Today, young families are pressured to prepare their children for a fiercely competitive world, and they work hard to give them the best possibilities. Education becomes the center of children’s and young people’s lives to assure a good future for them. The long school hours and extracurricular after school activities leave children with no free time to relax, meet with other kids and play. As a result of more study hours and less playful activity, the scenario has changed. In the last decades, anxiety, depression, and other diagnosis have instilled themselves into childhood as play noticeably decreases.
Why do we give more value to what a child learns in a classroom than to the experience of what they can discover by himself and by playing with others?
What a child loses when the highest expectations we have from them are academic performance?
Do we know what a child loses when the highest expectation is placed on his academic performance?
We interviewed Professor Peter Gray PhD, researcher in Psychology of Evolution applied to play to talk about the relationship between play and learning as pillars of a child’s development.
How did your interest in play and socialization arise?
My interest in play arrived secondarily to my interest in education. When my son rebelled in school many years ago, I realized he needed different kinds of schooling from his school, a standard suburban school. Most people thought it was a good school. He hated it and said he wouldn’t continue going there. He was going to fail if he had to be there. He was nine years old when it reached the point where we had to find something different. So I’ve been researching not concerning play or child development. A long time ago, I was doing a very different kind of research on the binding of certain hormones in the brain. But his protests about school led his mother and me to enroll him in a very alternative school, a very different kind of school where children are free to do what they wish, learn in their ways, and do their things. I was happy that he was happy, but I was concerned about the long-term effects of this. Would he be able to go on to higher education from this if he wanted to? So I got interested in how children learn in this environment.
children’s play, curiosity, and natural ways of satisfying their need to learn about the world around them and about themselves while gaining the skills they need to do well in the world they are growing up.
I did a study first of the graduates of the school and published it in an education journal which showed that the graduates of the school, even though they’re not doing anything that looks like school, are doing very, very well in the world. And they’re going on to higher education if they wish. I mean, this runs so counter to what most people believe in our culture. And then, I got interested in how children learn in this environment. That led me to focus on what they’re doing there, and for the most part, they’re playing, they’re exploring, they’re doing what you would expect kids to do. And I could see that in the process of doing what kids naturally do in this environment, where there are plenty of learning opportunities. There are lots of kids to play with and exciting things to do. So by any meaningful definition of education, they’re becoming educated.
That led me to the trail of research and writing I’ve been involved with for the last 35 years. I noticed that children’s play, curiosity, and natural ways of satisfying their need to learn about the world around them and about themselves while gaining the skills they need to do well in the world they are growing up.
You pointed out a different way from the traditional way to develop the kids’ full potential. What were the characteristics of the school you found for your child at that time?
The school is still in existence; it’s been there for 54 years. It’s called the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA. But there are now many schools worldwide modeled after Sudbury Valley School. Many of them call themselves Sudbury model schools. So this is a school where there are children, typically around age 4, that’s the youngest they’ll accept, on through typical high school age 17, 18, 19 years old. The children are not segregated by age and can interact freely across ages all day. They’re not assigned to any spaces. They’re not given a grade level. There were no elementary students; high school students were just there. The staff is generally skilled and knowledgeable in various areas, but they don’t see themselves as teachers. They believe that education occurs all the time in the natural course of life, and they’re just really the adult members of the community. They care for many of the responsible things you need an adult to do. They deal with the city, ensuring that the school is appropriately registered, dealing with parents, and so on.
There are no academic requirements for being a student there. The only thing that you have to do to be a student there is to prove that you are responsible enough to follow the school rules. All rules at the school are decided democratically by a vote in which every student and staff member is equal. None of the regulations have anything to do with learning. They all have to do with just decent behavior required for people to get along. For example, in any community, you can’t do something that hurts another person or destroy property. If you take something out, whether you’re a young child taking out a toy or an older person taking out art supplies, it’s your responsibility to put it away when you’re done. So there are a whole set of rules like that that you also have to follow. There are some safety rules that kids are not followed around by adults. You have to trust children. In this setting, even four-year-old kids have to be trusted that they’re not going to walk out into the busy street or get lost in the woods adjacent to the school. The only requirement is a visiting week in which the staff watches to ensure that the potential student is responsible enough to follow the rules to be safe there because they’re capable of taking care of themselves.
