Let’s Make Time for Games

by Daniel Isler

“Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.” (Peter Grey)

Do you feel sometimes that people around you – at work, at school, on the bus or on the internet – are being schematic and predictable, contributing nothing to a given conversation but a chewed-up set of ideas? The world is getting rapidly more full of adults that are incapable of creative thinking that creates new knowledge by building on existing knowledge. A few weeks ago I wrote here about Sir Ken Robinson and his notions of how schools kill creativity. What are the alternatives that the modern education system can provide in order to overcome these problems?

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Peter Grey is an evolutionary psychologist, author of the book “Free to Learn”. His ideas revolve around notions of free education, one that does not demand the student to comply with a set of rules dictated by adults. Instead, he says, the pedagogic and parental systems need to leave more time for kids to freely play with other kids of different age groups, and develop skills of socializing and creating. In western societies, at the beginning of the industrial era, free time was a new commodity. Kids, that were not expected to plow fields anymore, came back from school straight into hours and days of free time to play with kids like them in the neighborhood. Nowadays, the wet dream of every parent is to have their kid enlisted in countless afterschool activities, severely confusing these with developing creativity in them.

Grey says that what kids are missing is, time to freely play without an adult around, and while doing so – to experiment with “real life” decision making. A social game – be it sport, playing cards, pretend and so forth – demands compromises. Without the frame of a school or an after school activity controlled by an adult, these compromises are created on the spot, giving the kids first hand experience of empathy and group dynamics. How could this be achieved in an age where parents are borderline-paranoid about their children’s safety?  Obviously letting them run around the neighborhood after school is not an option, out of fear for their physical and mental safety (in my opinion, this is also overprotective).

I learned all my life in a semi-open school. This was part of a process that eventually led to the creation of the now wide-spread democratic schools. Although appearing in several different forms, the general idea is the same: an educational institution that allows the single student to interact, develop and create without the confinements of a strict schedule, exams or adult supervision. Sounds confusing? In his article “Democratic Schooling: “What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education” Grey demonstrates how students of such democratic system actually continue to play after school years are over, and take their creativity into the adult world. Contrary to what one might expect, the lack of boundaries in their education did not make them lazy or out of control, but rather innovative, ambitious and passionate about their work.

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Education is everything. It is the creator of healthy societies, the preserver of peace and the mechanism for self-fulfillment. But if we do not stop referring to education merely as institutions for supervising kids, we are bound to live in a world where the most creative people are being erased by a dysfunctional system. We are bound to see more and more schematic and predictable people. Education is everything, including and maybe mostly – play. So let’s make time for games.


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