Home » Transcript: Peter Gray on the Decline of Play at TEDxNavesink

Transcript: Peter Gray on the Decline of Play at TEDxNavesink

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.

Out of schools, we had chores, some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part we were free to play, for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long. I like to say that when I was a kid, I had school, and I also had a hunter-gatherer education.

At that time, you could walk through any neighborhood in America, almost any time the school was not in session, and you would find kids outdoors playing, without any adults around.

Now if you walk through most neighborhoods in the United States, what you find, if you find kids outdoors at all, is that they’re wearing uniforms, they are in some kind of manicured field, they are following the directions of adult coaches, while their parents are sitting on the sidelines cheering their every move. We call this play sometimes, but it isn’t by any play researchers’ definition, it’s not really play.

Play, by definition, is self-controlled and self-directed, it’s the self-directed aspect of play that gives it its educative power.

Here are some of the reasons why play has declined. One, of course, is the increased weight of school. But an even more important reason, as important as that one is, I think, an even more important reason for the decline of play has been the spread outside of the school walls of, what I call, a schoolish view of child development. The view that children learn best everything, from adults, that children’s own self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children. So, childhood is turned from a time of freedom to a time of résumé building.

Another reason, of course, has to do with the spread of fears, really, mostly irrational fears, spread by the media, spread by experts who are constantly warning us of the dangers out there, if we don’t watch our children every minute that they are out there. Many people recognize the absurdity of some of these extreme fears, but yet, once we get them in our head, it’s hard to shake them. I know many parents who would love to let their kids play outdoors, and they think it would be great to, but they just can’t get rid of that idea.

In addition, there is a kind of self-generative quality due to the decline of play. Once there are fewer kids out there playing, the outdoors becomes less attractive. It also becomes less safe. So that kid who does go outdoors, finds nobody to play with and goes back inside.

Now I don’t want to romanticize the 1950s, there is a lot of ways in which we are a much better world today than we were then, but we are a much worse world for kids.

Over the same decades that play has been declining, we have seen a well-documented increase in all sorts of mental disorders in childhood. The best evidence for this comes from the use of standardized clinical assessment questionnaires. Based on such assessments, five to eight times as many children today suffer from major depression or from a clinically significant anxiety disorder as was true in the 1950s. And this has been a continuous, gradual, roughly linear increase over the years, very well-documented.

Over the same period, we have seen among young people, from age 15 to 24, a doubling of the suicide rate. We have seen among children aged 15 and under, a quadrupling of the suicide rate.

Over the same period of time, the suicide rate for people my age has gone down considerably. We’ve become a worse world for children, not necessarily a worse world for adults, and may be a better world for us, older adults.

We’ve also seen a decline of the young people’s sense that they have control over their own lives. There is a questionnaire called the internal-external locus of control scale. There is a version of this for children, as well as for adults. It’s been given since about 1960. Ever since it’s been given, we have seen a decline, a continuous decline, in children’s and young adults’ sense that they have control over their own lives. They have more and more of a sense that their lives are controlled by fate, by circumstance, by other people’s decisions.

Now this is significant in terms of the relationship between anxiety and depression because one thing clinical psychologists know very well is that not having an internal sense of control sets you up for anxiety and depression.

More bad news. We have also seen in fairly recent years, due to the questionnaires that have been given out since about 1980, a rise in narcissism in young people and a decline in empathy. And most recently, there have been research studies, analyzing results of tests of creativity over the years, which show that there has been a gradual decline in creative thinking among children, schoolchildren of all grades, since about the mid-1980s.

Now, of course, as any social scientist will tell you, correlation doesn’t prove cause and effect. But in this case, I think that there is good reason to believe that the decline in play is the cause of these deleterious changes. For one thing the correlation is very good, especially the correlation between the decline in play, which seems to be roughly linear beginning around 1955 on through today, correlates very well with the roughly linear increase in anxiety and depression among young people. It doesn’t correlate with things like economic cycles or wars.

Children are more depressed today than they were during the Great Depression. They are more anxious today than they were during the Cold War when they were continuously being warned of the threat of nuclear holocaust that could happen any time.

In addition, play — everything we know about play tells us that these are the effects we would expect if children are deprived of play. They are analogous to the effects we see in animals when we take play away from animals.

Play is where children learn that they are in control of their life, it’s really the only place they are in control of their own life. When we take that away, we don’t give them the chance to learn how to control their own life.

Play is where they learn to solve their own problems and learn therefore that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy and they learn the world is not so depressing after all.

Play is where they learn to get along with peers and see from others’ points of view, and practice empathy, and get over narcissism. Play is by definition creative and innovative. Of course, if you take away play, all these things are going to go down. And yet, the human cry that we hear everywhere is for more school, not for more play. And we’ve got to — we’ve really got to change that.

So, I’m told that it’s always good to end on a positive note. I don’t want to be the only depressing speaker here.

So, I’m going to say: Look, let’s admit this is our fault. We have done this to the children in this world. Let’s start by admitting that.

But then let’s say, we can do something about it. The first thing we need to do is to recognize that it’s a problem. And once we’ve recognized that’s a problem, then we need to figure out how to solve that problem. We need to have an internal sense of control and know that we can solve this problem.

We have to begin by examining our own priorities. What do we really want for our kids? And how do we achieve it? We have to get to know our neighbors, develop neighborhood networks, because it’s in neighborhoods that children make friends and develop playmates. By getting to know our neighbors, we can convince ourselves that the neighborhood, after all, is a safe place to play, that neighbor isn’t a child molester after all, once we get to know him.

We need also to establish places for children to play, they have kind of disappeared, we have even taken away sidewalks. We need to do things like open up gymnasiums, school gymnasiums after school for free play. We need to do things like put a supervisor in the park, so parents will feel it’s safe enough to leave their kid there to play. A supervisor who knows how to keep things safe enough, but not intervene or interfere.

We need to do things like close off city streets during certain hours, so kids can once again reclaim the street as a place to play. And we need to do things like develop adventure playgrounds of the kind that are relatively common in Europe and becoming once again more so. And perhaps, most of all, we need to be brave enough to stand up against the continuous clamor for more schooling. Our children don’t need more school. They need less school. Maybe they need better school, but they don’t need more school.

So with that I am going to conclude, and I thank you very much for coming, I bless you and I hope that you will all do what you can to help bring play back to your neighborhood and to children everywhere.

Thank you.