the decline of play & rise of mental disorders

An important talk by Dr. Peter Gray about the deep and necessary need for play by human beings to grow up smart and happy. Children need to play to be mentally, physically and emotionally healthy. Partial transcription.
I'm a researcher who studies play from a biological, evolutionary perspective. I'm interested in the reasons why play came about in the course of evolutionary selection, I'm interested in the evolutionary function of play. So I'm going to start with animals. Young mammals of essentially all species play. In play they develop fit bodies, they practice physical skills that are crucial to their survival, and they also practice social and emotional skills. By playing together, they learn to cooperate with one another, they learn to be in close vicinity with one another without losing their tempers, very important for social animals to develop. In risky play, they learn to take risks, to experience fear without losing their heads, a lesson that can save their lives in the course of a real emergency.

Researchers have conducted laboratory experiments in which they have deprived young animals, usually this is done with rats but sometimes with monkeys, of the opportunity to play as they're grow up and they've developed ways of doing this without depriving them of other social experiences ... The result is that when these young animals develop, they are socially and emotionally crippled. When you place one of these play-deprived animals in a somewhat novel, somewhat frightening environment, they overreact with fear. They freeze in the corner, they don't adapt to it, they don't explore the environment .... If you place one of these play-deprived animals with an unfamiliar peer, they alternately freeze in fear and lash out with inappropriate, ineffective aggression, they don't learn to respond to the social signals of the other animal. ... those mammals that have the largest brains and that have the most to learn are the ones that we find play the most ... human children, when they're free to do so, play far, far more than do the young of any other mammals.

A few years ago ... conducted a survey of anthropologists who had observed hunter-gatherer cultures in various isolated parts of the world and we asked them questions ... . Every single one of these ten different anthropologists ... told us that the children in the cultures they studied including the young teenagers were free to play and explore on their own without adult guidance all day long from dawn to dusk essentially every day. The adults in these cultures ... say, we have to let them play because that's how they learn the skills they need to acquire to grow into adulthood. Some of these anthropologists say that the children that they observed ... were some of the brightest, happiest, most resilient children ...

So from a biological, evolutionary perspective, play is nature's means of ensuring that young mammals, including young human beings, acquire the skills that they need to acquire to develop successfully into adulthood. ... Now here's the sad news, here's what I'm here to talk about. ... There s been a continuous erosion of children's freedom and opportunity to play, to really play, to play freely ... I've seen it in the course of my lifetime. ... In the 1950s .. we had ample opportunity to play. We had school ... Some people may not remember but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors play. We had half hour recess in the morning, half hour in the afternoon, a full hour lunch, we could go wherever we wanted to during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time, or for four hours a day. It just wasn't the big deal. And homework, for elementary school children, was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students but much, much less than today. Out of schools, we had chores, some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part we were free to play for hours after schools, all day on weekends, all summer long. ... I like to say that when I was a kid, I had school but I also had a hunter-gatherer education. At that time, you could walk through any neighborhood in America, almost anytime the school wasn't in session, and you would find kids playing outdoors without any adults around. Now if you walk through most neighborhoods in the United States, what you find, if you find kids outdoors at all, is they're wearing uniforms, they're on some kind of manicured field, they're following the directions of adult coaches while their parents are sitting on the sidelines cheering their every move. We call this play sometimes but it isn't by any play researcher's definition, its not really play. Play by definition is self-controlled and self-directed. It's the self-directed aspect of play that gives it its educative power.

Here are some of the reasons why play has declined. One, of course, is the increased rate of school, but an even more important reason ... has been the spread outside of the school walls of a schoolish view of child development. The view that children learn best, everything, from adults. That children's own self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don't often say it that way but that's the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children. So childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume building.

Another reason, of course, has to do with the spread of fear, really mostly irrational fears, spread by the media, spread by experts who are constantly warning us of the dangers out there if we don't watch our children every minute they are out there. Many people recognize the absurdity of some of these extreme fears but yet once we get them in our heads, its hard to shake them. ... In addition, there's a kind of self-generative quality to the decline of play. Once there are fewer kids out there playing, the outdoors becomes less attractive. It also becomes less safe. So that kid who does go outdoors, finds nobody to play with and goes back inside.

Now I don't want to romanticize the 1950s, there's a lot of ways in which we're a much better world today than we were there but we are a much worse world for kids. Over the same decades that play has been declining, we have seen a well-documented increase in all sorts of mental disorders of childhood. ... [...] based on such [clinical assessment questionnaires] assessments, 5 to 8 times as many children today suffer from major depression or from a clinically-significant anxiety disorder as was true in the 1950s. This has been a continuous, gradual, roughly linear increase over the years, very well documented. Over this same period, we've seen among young people 15--24, a doubling of the suicide rate. We've seen among children 15 and under, a quadrupling of the suicide rate. ... We've become a worse world for children. Not necessarily a worse world for adults ...

We've also seen a decline in the sense, of young people's sense that they have control over their lives. There's a questionnaire called an internal/external locus of control scale and there's a version of this for children as well as for adults, given since about 1960. Ever since its been given, we've seen a ... continuous decline in children's and young adults' sense that they have control over their own lives. They have more and more of a sense that their lives are controlled by fate, by circumstance, by other people's decisions. This is significant in terms of the relationship between anxiety and depression because one thing clinical psychologists know very well is that not having an internal sense of control sets you up for anxiety and depression. ... We've also seen ... a rise in narcissism in young people and a decline in empathy. And most recently ... a gradual decline in creative thinking ... since about the 1980s. ...
...as any social scientist will tell you, correlation doesn't prove cause and effect. But in this case, I think that there is good reason to believe that the decline in play is the cause of these deleterious changes. For one thing, the correlation is very good, especially the correlation between the decline in play which seems to be roughly linear beginning around 1955 until today correlates very well with the roughly linear increase in anxiety and depression. .... Children are more depressed today than they were during the Great Depression, they are more anxious today than they were during the Cold War when they were continuously being warned of the threat of nuclear holocaust that could happen at any time. In addition, everything we know about play, tells us that these are the effects we would expect of children are deprived of play. They are analogous to the effects in animals when we take play away from animals. Play is where children learn that they're in control of their own life, it's really the only place they are in control of their life, when we take that away we don't give them the chance to learn how to control their own life. Play is where they learn to solve their own problems, they learn therefore that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy and they learn the world is not so depressing after all. Play is where they learn to get along with peers and see from others' points of view and practice empathy and get over narcissism. Play is by definition creative and innovative. Of course, if you take away play all these things are going to go downhill. And yet the hue and cry that we hear everywhere is for more school not for more play. We've really got to change that.

So I'm told its always good to end on a positive note. ... Let's admit this is our fault. ... But then let's say we can do something about it. .... Once we've recognized its a problem, then we need to figure out a way to solve that problem. ... We have to.. examine our own priorities ... develop neighborhood networks ... establish places for children to play ... we've even taken away sidewalks ... we need to open up ... school gymnasiums after school for free play ... we need to put supervisors in the park so parents will feel its safe enough to leave their kids there to play, a supervisor who knows how to keep things safe enough but not intervene ... we need to ... close off city streets at certain hours ... develop adventure playgrounds, relatively common in Europe ... We need to be brave enough to stand up against the continuous clamor for more school. Our children don't need more school, they need less school. Maybe they need better school but they don't need more school. ... Thank you ....





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