A recent episode of the Defending the Early Years (DEY) podcast included a conversation with Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, author of the book Free to Learn, and a contributing editor at Psychology Today. In the podcast, he discusses how he defines play and why play is so important for young children.
What is Play, According to Peter Gray?
He defines play as having the following five characteristics…
Play is self-chosen and self-directed. Play is an activity that is initiated by the child or a group of children, who get to lead their own play.
Play is done for its own sake. Play is intrinsically motivated, meaning that it is not done for any kind of reward, outside of the game or the process.
All play has an element of imagination to it. When children are playing they recognize that they are stepping outside of the real world and stepping into a pretend world.
All play has rules. While rules might not sound very fun, all play has to have some kind of structure to it, which is created by the children themselves. These might include the rules of a game, such as Simon Says, or it might include more social rules, such as knowing not to actually harm another child during rough and tumble play.
Play is an activity that is conducted in a relatively nonstressed, but highly alert frame of mind. One must be mentally active in play, thinking, creating, exploring, and imagining. This is why play is the best state for learning! As they play, children are relaxed, comfortable, and open to trying new things.
What are the Benefits of Play?
Throughout the interview, Peter Gray highlighted several benefits of play, including benefits for learning, social-emotional development, and building language skills:
Through play, children learn how to create and follow rules, as well as how to initiate, control, and direct their own activities.
Research has found that children use more complex language when they are playing with other children compared to when they are speaking with adults. This might be because they are required to do more negotiation, problem-solving, and collaboration as they play with their peers.
If you are interested in hearing more from Peter Gray, click here to listen to the whole podcast, or visit Peter’s Psychology Today Blog, Freedom to Learn.