics of play:

1. Self chosen and self directed: It does not have an authority figure or coach involved.

2. Motivated by means more than ends: The actions are more valued more than the results or rewards.

3. Guided by mental rules: It’s structured by the rules the child has in mind.

4. Imaginative: There are rules, but always room for imagination.

5. Done alert and active, not with a stressed frame of mind.

In his talk, Gray breaks down how these traits develop the child’s social skills and mental acuity. The podcast version is above, but you may find more to glean from the full version below:     

Gray is the author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.”  He spoke on August 4, 2016 at the University of Washington. Jennie Cecil Moore recorded his talk.

Produced for the Web byKara McDermott.