The following is the full transcript of psychologist Peter Gray’s TEDx Talk: The Decline of Play and Rise of Mental Disorders at TEDxNavesink.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The decline of play by Peter Gray at TEDxNavesink
Good afternoon. I am a researcher who studies play from a biological, evolutionary perspective. I’m interested in the reasons why play came about in the course of natural selection, I’m interested in the evolutionary function of play.
So I am going to start with animals. Young mammals of essentially all species play. In play, they develop fit bodies, they practice physical skills that are crucial to their survival, and they also practice social and emotional skills. By playing together, they learn to cooperate with one another, they learn to be in close vicinity with one another without losing their tempers — it’s very important for social animals to develop.
In risky play, they learn to take risks to experience fear without losing their heads — a lesson that can save their lives in the course of a real emergency.
Researchers have conducted laboratory experiments in which they had deprived young animals — usually this is done with rats, but sometimes with monkeys — of the opportunity to play as they’re growing up. And they’ve developed ways of doing this without depriving them of other social experiences; at least with rats, they develop ways of doing this. The result is that when these young animals develop, they are socially and emotionally crippled.
When you place one of these play-deprived animals in a somewhat novel, somewhat frightening environment, they overreact with fear: they freeze in the corner, they don’t adapt to — they don’t explore the environment as a normal animal would.
If you place one of these play-deprived animals with an unfamiliar peer, they alternately freeze in fear and lash out with inappropriate, ineffective aggression; they don’t learn to respond to the social signals of the other animal.
It is not surprising that those mammals that have the largest brains and that have the most to learn, are the ones that we find play the most. And given that, it should be no surprise at all that human children, when they are free to do so, play far, far more than do the young of any other mammals.
A few years ago, one of my graduate students and I conducted a survey of anthropologists who had observed hunter-gatherer cultures in various isolated parts of the world. We asked them questions about children and play in the cultures that they observed. Every single one of these 10 different anthropologists who had studied hunter-gatherer cultures on three different continents, told us that the children in the cultures that they had studied, including the young teenagers, were free to play and explore on their own, without adult guidance, all day long, from dawn to dusk, essentially every day.
The adults in these cultures, when asked, say, “We have to let them play, because that’s how they learn the skills that they need to acquire to grow into adulthood.”
Some of these anthropologists told us that the children that they observed in these cultures are among the brightest, happiest, most cooperative, most well-adjusted, most resilient children that they had ever observed anywhere.
So from a biological evolutionary perspective, play is nature’s means of ensuring that young mammals, including young human beings, acquire the skills that they need to acquire to develop successfully into adulthood.
From a religious perspective, we might say that play is God’s gift that makes life on Earth worthwhile.
Now, here’s the sad news, here’s really what I am here to talk about. Over the last 50 to 60 years, we have been gradually taking that gift away. Over this period of time, there has been a continuous erosion in children’s freedom and opportunity to play, to really play, to play freely. This has been documented in various ways by historians and social scientists, and I am old enough that I have seen it in the course of my lifetime.
In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing, we had half hour recess in the morning, half hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour at lunch, we could go wherever we wanted during that period.
We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time, or for four hours a day, it just wasn’t the big deal. And homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high-school students, but much, much less than today.