This experience with this school led me to subsequent research and studies of children involved in homeschooling, at the time referred to as «unschooling», where the parents facilitate the child’s interest rather than prescribe a curriculum for the child. My research on grown unschoolers likewise shows they do very well in the world when they grow up. All of this has led me to develop a view of education and children’s nature, which is quite different from the dominant view of our culture today. It’s not separate from the idea that would have been in place during most of human history and prehistory, I should say, because I’ve also studied how children grow up in hunter-gatherer cultures, and it’s very similar. The children play and explore, they observe, and they pay attention. There’s minimal teaching of any sort. The children keep their eyes open, acquire, and constantly pay attention to what’s happening around them. They’re continuously learning, and in their play, they’re practicing all skills necessary to the culture.
Children, throughout evolution, are naturally designed to learn this way. And what the Sudbury Valley School does is provides an excellent setting for those instincts to operate. A scene that isn’t necessarily present otherwise in our culture, plenty of children to play with, some kind adults will answer your questions, and there is the opportunity to use the tools and, perhaps most significantly, there’s a mixed age group. I advance that children are designed to learn from other children and that learning is best when there’s a range of ages. Younger children learn new skills from older children, and older children practice creative activities and are nurturing and caring in their interactions with other children.
Some characteristics you mention about the Sudbury Valley School seem like Montessori schools, but it caught my attention that there are no teachers inside that school, you say.
Montessori schools are slightly in that direction but would not be so far. Montessori teachers still see themselves as responsible for the children in various ways, but they indeed emphasize play and playful interactions. And although most Montessori schools are just for younger children, still among the younger children, there are often a lot of age mixed opportunities, and there’s a recognition that children learn best from one another. When that’s not the case, there is the same age. So there are some similarities. Montessori schools are, of course, very much more accepted. It also is the case that Montessori schools vary a lot from one to another, so there’s no clear definition of a Montessori school. Not all of them would be consistent with the philosophy of Maria Montessori.
The dominant vision about children corresponds to a traditional education based on planned and structured activities. What prevents our culture from trusting children’s ability to learn for themselves and their curiosity?
I think I’ve written about the history of schooling, which is fascinating. Why do we have schools that are structured as they are? Why do we believe children can only learn if we force them? We require them to learn. And the schools are, if you think about it, this sounds harsh, but there’s a real sense in which schools are prisons. Children are required to be there; their fundamental human rights are taken away from them while they’re in school. They’re not allowed to speak unless they’re asked to, not allowed to get up and walk around when they please, and they can’t even go to the bathroom without asking for permission. They’re told precisely what to do, what to think, they’re told «you’ve got to get the right answers here,» and you fail the test when your opinion is different.
The children keep their eyes open, acquire, and constantly pay attention to what’s happening around them. They’re continuously learning, and in their play, they’re practicing all skills necessary to the culture.
These are the things that my son hated about school. He was able to articulate that and rebel against it. Most children don’t feel empowered enough to express it, although, at some level, they feel they’re not being treated as decent human beings when they’re in school. But how did this come about?
If you investigate the history of schools as we know them today, that is mandatory, that is the talent prescribed curriculum, that are age-graded, and that have certified features, they have been around for a few 100 years. They became prominent, especially in the German province of Prussia, as early as the 17th century and took over by the state of Prussia by the 18th century. In the early US colonies, some schools were modeled after the Prussian schools. The rise of Protestantism led to these kinds of schools and had three primary purposes. The first purpose was to teach children to read because the Protestants, unlike the Catholics, believed that it was important for children to be able to read the Bible themselves, so the whole purpose for reading was so you could read the Bible. The second purpose of the schools was that you would believe the Bible. These were clearly fundamentalist Protestant schools, these initial schools, and they thought they were saving souls. They were saving children’s souls by teaching them to read the Bible and teaching them to believe the Bible. And the third primary purpose is obedience. The purpose of schools is to teach obedience.
