Why free play?
A Q&A with Dr. Peter Gray, professor of psychology
At Kamik, we know that outside free play is lots of fun and incredibly beneficial for children. We feel that kids today are missing out on the simple pleasures, games, and adventures we enjoyed outdoors during our childhoods.
We believe a wider public debate is needed about outside free play. That’s why we turned to an expert on the subject: Dr. Peter Gray. A research professor in the Psychology Department at Boston College, Dr. Gray has spent well over 20 years studying the psychological effects of play. We asked him to provide insight into the connections between play and learning—and what we can do to give children more playtime.
What is free play?
A lot of people are using the term “free play,” and I think that’s a good idea so that people are clear about what is meant. In my writing, I just use the word “play,” because what people think of as adult-structured play, I don’t think of as play. Free play is play that children are creating themselves. They’re choosing what to do, negotiating, making the rules, often as they go along. In other words, it’s a very creative activity.
Why is play important for children?
What I think of as the major function of play for children is learning how to be an adult. In real play, you don’t have adults telling you what to do. You’re gaining the confidence [to realize] “I can solve these problems. I don’t need to go running to an adult to solve every little problem.” In most children’s lives today, there’s some adult there who is, if not telling them what to do, at least guiding them, protecting them, solving their problems, and so on. Play is where children get away from that.
Are there benefits to adult-structured activities?
I think there is a benefit to adult-directed activity, but our children are getting way too much of it. When I was a kid, 95 percent of the baseball I played was free play as I described it. We’d go to the vacant lot, there would be other kids, we’d play baseball, sometimes we’d fly kites. But we also had a more structured [baseball league] organized by the town. It was on top of the other play, and the only people who did it were kids who really loved the game of baseball.
It gave us an opportunity to play the game in a more formal way, a little bit more like the way our heroes in the American and National leagues played the game. I think that formal [adult-directed] sports certainly have a place. I played high school basketball and baseball, and I enjoyed that. But if I had to give up one or the other, I certainly would have given up that over free play. I learned so much more in free play.
You’ve noted that there has been a huge decline in play over the last 60 years. What impact has this had on children’s development?
One of the clinical questionnaires that has been used with school-aged children and young adults over the decades is called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. Over this period of time that children have played less and less, what has happened is that children have lost an internal locus of control, which means the feeling of “I control my fate. I can solve my own problems, I can take charge of my life.” Whereas the external locus of control is [the feeling of] “I’m a victim of the world around me. I depend on fate, circumstance, and powerful other people.”
Ever since about 1960, when this test first began to be used regularly, young people have shown less and less of an internal locus of control. And where do you develop an internal locus of control, if not in play? Because that’s where children are in control.
What steps can we take to reintroduce play into our children’s lives?
I think one thing that really helps is to find a community of other parents who believe as you do, who understand the value of play. And to arrange opportunities to play where the parents agree: “We’re just going to let our kids play. And maybe one of us will be out there, we’ll figure out a rotation system, just to make sure it’s safe.”
Like so many parents, Kamik shares Dr. Gray’s concerns. Our family brand is here to encourage parents who want to make space for outside free play.
This interview has been edited and condensed.