By Jet Sichterman
Before, in the blog ‘About Toys’ I already said it: play is one of the most important means of child development. Children learn and develop through their exploration of toys and games, their language, physical abilities, social skills, cultural awareness, every part of development can be addressed by play. As Paula Vergunst & I will be giving a workshop (08/11/2013) exactly on this topic, here’s a little warming up in advance.
Someone who has done a lot of research on the topics of play, child development and education is Peter Gray. Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist, associated with Boston College. I have met with Peter Gray on a few occasions and his knowledge about playfulness and education always impress me. Currently I am reading his newest book called‘Free to Learn, why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life’.
As a result of his own research and personal experiences with his own son, Gray became increasingly concerned about the amount of time children spent playing nowadays and the quality of that play. He spent years of his career studying childhood, childhood education and child development from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychologists look at why certain psychological concepts and behaviors have occurred in terms of evolution & natural selection – similar to a biologists view on the physical characteristics of species. Gray used reports from anthropologists and knowledge from history to view how children were education in different times and cultures. The results of his study are very interesting and show that our society’s view on education is by far not the most natural or pleasant option for educating children. In fact it shows that children can – and will, if allowed to – do most of their education themselves.
In short, Gray saw that children in (present day) hunter gatherer societies all over the world got lots of time for free play. In fact – even adults had lots of time for free play because hunting and gathering were not as time consuming as farming (though more of a risk, you never knew if you would find food). It is assumed that hunter-gatherer societies of our ancestors were quite similar to the ones that are still around today. Which means that before agricultural periods there was no formal way of educating children and most of their education came from within; kids desire to be similar to their mums and dads. They play and act out scenes they have seen or heard of, such as how to hunt and how to take care of kids. They learn from older kids who have played it many times before. They play it so often that they know how it works halfway in puberty when they are allowed to participate in the real thing – still in a playful manner. And gradually play becomes the real thing.
Over time, perceptions of child play and education changed together with other major changes in society. Agriculture was hard work, children in these societies often needed to work too and there was not much time for play. Industrialization came with education the way we know it now, but based on strict religious beliefs that the main thing children were supposed to learn was obedience to their superiors; harsh methods were used to educate children.
Since the early twentieth century when education became mandatory in most Western countries, more and more demands are made of the education of our children; more hours at school, more homework… Next to that, children are very busy these days; going to daycare (still an adult-supervised situation) or sports (yet another one). Time for free unsupervised play is becoming more and more limited. This is one of Gray’s biggest concerns; his research shows that children educate (=learn everything there is to learn in order to be a successful person in society) themselves and adults are not supposed to interfere unless asked.
Looking back at our own childhoods, aren’t the moments of free play the moments we remember best? Aren’t these the moments we may remember as the most enjoyable, but also the moments we learned our most valued lessons?
This post was originally published on our old website on September 16th, 2013.
Of course this blog only gives a very limited view of the findings on play and education of Peter Gray, considering he wrote a whole book about it. If you’re interested, you can order his book online or in the Netherlands at the American Book Center (The Hague / Amsterdam).
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