Remember that at that time in history, the Protestants believed that free will leads to sinfulness, people are naturally sinful, and that free will has to be driven out. Schools were the place to do that, to learn to read, to know the Bible and memorize passages to repeat over and over again. You would be beaten if you disobeyed the schoolmaster. That was the nature of the early schools. Those schools evolved gradually over time. As the power of religion faded, and the power of states increased, governments took over those schools. Prussia led the way in this when the government took over the schools. In the United States and the colonies, especially after the American Revolution, States began to take over the schools, becoming state-run schools. No longer was religious doctrine being taught, but much of what was being taught had to do with the things that the state believed were important: patriotism, the belief of how brilliant the founders of your country are, how terrible the other countries are, and how wonderful your language is. That became kind of the curriculum of those early schools. But reading and a certain amount of mathematics and arithmetic became essential. But what remained the primary way of doing school, which was well designed for indoctrination and obedience training, did not change over time. It was well planned.
If we think of what you’re doing in school, you’re being given an assignment that you have to do. The only way, maybe especially today, you can fail in school is not to do what you’re told to do. If you do what you’re told to do, you will pass. You don’t have to do it very well, but you will pass if you do. If you don’t do it, you will fail. So no matter what we say about school lessons, the primary task even today is obedience. Now, for the most part, there are a few southern states in the United States where corporal punishment is still legal, but for the most part, we no longer beat children in school physically. Instead, we use other means of punishment and make them do the assignments. We shame them, embarrass them, put them in competition with one another, publicly rank them in various kinds of ways, and we make people feel bad in one way or another if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. First, the teachers report to the parents, and then the parents pressure the kids, so we do everything we can short of beating children today to get them to do those school assignments.
But if you’re a rebellious kid, if you say, «this is nonsense, I have better things to do, this is not even true what the teacher wants me to write, I think I know something the teacher doesn’t know» if you’re that kind of a person you’re not going to succeed. You’re likely to get a diagnosis of some sort. Suppose you’re the kind of person who just can’t get yourself to do work that seems boring and irrelevant to you, so you start doing other things in this classroom. In that case, you’re likely to get a diagnosis of ADHD, and maybe they will give you a drug that will have the effect of leading you to be less impulsive and more able to sit and do what you’re told to do.
I think that’s the history of why schools are what they are. And now, almost all of us, with a few exceptions, went to school as kids; our parents and grandparents went to school, and it’s hard for us to imagine what it would be like not to go to school. It’s just so much part of the culture that we automatically believe going to school is essential for growing up. You’re not going to learn anything; you’re not going to grow up; you’re not going to be able to get a job; you’re not going to be a decent adult human being if you don’t go to school. That’s a common belief, and as long as it isn’t challenged, it is self-reinforcing. So everybody’s going to school, and maybe the only people who don’t go to school are those we consider delinquents with other kinds of problems that lead them not to go to school, and then they don’t do well in the world. So that leads us to believe that school is so essential.
It’s been interesting to see where families have made a deliberate choice. «My child is not going to school as we know it.», «My child will follow their interest; I will support those interests.» These families accompany children’s natural ways of learning, their tendency to play in exciting ways, their spontaneous curiosity, and the desire to explore things. They encourage the child’s genuine desire to socialize and learn what other people know, paying attention to what older people do. I will let those natural tendencies and the child bloom instead of suppressing them as we do in school. And it turns out that when people do that, it works.
Suppose you’re the kind of person who just can’t get yourself to do work that seems boring and irrelevant to you, so you start doing other things in this classroom. In that case, you’re likely to get a diagnosis of ADHD  and maybe they will give you a drug that will have the effect of leading you to be less impulsive and more able to sit and do what you’re told to do.
 Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
We can understand that this traditional educational system has consequences, like demotivation and boredom…
I think that, in the United States, over the last 60 years, schools have become more oppressive. It is true in much of Europe too. First, the school day and the school year have increased. When I was a student in elementary the school day was shorter, and the school year was five weeks shorter than today. We had two hours of play at school, half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, and a full-hour lunch out of the six-hour school day. We were only indoors for four hours. I’m not sure that all schools were quite like that, but the data shows that there was a lot more recess and freedom for children to do creative things in school. There was a kind of progressive movement within the schools, with an understanding that children need the opportunity to do creative things and play. And in addition, in elementary school, there was no homework, so school ended when the school day ended. And I grew up having more time to play outdoors, counting all summer long, weekends, the time after school, to play outdoors with other kids, to develop hobbies, and to follow my self-interest. So kids at that time have lots of time to be kids and do the things that kids like to do. Today that is increasingly difficult for our families because school takes up so much children’s time and it has become more restrictive now.
