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The Art of Play: The Fascinating Work of Peter Gray

When was the last time you played - when you did something freely, self-chosen and self-directed, and unmotivated by others, rewards, placings, work, peer pressure, nutrition, finances, etc.

Can you even remember? No phones, no screens, no rules, no starting whistles, no scores, no schedules - just you and your imagination. What did you do? Who did you play with? Where did your mind take you?

This is how Dr. Peter Gray defines play - self-chosen and self-directed; intrinsically motivated, guided by mental rules (which provide structure to the activities), imaginative, and conducted in an alert, active, but relatively unstressed frame of mind.

So yes, when was the last time you played?

A research professor at Boston College, Dr. Gray has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. His work and research over the years have brought him to the conclusion that play is in decline, and such decline is resulting in serious consequences. According to Dr. Gray, clinical psychologists have documented continuous increases in all sorts of psychopathology (anxiety, depression, etc.) among young people over the past five or six decades, the same decades over which play has been declining.

In another article, Dr. Gray draws similarities between play among dogs and play among children. He starts out by reminding us of the Golden Rule - “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But before we examine Dr. Gray’s modified Golden Rule for Play, take a second to think about playful roughhousing, either between dogs or kids. Not all dogs, nor are all kids, equal in size and strength. As the larger playmate, one might enjoy the smaller sibling or friend to really go after them. The opposite would not be true or fun for the smaller playmate. The key in this kind of mutual and fun free play, is for both sides to want to continue participating. There are no referees, rules, tap-outs, or time periods. For the game to continue each side must be aware of the other.

This leads us to Dr. Gray’s Golden Rule of Play - “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Therefore, to play effectively, each side must somehow get into the other person’s mind and infer his or her desires.

“Fairness in play does not mean that everyone is treated the same. It means that everyone is treated in a way that keeps the game fun for them. In play, children learn to respect human differences. Fairness comes not from thinking everyone is the same, but from recognizing and respecting the differences.”

So, let’s not let play become a bygone memory. And, let’s not allow our youth miss out on all the learning, growth, and memorable moments made during episodes of unstructured, unfiltered, and uninstructed play.

To read more about Peter Gray:

Play and Preparation as a Learning for Life. An Interview with Peter Gray.

Psychology Today. Freedom to Learn. Articles by Peter Gray.

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