The Power of Play


It’s difficult for me to find anything to disagree with in Peter Gray’s article “Children are Suffering a Severe Play Deficit.”  After I finished reading it I immediately recalled a passage from Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World  by Mary Pipher [the New York Times best-selling author of Reviving Ophelia]– who wrote:

“Looking back, I wish I could have just skipped elementary school and junior high.  Outside school I loved talking to people and learning from them.  I would spend time visiting with old people in their gardens and on their porches.  I liked to play with little kids and chat with patients who came into my mother’s office.  Almost everyday, I learned things about the natural world and animals, and I read more books in the summer than I could possibly read at school.  I believe that I would have learned more if I had just been left alone to educate myself.”

Adults should allow and encourage children to play freely.
Adults should allow and encourage children to play freely.

Somewhere between our current rigid, adult dominated system of education and children being left alone to educate themselves, there is a middle ground that really excites me – one in which loving, joyful, creative and empowering adults partner with children in play.  And by play, I don’t differentiate between playing games of tag, building forts, conducting science experiments, kicking a ball around, solving mathematical equations, playing the guitar, painting a picture or performing Shakespeare.  Play is not about what you do but rather it is about the spirit and intention with which you do everything that you do.  Play is simply about freely and joyfully engaging, connecting and exploring the world around you, and – yes – education and play are synonyms.

Sigmund Freud said, “Nothing gives a child more pleasure than when an adult gives up oppressive control and plays with them as equals.”  If only teachers, coaches and parents were more frequently able to give up their oppressive control and play with children as equals we’d simultaneously be able to help keep them safe while also helping to nurture their social, emotional and cognitive development.

Play is not about what you do but rather it is about the spirit and intention with which you do everything that you do.

Intellectually, I understand that the world is not a whole lot more dangerous for kids than the world that I grew up in in the 70’s.  A world where it was common for kids to race around the neighborhood on bikes (without helmets I might add) from dusk until dawn without so much as a two-minute check-in with their parents.  To tell you the truth, I can’t even believe I survived childhood. I remember playing tag football on the median of the highway, taking short-cuts along active railroad tracks, knocking myself unconscious sledding into trees and puncturing limbs during unsupervised afterschool dart fights.

I may be wrong but I don’t see my generation of parents – often criticized as “overinvolved” going back to the laissez-faire style of parenting that I grew-up with anytime soon.  But this is okay, because I actually think that we –as parents— are evolving, and have many good reasons to be actively engaged with our children. Is it wrong to want to keep your kids safe and to be more engaged in all aspects of their young lives?  The stakes are even higher for parents and/or caregivers of children who – for whatever reason – need a little extra (or a lot extra) guidance, reassurance and support in order for them to be able to “play well with others”.

Playing aids in social and emotional development and is important for adults too!
Playing aids in social and emotional development and is important for adults too!

We adults aren’t ruining children’s play and learning because we’re overly involved; we’re ruining children’s play and learning because of how we’re involved.  We’ve forgotten (or never learned) how to play like children.  We’re so busy controlling play that we don’t give children the space and freedom that they need to initiate, fail, persevere and ultimately grow.  Adults don’t need to be absent from play, we just need our involvement to be more mindfully open, loving, empowering and non-judgmental.  In other words, we need to learn how to partner with children and play with them as equals.

We adults aren’t ruining children’s play and learning because we’re overly involved; we’re ruining children’s play and learning because of how we’re involved.

Yesterday, I facilitated a training on Healing Play in Copenhagen for thirty child-care providers working with refugee children in Denmark.  In order to see the work in action, the organizers of the workshop arranged to have a group of eight children from a local school join the training for an hour of playtime.  While planning for their arrival, many of the trainees expressed concern that the adults would overwhelm the children and that a playgroup of eight kids and thirty adults was ridiculous.   They suggested that some of the adults sit out and observe or completely remove themselves from the space.  We ended up doing just the opposite.  Instead of looking at the group as eight kids and thirty adults, we looked at the group as thirty-eight players.  We chose a couple of adults to “gently guide” the session and set-up the environment with art supplies, balls, parachutes and music.  The rest of us just got down on the kids level (or rose up to the kids level depending on how you look at it) and played.  Kids played with kids.  Adults played with adults.  Kids played with adults.   We all played together.  Maybe that’s the answer.

Steve Gross

About the Author: Steve Gross, M.S.W., is the Founder and Chief Playmaker of the Life is good Playmakers, a 501(c)(3) public charity. He has devoted his career to the service of our most vulnerable children. A pioneer in utilizing exuberant, joyful play to promote resiliency in children and their caregivers, and a leader in the field of psychological trauma response, Gross is committed to the healthy development of children facing the most challenging circumstances.

The vision of the nonprofit he founded is a world where all children grow up feeling safe, loved and joyful. In order to make this vision a reality, the Life is good Playmakers partners with frontline professionals – such as teachers, social workers and child life specialists – who dedicate their lives to helping children overcome poverty, violence and illness.  These Playmakers use the power of play to build healing, life-changing relationships with the children in their care. This foundation of playfulness allows children to engage the world with passion and joy while giving them the courage and creativity to see possibilities and solutions in the face of adversity. To date over 3,500 certified Playmakers have cared for more than 210,000 children throughout the United States and Haiti.

Steve’s talents have been called upon to respond to some of the greatest catastrophes of our time, including the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and the 2012 Newtown school shooting. At the heart of his work, Steve helps others access their own playfulness so that they can build resilience and bring greater joy, connection, courage and creativity to their work and their lives.


Photos courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection, and Duncan and used under Creative Commons License. 


 Share your views
  1. Steve,

    How did you happen onto Peter’s article in Aeon?

    For those who aren’t familiar with Peter Gray or his work, his blog has a wealth of information on his research and the conclusions he draws from it:

    My challenges with evolution when it comes to parenting skills is it takes so long, and it is at the expense of the children of those parents who are ‘evolving’ slower than others. Human evolution is measured in millions of years. The fear-based parenting we all see has risen to predominate since you and I were growing up, so we know that some things can change rapidly. But the move to allowing children to experience the woods, direct their own learning, play without constant adult supervision at best, outright intervention at worst, has not caught on nearly as quickly.

    Your experience in Copenhagen only points to the extent of the problem: child care providers unprepared to get on the floor to bond with children? Yikes! Maybe the Playmakers would help more children if they taught more adults how to play.

    Stephen Dill
    Marketing Manager
    Wheelock College
    o: 617-879-2355
    c: 339-364-1105
    T: @srdill

  2. joanne degiacomo petrie March 2, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Wonderful article with such spirit for all. In my field of work, clients frequently ask me the same question, “How did you learn to play”? Professionals who work with youngsters can not assume everyone knows how to engage in socially reciprocal interactions. For some, “play” does not come naturally!

    • I read this article a while ago and wanted to tag in now after reading again and now looking at the comments.
      Joanne, You are correct about the spirit and I think that is the essence of where the article is leading. I don’t think it is case of play not coming naturally for some, as it is more a case of our ‘adultness’ dulling those playful spirits that are inside all of us. In some cases adults were those kids who came from traumatic backgrounds where play was not an available avenue to learning. In those cases I believe we need to teach ‘adult playfulness’ and hope that the human spirit takes over.
      When I have done some work with young adult camp counselors who said they never ‘palyed’ growing up, all of them could identify something from their memories that was playful and fun. This one young lady identified her playfulness happened when she baked with her grandmother.

{ 1 Trackback }

  1. The Power of Children's Play - The Wheelock Blo... (Pingback)