Another consequence of the current school system is that we have hyperinflation of diagnosis in childhood. I observe that in my clinical practice with children. What is your impression of that?
One of the results is that school has become an environment that many children cannot handle. Children are generally very resilient and accommodating, so maybe even most of them can go through it. It doesn’t mean they like it. That doesn’t mean it’s good for them. But some children simply either can’t or will not manage it. The current scenario is too far from an environment that fits their way of being and personality. Some people are more impulsive and less accommodating, some are more reflective, more passive, or very energetic, and some are inclined to be obedient or a little rebellious or very rebellious. The school does not accommodate for those differences. In school, regardless of who you are, you are expected to do the same things as everybody else, and that’s more true today even than it was in the past. There was more opportunity for accommodation in the past because teachers ran the classroom when I was a student in the school. They could decide what to do. They like kids, want to make kids happy, understand differences among them, and allow for differences to some degree and what kids are doing in the classroom. But now, with «No child left behind,» with all the standardized testing, teachers can’t do that anymore. So, the result is that no matter who you are, no matter what your proclivities are, you are expected to do the same thing as everybody else. And if for some reason you don’t do it, the school, instead of saying there’s something wrong with our school that we are not accommodating you, they say there’s something wrong with you. There’s something wrong with this kid. You’re tested for ADHD, or the alert child has a learning disability, dyslexia or dysgraphia, or some learning disability that’s making it not possible. In some cases, drugs are prescribed; in other cases, some special program is prescribed, but not because these are real disorders.
 Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood.
People want to claim that this is all in the brain. Yes, of course it is in the brain; any differences are in the brain. You and I have different different personalities because we have different brains. But that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with your or my brain. We just have different needs. But if somebody’s brain is such that the school environment doesn’t fit them, we want to call it a disorder. We want to say there’s something wrong with that, and they need some treatment that will allow them to do what everybody else is doing in school. So I think that’s why there’s so much diagnosis. It’s not that these are real disorders; it’s just that these are situations where normal human diversity leads to the fact that some people simply either cannot or will not tolerate the school environment.
We find in our clinical practice that drug use for small children is widespread. And so many times, the family asks for this kind of treatment. Do you think that today parents are available to accompany their children to unfold curiosity and be free to discover the world around them?
It’s a very interesting thing. Parents are often seeking the diagnosis and looking for drugs to help their child succeed in school. I don’t blame parents for that; it’s completely understandable. We have a society constantly telling everybody how important it is to do well in school. You’re getting messages that your child is not doing well in school and failing. Like most other people in the culture, you believe success in school is the ticket to decent adult life. You need to do well in school. Maybe you need to go on to college, maybe even to a good college; otherwise, you’re not going to get a decent job, you’re not going to have a good life, and every parent wants their child to have a good life. So it’s completely understandable that parents would do anything, even give a drug that the child doesn’t want to take. I know many kids who take medications for ADHD say that they think it makes them feel bad, but they still take it because it helps them do better in school. I can completely understand why that occurs.
On the other hand, a growing number of families recognize that there’s another way. And that is to take your child out of school, and many families are doing that. Not so much for schools like Sudbury Valley because they do cost money for most. Some schools have sliding and even free tuition, but those only exist in certain areas, so the most common alternative today is homeschooling. And the number of homeschooled families has been increasing significantly in recent years.
If somebody’s brain is such that the school environment doesn’t fit them, we want to call it a disorder. We want to say there’s something wrong with that, and they need some treatment that will allow them to do what everybody else is doing in school. So I think that’s why there’s so much diagnosis. It’s not that these are real disorders; it’s just that these are situations where normal human diversity leads to the fact that some people simply either cannot or will not tolerate the school environment.
