Learning, Play, and Peter Gray

This week, my mom and I have been talking a lot about Peter Gray’s lecture at the Conference on Alternatives to Compulsory Education (the video is about an hour long, but it’s 100% worth checking out!).  He was speaking about his research on hunter-gatherer societies, and what we can learn from their approaches to child rearing, learning and play.

The subject of play as learning, and play as exploration of ideas and skills, was something my mom and I were already focusing on and discussing as we read the old journal.  A prominent part of what Mom was recording was the imaginative play in which we daily engaged. She wrote about play inspired by books we read, places we’d been, activities and events; she also wrote about play that was spontaneous and surprising from the perspective of an adult observer.

* Space has entered their doll play somehow. They are traveling in space, I think. Mindy has Cosmos in her lap & is making reference to Saturn. On an expedition into the kitchen/schoolroom, they discover the play money. They decide to make a restaurant in space: Mindy said, “Who wants to make a restaurant in space?” Both girls clamor, “I do, I do!”

* Pretend: the restaurant idea finally resurrects itself (without space). People order food, the girls write down orders on pads of paper & ask relevant questions:

And what would you like to drink?,” etc.

Now the play has changed: Camille & Mindy are reenacting the “make-believe” segment of Mr. Roger’s dinosaur show, & adding stuff like fishing. Mindy is Lady Abilene or something, & strangely enough, Camille is, too!… They are getting tapioca pudding to feed the dinosaur…

My mom also wrote about the way that our play guided and informed the activities she facilitated. In this journal excerpt, mom describes the flow of play moving from one focus, to another, and then back again.

* → All 3 girls put on leotards & ballet shoes & danced to the Nutcracker Suite.

Then breakfast, dressing Lindsey, & brushing hair.

* → Children grabbed their “school books” (adult books) out of their cubbies. They pretend the books are about dinosaurs, but one is Aesop’s Fables, & Camille has difficulty pretending it’s about dinosaurs, since there are pictures of foxes, cows, etc. Mindy gets Cosmos (by Carl Sagan) & says, “This is my space book.”

She turns over each page, saying such things such as, “Here is Jupiter.” “The Moon.” “This is the sun.” “Wow, space is beautiful!”

Camille agrees that space is beautiful. We’ve been gradually acknowledging that space might be the next unit.  

* → Now they’re all 3 at the ‘dance stage’ again. It’s not just dancing, it’s pretend, with situations & characters & events.

Camille, Mindy & Lindsey dance

Although we were focusing on studying dinosaurs as our primary (child-chosen) theme, mom was beginning to observe a natural transition of interests and focus in the topics that appeared in our play.

But, going back to Peter Gray’s lecture, he talks about the children in a hunter-gatherer band playing at the important activities of adults in the culture, almost always without facilitation, instruction or encouragement. Hunting, gathering, and preparing food; tool making; caring for babies; culturally-specific rituals, dances, and songs; shelter building; etc., are all explored and practiced through play. Gray mentions that social negotiation and arguments between adults are also reenacted and critiqued through play.

The amount of detail in the journal ranges from simple notes like “Free Play: Tiger Attack” to more in-depth descriptions like this journal entry from Tuesday, November 17, 1987:


*Soon they rushed to the living room to dress up & have a dance recital. They have been princesses, fairies, & ballerinas… The fast part of Nutcracker Suite came on, Mindy proclaimed — “This is silly stuff time.” Lindsey went into her silly act, & Camille & Mindy giggled. 

The music changed again. Mindy & Lindsey said, “Oh, oh — it’s sad now.”

Camille: “Why?”

Mindy: “Somebody died.”

Camille: “Who’s going to be the died person?”

Mindy: “Lindsey, lay down very still.”

Lindsey: “No! Somebody in South America has died, and I am very sad.”

Sniffles & other sad moans and groans. Now they are talking about their Grandpa Muscato who died. Lindsey cried quite a bit — but it was more theatrical than real. Camille said, “It is so sad. A little girl in my Sunday School said one of her grandpas died, and she cried that day!”

Lindsey: “When the music gets happy, that means Grandpa comes to life again because the doctor fixed his heart because it was broken.”

The music changed, getting faster and light, & Lindsey leapt up: “This is it — he’s alive! He’s alive!”

Mindy said, “No, this is the rejoicement”…

This play is at once serious and incredibly sweet and specific to the mind and mentality of childhood. In certain sections of her journal, Mom documents us navigating the events and meanings of the complex world through play with the interest and attention of an anthropologist. It is wonderful to look back at the recordings of these unselfconscious exchanges that she journaled. But, I also found myself asking just how many of the “cultural skills” of our society we processed, practiced, or even had access to observe? There are so many skills to witness in our diverse and complicated society, so many roles that can be played. And so much of adult life is segregated away from children.

Certainly the predominant school environments are not spaces of access and exposure to the multitude of adult roles in our culture. Rather than focusing on the development of relevant work, family and community skills, the somewhat artificial skills of navigating tests, reports and academia in the name of acquired knowledge seem to be the major role of our education structure.

Unschoolers and students at democratic schools may have access to more “real-world” settings and adult activities than most public school students, but in today’s society, don’t all children see just a fragment of “what adults do”?

According to my mom’s journal, Mindy, Camille and I did play, at times, in mimicry of adult work that we either observed or read about. We also played school a lot, since school was a culturally prevalent environment that we were aware of (although not experienced with). And my mom writes about our exploration of learning other skills through play, such as learning the alphabet and playing at the task of writing:

* Letters: Lindsey is using the magnetic letters. She asks me to “read” the nonsense words she has run together.

Then, at my suggestion, she fills a letter tray by putting 26 letters in order.

It is a somewhat difficult task for her.

…[We] play a guessing game. I draw a lion. Camille guesses “lion” right before I draw a mane around the face. Both girls wanted to copy the word lion. Then they added drawings and “handwriting.” Mindy copied my lion face and added bold, enormous handwriting. Camille drew a human figure and wrote small, rounded script, which she “read” to me. Something about a woman from Mars doing strange things. I offered to print the sentence below her handwriting, but she said NO, she would read it to people…

This is an example of child-led “play” exploration of the skill of writing, initiated without direct instruction or assignment from an adult, including the creation of made-up words and scribbling. Examples of this play at reading and writing are numerous in my mom’s journal of that year of when we were 3 and 5 years old.

magnetic letters

The primary thesis of Gray’s lecture was that play is the means by which we are designed to learn about, explore, and develop skills for the world around us. Unschooling and democratic schools provide the space and time for this to unfold.

But in a society so diverse, with skill sets that are so specialized, how do we optimize exposure and access to the complicated adult world?