“Free Play” is Learning and Character Building

Peter Gray, a research psychologist, at Boston College recently published an article with Lenore Skenazy on the power of “free play” and how it goes beyond the previously discussed benefits of fostering creativity and innovation. The authors assert that “free play” initiated and directed by children is the essence of powerful learning not its antithesis and leads to happy and productive lives. In an earlier blog I focused on the fact that play is a great motivator of innovation and creative thinking. Mr Gray and Ms. Skenazy give us even more reasons to say, ” go play”, and they are:  learning to cooperate, development of self-control, paying attention, managing difficult tasks, learning to practice plus solve problems and taking responsibility.

Cooperation is learned when we consider the feelings of others. While playing children learn to tune into the feelings of others because if they don’t they find out that the other children will quit and play stops. Learning to cooperate and negotiate is a crucial social skill that must be learned if one is to function in life. Self-control is another important part of developing into adulthood. During play children learn to exercise self-control and deal with emotions that occur whether they are anger with a playmate, fear of failure or the pain of a minor injury. This self-control is all done in order to keep play going and I believe it teaches the important lesson of not losing sight of goals set. What game doesn’t require a child to pay attention? From playing cards to a soccer game children need to stay tuned in and know the rules. Mr. Gary believes paying attention to play, which children love, teaches them to pay attention to other aspects of life such as  math and history.

The management of difficult tasks is a huge character builder for children. Play naturally draws children into situations that create more challenging activities as the child either runs faster, builds a larger tower or advances to the next level of the game. As children advance in play, they learn to hang in there when the going gets tough because they are motivated to succeed. Having this feeling instilled while playing can create confidence to conquer the many challenges life will bring in the future. If your child is playing and wants to excel at the task, do you ever have to ask them to practice? Of course not, so what we need to do is foster this focus learned in play and teach our children that they can apply it to all aspects of life. Play is often the one area where an adult does not step in to fix things for a child. The beauty of this is that children learn to solve their problems whether they are emotional, social, physical or intellectual and rejoice in their successes. This makes play practice for adulthood because children are in charge and loving it.

My hope is that as a parent you will try to incorporate more play time into your child’s life and less into intense study and resume building. The first step to a successful life is to be confident in your abilities and know you can obtain the knowledge you need to excel in society; play is the first step in this journey. Mr. Gray and Ms. Skenazy along with countless others are exhorting us to let our children play and I belive they are giving us compelling reasons to do so. If you are a homeschooling family and do not use the unschooling ideology give it a try, if even for a day a week. It is one of the most powerful tools that takes lessons learned in play to gaining knowledge.


To find out more about Mr. Gray’s and Ms. Skenazy’s ideas see the following:

Book – “Free to Learn”, Peter Gray

Blog – Freedom to Learn, Peter Gary

Book and Blog – “Free-range Kids”, Lenore Skenazy



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