COVID played a role in it. Children were home during the pandemic, and many parents and children discovered that they could learn better at home than at school, that they were happier , and that they could find all kinds of exciting things to do and be connected to the culture. So even before COVID, the number of families in the United States homeschooled increased. But it doubled over the pandemic. Sometimes people think homeschooling is just for families that are relatively well to do and the parents are college educated, but increasingly it’s families even in poverty. The most considerable increase in homeschooling was among black families. Black families were unschooling, homeschooling rather, at the rate of only about 3% before COVID. It shot up to 16% of black families in America homeschooling their kids afterward. And I don’t know if that will remain or if some of them will go back to school eventually, but the reports from various states are that many of them, if not most, are staying with homeschooling.
I think that what’s happened is that many people whose children get some diagnosis decide to homeschool their child because they feel that they can deal with their children’s differences and understand the child better than at school. So, for example, let me give you two examples. I do this little kind of informal research study. Through the blog that I write for Psychology Today, I put out a message: «I’m looking for families where the child got a diagnosis of ADHD while in school, but you took the child out of school for homeschooling. I want to know how that worked out if you did that». I got many people who said, yeah, we’re in that situation. And then, I analyzed those stories. And I found that in almost every case, the child could go off of the drugs for ADHD once they were not in school, and the parents said the child is learning just fine at home. The child can pay attention and learn when doing it in his way and following his interests. It’s not that the child can’t pay attention; it’s that this child needs to be more in charge of his activities. He’s not so likely to do something just as you tell him to do it.
I did a similar thing about dyslexia, a widespread diagnosis in the United States. People want to say that dyslexia is a brain difference; maybe it is. But the fact is that nobody’s diagnosed with dyslexia by looking at their job. Instead, they’re diagnosed with dyslexia because they have been to regular school classes to teach them to read, and they’ve reached a certain age and have not learned to read. So the school says, «This isn’t our fault. We’ve been teaching them to read; other kids are learning to read, this means there must be something wrong with this child’s brain, and we’ll call this dyslexia.» And there are specialists for teaching dyslexic kids and so forth.
in almost every case, the child could go off of the drugs for ADHD once they were not in school, and the parents said the child is learning just fine at home. The child can pay attention and learn when doing it in his way and following his interests. It’s not that the child can’t pay attention; it’s that this child needs to be more in charge of his activities. He’s not so likely to do something just as you tell him to do it.
Well, I asked in another blog post, «Do you have a child who was diagnosed with dyslexia while in public school and took the child out for homeschooling? If so, what did you find?» And again, I’ve found, in this case, it was a relatively small number, I think it was about 11 or 12 families that were in that case, but every single one of them said their child learned to read when they took the child out of school. They said I had to not push through them because the idea of reading made this child anxious. The child was ashamed and anxious, frightened about reading in school, and didn’t even want to talk about reading. So like, we had to go through a period of not even talking about reading, I would read to the child, but I would not ask the child to read. I had to wait until the child wanted to read. And then that child learned to read. Some of them learned to read pretty rapidly on their own, others, it was slower, and it took help; two or three even used the programs designed to help kids with dyslexia. But most of them didn’t even need those programs. Most of them felt that was irrelevant. It was just overcoming the anxiety about reading.
Let me give you another example of what I mean when our schools produce these phenomena. Disorders are partly manufactured to explain why children are not learning in the typical school. But a major well controlled experimental study of academic preschool for children from families in poverty was conducted in Tennessee. That state developed this program for low-income families; they had to be below a certain income level to qualify to send their child to a preschool. It was an academically oriented preschool that was going to teach children reading and number skills and improve schools so they would have a head start in kindergarten and first grade. And it was well funded. The teachers were well paid, they were supposed to be highly qualified, and they had master’s degrees. So you have two groups, one that had this preschool training and the other that was just home in their low-income families during those preschool years. Then they used university professors who did this study; they followed the kids to 6th grade. They found that by 6th grade, those who were in this program were 50% more likely to have a diagnosed learning disorder than those who were not in the program. Dyslexia is probably the central disorder, but the other disorders too. Grades in school on average, scores in school on the standardized tests were higher, significantly higher for those not in the program than for those in the program. Tennessee also diagnoses children as gifted if they score above a certain level on some IQ tests. Those kids in the program were 50% less likely to be gifted by 6th grade than those not. On socio-emotional measures, the kids not in the program were doing better than those in the program. So that program harmed the kids in the long run.
