Are Schools Prisons? Is “Dangerous” Play the Key to Education Reform? An Interview with Evolutionary Psychologist, Peter Gray

Listen to Kindred’s editor, Lisa Reagan, talk with Peter Gray, PhD, about the revolutionary insights in his new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.  Free Download.


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“I mean, we can’t have a happy marriage, good friends or work partners if we are not able to empathize with other people and see things from their point of view – get over our own narcissism. And this is what is constantly being practiced in children’s play.” — Peter Gray, PhD

Lisa: You open your book, Free to Learn, with the real life scene of your son in the school principal’s office telling the principal, teachers, school psychologist and you and your wife to “Go to hell!” This was a pivotal moment for you as an evolutionary psychologist, in 1978, as this is the moment that you decided to study education from a biological view.

Peter: This is the incident that got me to thinking very deeply about education, children’s nature and ultimately, changed the course of my career as well as led to an important decision in my family. My son had been going to the local public school, a perfectly good public school by the usual measures. However, he had been rebelling from kindergarten on. To him, and he articulated this, school was prison. He felt like he was being controlled in ways that didn’t make any sense. He felt he was being asked to do things that were mindless and stupid and he rebelled in every way through every grade. It was fourth grade when it reached a crisis point.

When it became a crisis, my wife and I were continually being called in for conferences. He was continuously being subjected to tests to see what was wrong with him from the school’s point of view. Ultimately, it was decided to have this meeting in the principal’s office with all of the professionals who had been dealing with him and we would tell him in no uncertain terms that he had to follow the rules of the school and he had to do his work in the way he was told and he couldn’t rebel. By making a show of force and consistency among us adults that we would some how be able to convince him to follow the rules.

So there we were in the principal’s office, there were seven of us big, smart adults. He looked us all straight in the eye after hearing all of this and told us to go to hell. Even saying this now I tend to get emotional. But then, I immediately started to cry. I looked at his mother and she also was crying. We knew at that moment that he was right. That we had to be on his side. We could not fight this. First of all, he would win because he had more willpower than any of us. He didn’t doubt that school was a bad place for him. We came to the conclusion that he was right and we had to be on his side and not against him.

We had been trying to go with the system. We’re not radicals. We were trying to encourage him to do what we thought was the best thing and he just wasn’t going to do it. So that was the turning point. We took him out of school after that. The chain of events following that incident let me to reorient my own research career.

Lisa: And some of the research you began to explore was around hunter-gatherer societies and you find that the central tenet for parenting and education is that “children’s instincts can be trusted.” This belief is contrary to everything modern parenting and education believes about children. How did you incorporate this revelation into your work?

Peter: As I said, I’m an evolutionary psychologist, which means I am interested in human nature and specifically, children’s nature. This has been the direction of my career ever since that incident in 1978 although it developed naturally.

It makes sense to look at hunter-gatherers because our basic instincts evolved from this way of life. It is interesting to see how hunter-gatherers relate to children, who had a lot to learn in their culture, even though what they learn is quite different from our culture. Fortunately, there have been several dozen hunter-gatherer cultures in different parts of the world that managed to survive into the late 20th century. Into the 1950s and 1980s, there were still anthropologists going out to study these groups and their way of life.

What is fascinating is that where ever these groups have been studied, in different climates, in jungles or deserts, there are certain similarities among them. They live in small bands, move around, don’t own much property and are highly egalitarian in their social structure. There are no other societies that we know of that are as egalitarian as hunter-gatherer societies. They don’t have chiefs or big men, these came later with more tribal societies following agriculture and animal herding. They make these deliberate attempts to maintain equality among one another.

As a part of this egalitarian ethos, they don’t tell each other what to do. They place a very high value on individual autonomy and individual freedom. Now there are certain things, that I should add quickly, that they won’t tolerate. They won’t tolerate not sharing. If someone kills a big animal and won’t share it with other people, that person will be humiliated in various kinds of ways. They would shame that person and if it continued they would find a way to exclude that person. Not sharing is regarded as taboo.

What I want to get to here, is that they have this attitude of not telling other people what to do. So they don’t tell children what to do. They believe that children have the right to make their own decisions. As long as children abide by the ethos of sharing, they believe that children will educate themselves. They don’t insert or inject themselves into children’s lives. This is extraordinarily different from the attitude in our lives where adults believe it is their responsibility to guide and direct children. Certainly we do this in school and more and more we are doing it outside of school.

little_girl-page2371The fact that this ethos is true in all hunter-gatherer societies studied, suggests that it is also true for our ancestral cultures prior to agriculture. That means that during most of human history, children were growing up in an environment in which they were in charge of their own education. And suddenly now, children’s nature, as we see it today, makes enormous sense.

