The Startling Amount That Children Can Learn From Play

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In her TEDTalk, Alison Gopnik illustrates the value of an evolutionary perspective for understanding young children's amazing learning abilities. In my own research (described in my new book, Free to Learn), I've focused on learning among older children, children that we in our culture refer to as of "school-age." I've looked at how such children prepare themselves for adulthood when they are free to take charge of their own education.

As part of this work, I surveyed anthropologists who have lived in and studied hunter-gatherer bands in various isolated parts of the world. I learned that in all such societies, children -- from age four on through at least the mid-teenage years -- are free to play and explore on their own essentially all day long every day. Very little if any productive work is expected of them. When hunter-gatherer adults are questioned about this, they explain that this is how young people learn. The children play at hunting, gathering, building huts and tools, cooking, caring for babies, negotiating, making music, dancing, story telling, and all of the other skills that are essential to their culture's way of life. They do this not because adults require or even urge them to, but because they want to. Gradually, as they approach adulthood, their playful activities take on adult forms; playful hunting and gathering become real hunting and gathering (though still conducted in a playful spirit).

As another aspect of my research, I have studied education at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, near my home in Massachusetts. At this school, students, who range in age from four on through the late teenage years, have complete control of their own learning. The school is organized as a participatory democracy, so all of the rules are made by students and staff together (there are typically about 150 students and 10 adult staff members). None of the rules are about learning; they are all about protecting one another's rights and maintaining the school as an institution. As is the case for hunter-gatherer children, these students are free to play and explore in their own chosen ways, and with whom they please, all day every day.

Those who want to go to college have no particular problems getting accepted and doing well there, even if they have never previously read a textbook or taken a test. -- Peter Gray

In some ways play at this school resembles that of young hunter-gatherers, but in other ways it differs. They play at tree climbing and rough-and-tumble, but they also play with computers, and they play games that involve reading, writing, and numerical calculations (which are unknown to hunter-gatherers). They play with the various tools of our culture and learn to master them. In their play they develop passionate interests and expert abilities, and they often go on to adult careers that make use of those passions and abilities.

The school is now in its 46th year of existence. It has hundreds of graduates, and follow-up studies, including one that I conducted, reveal that they go on to highly successful adult lives. Those who want to go to college have no particular problems getting accepted and doing well there, even if they have never previously read a textbook or taken a test. The graduates have gone on successfully in the whole range of careers that we value in our culture.

When I compare the learning environment of the Sudbury Valley School with that of a hunter-gatherer band, I see characteristics in common -- characteristics that, I think, optimize children's innate drive and potential to educate themselves. These include (1) the expectation and reality that education is their responsibility, not someone else's; (2) unlimited opportunity to play and explore; (3) access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges or directors; (4) free age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and (5) direct participation in a stable, moral community (the school or the band) in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just themselves. Think of it; none of these characteristics are present in our standard schools. In our standard schools we deprive children of the conditions they need to educate themselves, and then we try to teach them something.

More than a century ago, not long after Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published, the German philosopher Karl Groos published two books in which he applied a Darwinian perspective to the topic of play. In The Play of Animals (1898) he argued that play is the means by which young mammals practice the skills they must develop to survive into and through adulthood. In The Play of Man (1901) he argued that human children play more than the young of any other mammals because they have the most to learn, and he also argued that human children everywhere play especially at the skills that are crucial to success in the culture into which they are born. The first book is still often referred to by animal behaviorists; the second, sadly, has been forgotten by almost everyone. It's time to revive and build upon Groos's theory of human play. [Readers interested in more information about playful, self-directed education can find it here.]

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