I think what’s happening is that as we begin to push academic training too early, kids have no interest in this, no understanding. They do it because they’re required to do it; we are creating learning blocks, learning disorders, anxiety, and burning kids out about school even before they start actual school. We’re doing this more and more. When I was a kid, most schools did not have kindergarten, and those who had it were a place to play. Kindergarten comes from the German word, a garden for children, a place to play; then somebody got the bright idea, «Let’s start training children in kindergarten.» Pretty soon, kindergarten became like first grade, and now preschool is to train children so they’re ready for kindergarten. Preschool is no longer even in many places, just a place to play. It’s a place to get to do this passive worksheet and, sometimes, to take home homework. We should all realize this is outrageous. These are tiny little kids; they shouldn’t be forced to do this kind of work. They are designed to play, have fun, laugh, and explore; this is how they learn. In that way, kids learn about letters and numbers. They play with stuff and learn numbers when they count things out of their play. But when we force them to do these lessons, they’re just running so counter to their nature that we harm them.
There seems to be no time for childhood anymore because the system pushes kids to learn early. And at the same time, parents work and need their kids to spend many hours at school. So how could we rethink teaching and learning in this scenario? Can we do something beyond nontraditional schools or homeschooling?
We really need places where kids can be away from their families. It’s good for kids to be away from their families for a certain time. Children need to meet other people; they need to find places where there are a lot of other kids; they need to learn how to get along with other adults, not just their parents, which is very important. And parents need places where the kids can be while they go to work, but they should be kid-friendly spaces. They should be places the kids would want to go because they’re going eagerly. They should be playing areas, where there’s a sense of a range of ages, and they can spend all day playing and exploring, and there are very kind adults, where there’s good food there, there are all the things that kids need, and maybe there’s even some social work help for poor parents that come from that.
Changing high achievement for imagination is a big challenge. You highlighted that play and learning go together. But what about the emotional aspects involved in play?
Children naturally play. They don’t always play on rosy happy things, they play at witches and dragons, and they play at death. They play at all kinds of things. I think this is how children learn to deal emotionally with things bothering them. If in play you can control your feelings about these things, you can somehow master these things. If you’re afraid of ghosts but play about ghosts, you can develop a different attitude about ghosts; they can control ghosts. So in a violent world, if you play at violence, you’re not going to become violent by playing in violence, but you’re going to learn that «I can cope with this, I can cope with this world.» And so I think that that’s one of the many functions that play serves.
The whole purpose of childhood is to grow up; the purpose of childhood is to learn how to take care of yourself and become increasingly independent of your parents. But if we don’t allow children to become increasingly independent, we do everything for them. In that case, our only concern is their schoolwork, which is irrelevant to most authentic life.
It is fascinating to think about so many classic children’s stories. There are stories about wolves eating up grandmothers and about a witch putting little children into the oven. Today we tend to want to tell children just rosy happy stories about happy children and wonderful parents. But what is the attraction of those other stories? Children are drawn not just to what’s lovely in the world but also to realize that the world isn’t always pleasing. And those kinds of stories help children learn to cope with issues and fears. They often create their own, and they know they find some way to conquer the bad wolf when they’re acting out a scene. So they’re learning and developing a sense of empowerment in themselves, so they don’t necessarily feel like they have to be victims of the evil around them.
You said, «wonderful parents.» Another thing that is very trending nowadays is a lot of books about parenting. And parents work hard trying to raise their kids accordingly to what is evidence-based or trending. Do you think parents need to do more, less, differently to encourage their children’s creativity?