We might wonder why is it children rebell? Some of them might not rebel overtly, but some of them rebell by becoming cynical about what their doing, and some might rebell by suppressing themselves in various ways, and so on. No one likes being put under someone else’s direction unless they have bought into their ideas and accept them as their guide.

Parents just need to remember how much they learned as children before going to school. When you look at kids in hunter-gatherer societies that amazing drive to learn doesn’t shut off when the kids turn five or six, it continues on and expands and grows and needs a bigger world to operate in as they grow older.

Hunter-gatherer cultures believe that children need all day long to play and explore because that is how they learn. They don’t expect them to do any serious work. They do some hunting and gathering on their own, but it is all playful; they are not expected to provide for their own food or other people’s food.

Ultimately, when they are ready, their play hunting and gathering becomes real hunting and gathering and they take their place in the culture.

Lisa: In the book, you spend a great deal of time describing what is happening in play. I think the importance and value of play is invisible to us. Play looks like you are goofing off or not productive. What is happening in play that it is so important, that it is, as you say in the book, a survival skill?

Peter: Play is really how children practice being adults. It is the world in which children are powerful, the world in which in which children make decisions, the world in which they have to solve their own problems, the world in which they have to get along with one another as equals, as peers, and a world in which they have to learn to control their own emotions. These are crucial skills for anyone to learn if they are going to have a happy, successful adulthood. None of these skills can be taught and the vehicle for learning them is play, especially social play with other children.

So, first of all, children are playing at the kind of skills they need for their culture. So hunter-gathering children are playing at making bow and arrows, tracking animals, defending themselves against predators in their play, making canoes, practicing the dances and making music of their culture. Of course in our culture, when children are playing they play with the things of our culture, with computers, as well they should because this is the major tool of our culture today.

So children come into the world paying attention to what are the tools and skills of the culture you are growing up in? And they play at that. But moreover, where ever they are playing socially, think of what they are learning…

First of all, if you and I are kids playing a game together, the first thing we have to do is to decide, well what are we going to play and how are we going to play it? I can’t get my way entirely. If I try to act too assertive, or bully you into just doing it my way, you are going to leave. You are going to leave. You are not going to play with me. But I have this strong drive to play with you. So over time, I learn that if I am going to be able to play with you or anyone else, I have got to be able to get into your mind and to see things from your point of view. And we have got to come together in a way to figure out what we are doing and how we are going to do it. So we both get what we want from it by compromising, and still pleasing the other person.

The basic freedom in play, which makes it so powerful, is the power to quit. If you can’t just easily quit, it is not play. The fact that you can quit makes it necessary for your playmates to get along with you. And the fact that your playmates can quit is what makes it necessary for you to get along with them. And children at play are constantly practicing that. What could be more important than that?

I mean, we can’t have a happy marriage, good friends or work partners if we are not able to empathize with other people and see things from their point of view – get over our own narcissism. And this is what is constantly being practiced in children’s play.

I could also talk about other things that are happening in play. For example, they are learning to deal with their emotions. Notice how children often play at dangerous things. Mothers often get very nervous, for example, when little kids are swinging too high. Dads do too, but they are usually better at this.

What do they do these dangerous things? First of all, it turns out that they have a pretty good understanding of what they are capable of doing. They are not taking huge risks. They may get hurt, but they are not going to kill themselves. The most important thing that they are learning, and there is a good deal of research suggesting this, is that they are learning how to control their fear. This wasn’t just an important skill for hunter-gatherers to develop, but us today. There is no way to go through life without encountering some dangers and some fears.

In this kind of play, children are sort of titrating their fear. How much fear can I tolerate? And so this thrill is both the pleasure and the fear together that comes from doing these dangerous things.

Lisa: In Free to Learn, you talk about the studies of children who played in concentration camps during the holocaust. You describe the horrific games that children played that allowed them to deal with the reality around them. Your observation is that children are working out and reflecting their world, so violent play does not create violent adults, but the opposite, more peaceful adults. You go onto show what happens if a perceived violent game is interrupted and not allowed to play out. In the book, in a different scenario, when a teach interrupts children playing a violent game, the violence turns from playing to reality and the children become destructive.

shutterstock_151229789Peter: Well there are two aspects to this. One is children in horrible situations, like the ones in the Nazi concentration camps, don’t play to escape the environment they are in. They play in a way that is designed to embrace and understand their environment. Children naturally play at the kind of skills that are crucial to dealing with that environment and at the kinds of things that will help them to emotionally deal with that environment, as well as deal with it in physical and practical terms.

In the Nazi ghettos, the adults would try to get the children to play the happy games they had known before so they could forget about the horrors of being in these ghettos, but the children themselves would have none of that. They played at war. They played at fighting the Nazi’s. They played at resistance. Even in the concentration camps, those children who had the strength to do so involved playing games to develop skills, like games of hitting one another and how much can you tolerate. They played at daring one another to touch the electric fences. One of the camps played a game called crematorium, as terrible as that may sound.

They are playing in ways that allow them to emotionally come to grips with the environment that they are in, and according to these diaries, in many cases this is what seemed to allow them to survive in situations in which they otherwise could not survive. Let’s hope that not many children will have to go through trauma like that, but many children experience trauma. Life has its traumas and it is not surprising that when this happens, children play at that event as a way of absorbing it into their understanding, as a way of learning to deal with it.

Sometimes we think that we could create a better world if we could control children’s play. Some people would like to get children to not play violent games, we hear this all the time. There was a movement not long ago that tried to get kids to not play with guns, but lo’ and behold, kids would turn anything into a gun. You couldn’t stop it. They would use their fingers or sticks as guns. So by depriving them of cap guns or toy guns it didn’t solve that problem.

When we live in a world where there are guns, that doesn’t mean that they are learning to be violent. This just means that this is something in their culture and they are going to play at the things that are in their culture. If we want to make a non-violent world, we have to work at making the adult world non-violent. It doesn’t make any sense to try to take these coping mechanisms away from children.

Lisa: So, when I was meeting with young moms in parks 13 years ago in these natural parenting groups and they tried to get the kids to not pick up sticks and fire them as guns, this was unnatural parenting? Hilarious.

Peter: It is interesting that hunter-gatherer kids do not play that way. I have asked over and over again, do they play at play-fighting? I was told there is only gentle rough and tumble, but if they are shooting at each other, it is as pretend predation, one is an animal and one is the hunter.

They don’t play at war because these cultures are not involved in war. And they don’t play at games that involve dominating one another because that is not part of their culture. We have a distinctly hierarchical culture and it is common for children to play games that try to dominate each other. Although, it is my observation that when children are playing without the supervision or direction of adults they more often play non-competitive games.

Lisa: I want to milk this point a little further, and talk about what happens when the violent or dangerous play is interrupted? In the book the play was contained until it was interrupted and then it erupted into the environment in destructive ways. Is this what you would expect if children can’t complete the process of working out their world challenges with play?

Peter: We have to draw the distinction between pretend violence and real violence. Kids in our culture today, love to play at pretend things that involve dangers. Even chasing games. Think of the little girl or boy when her father or older brother chases her and pretends to be a monster who is going to eat her up. In reality, that would be the worst possible situation. That is a nightmare. That is terror. And yet that is the most pleasurable kind of play for a little kid, being chased by this pretend monster who is going to eat you up for breakfast.

Why is that? That is because over the course of evolution, this kind of exciting play that involves pretend danger is exactly the kind of play that would teach you how to deal with the real danger if it occurs. So the very thing that in reality would be horrible, becomes joyful in play because you are practicing. You are practicing for something that could be horrible. Now the child isn’t consciously thinking about this, but the child has the instinctive tendency to enjoy that.

These exciting computer games that involve shooting your way out of danger, these are really just versions of that same kind of thing for some what older kids. There is not evidence at all, despite that there have been decades of people trying to look for evidence, for cause effect relationship between playing and these kinds of pretend violence and the development of real violence. In fact, it is the kids who grow up to be the most violent adults are generally kids who didn’t play at all. Not only did they not play violently, they just didn’t play much at all.

I have to say, I personally don’t have the stomach for violent video games and I wouldn’t buy them for my children, but I wouldn’t prevent them from buying and playing them. I make it clear that I don’t like these games, but I can’t find any evidence that it is actually harmful to play them.

Lisa: You just said, kids that don’t have the opportunity to play are more likely to grow up to be violent as adults. So this brings us up to the part of the book that integrates all of your research into play into our modern school system, which as your child pointed out in 1978, is comparable to a modern prison system, does not foster play, and is producing depressed, violent and broken, not to mention uneducated, children. So, bring us fully into the present and tell us, what is happening in our schools and what can parents do?

Sign up for the Best of Kindred’s e-newsletter to read the second half of this interview where Peter describes and answer the questions of paradigm-shifting to a new story of education, learning about Trustful Parenting, and his belief that alternative education is the future.   If you are already a subscriber, you will receive this transcript in your next issue!

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1 Comment
  1. Justin Zalewski says

    It seems that children are taught to conform and not question authority instead of being encouraged to become free and independent thinkers. It’s great to see someone raising people’s awareness!!!

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