We’re always told to do more for our kids. We’re told we should talk to our kids and say a certain number of words, even if we don’t really have anything to say. We should be looking for teaching opportunities, watching our kids all the time to keep them safe, protecting them from emotional as well as physical damage, and we should be helping them with their homework. The result of this is that parenting has become a difficult job. That’s an idea that has risen gradually over the last few decades and makes many parents and children miserable. The parents feel responsible for everything the child does. It’s like it’s their parent’s fault if your child is naughty or doesn’t do well in school or whatever it is. It becomes a real burden.
It is very different from the way parents historically did. One of the reasons people used to have kids is so kids could help them, on the farm, in your business, and they did help. Kids want to help! If they can do real things, they feel part of the family and the community.
Research shows that in Indigenous cultures, the expectation is that your child, even as a toddler, will already be helping you out at home and in the workplace. Research in the United States shows that if you allow a toddler to help, the toddler eagerly helps. But in our culture in the United States, the typical parent doesn’t let the child help because this will slow the parent down, and the parent thinks the child won’t do a good job, and it’s not the child’s job. So children are discouraged from helping, and they learn not to help. Then by the time the child is 8 or 10 years old and you might want the child to help, the child no longer sees that as something they want to do. But indigenous cultures allow the children to help even when it’s not much help and might be causing it to take more time. The advantage is that those kids are developing the idea of «I’m a partner here. I’m one of the partners in this family. I am valued because I help take care of this house». And by the time they’re 7 or 10 years old, they’re real help; they are reducing the amount of work the parent has to do.
In the United States, when I was a kid in the 1950s, kids were expected to help. We all had chores at home, and we expected to do them. When I was twelve, I worked for a bookbinding company after school and began contributing to Social Security because I had a real job that was not too uncommon then. I felt good learning to do adult things, taking adult responsibility, even having a job showing up on time to work, and collecting a paycheck. And that money was your money; it wasn’t something your parents gave you; that was your money.
The whole purpose of childhood is to grow up; the purpose of childhood is to learn how to take care of yourself and become increasingly independent of your parents. But if we don’t allow children to become increasingly independent, we do everything for them. In that case, our only concern is their schoolwork, which is irrelevant to most authentic life. They’re not learning about real jobs while doing their schoolwork; they’re not feeling like they’re doing anything meaningful in the world because it’s not accomplishing anything. Children want to be useful; they want to be helpful, and they want to do real things. When we deprive them of that, that’s part of the reason children are so depressed and anxious today because they don’t have this sense.
There’s an area of psychology called Basic Needs Theory, and the argument is there are three basic psychological needs that everybody must fulfill, regardless of age, to feel mentally healthy. One of those needs is autonomy. You have to feel like I have charge of my own life. There are things I can decide to do independently of what other people tell me. The second thing we need is a sense of competence. Not only can I decide to do those things, but I can do those things. The only competence we push on children is academic competence, but the children themselves know that even the best students are cynical about that. They know that’s artificial confidence that doesn’t have anything to do with the real world. I’m just studying. I’m going through the roots. I’m learning what I need to learn to pass the test, and then I forget it. Even the best students say that this is artificial; this is not developing a real sense, an internal sense of competence. And the third is relationship. We need to not only feel some sense of freedom of choice, some sense of competence, but we also need to feel connected to other people, and that connection can’t be just with parents. The connections that are most important to children as they’re growing up and that become increasingly important are the connections to peers. You’re going to grow beyond your parents, you’re going to be moving away from your parents, but critical people that you have to be able to get along with are your peers. It’s from that group you’re going to find the person you’re married to, your friends, and a workplace. That’s the group you have to learn to get along with without some authority figure solving all your problems for you.
Children have this impulse to be free and competent, to value things that seem real to them in the world, and to make friends with other children. All of that happens in the play. That’s how children do that. Play, by definition, is free and involves acquiring competence because whatever you’re playing at, you’re trying to get good at that thing. Play is almost always when children have the opportunity to play with other children. Most children want to play with other kids, and the reason that Mother Nature endowed children with that desire is because it’s so important; probably the most important thing you have to learn for successful adult life is how to get along with your peers. None of us can make it in life happily alone. Play is nature’s way of ensuring that children develop and fulfill all these needs. When we deprive children of play because we’re constantly making them do schoolwork, we deprive them of filling these basic human needs.