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Peter Gray Explains How Humans Learned Through Play

by Laurie Block Spigel

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More information and books on play

Peter GrayPeter Gray, author of Free to Learn, spoke at the AERO Conference in May 2013. Mr. Gray documents a subject that is at the core of my work. I incorporate traditional children's games and theater games into practically everything I do. The games I employ, largely drawn from the work of Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd, are not competitions, and tend to foster a cooperative nature that leads students to actively build communication and social skills. The result is students with widely divergent personalities and backgrounds form a bond of mutual respect. So it is with great interest that I listened to Mr. Gray explain how all human beings used to learn everything through play. We were hunter-gatherers, and as hunter-gathers we first learned to hunt and gather through play. Mr. Gray gave many examples of this, such as young boys playfully targeting toads or birds before trying larger animals, and learning how to track local residents as a game that eventually leads to being able to follow more dangerous creatures.

I would expand on the theories of Mr. Gray and say that we learned everything not just through play, but also through story. The role of the elder in primitive society was often the storyteller and every society has trickster tales and folktales that teach caution, common sense, and responsibility. Even in our modern lives, I believe that the most important things we learn as individuals are learned through explorative play and the power of storytelling.

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Several years ago, at the AERO Conference in Albany, I took a workshop with the renowned educator Deborah Meier. She conducted a workshop on the importance of play and turned a large classroom of adults into small groups meditating on early play experiences. I had not realized until that workshop the clear connection between my early unstructured play and my work today. The way most children played house, I played school, and the way most girls wanted to be the mother, I had wanted to be the teacher. Looking back, I was not a very good teacher in those early childhood games, and my younger sister hated me for making her sit still while I stood before an imaginary blackboard. This was the beginning of my learning! We all naturally gravitate to playing with our favorite ideas, until pursuing our passion becomes similar to an addictive puzzle that we strive to unlock, the way others play at cards or chess or crosswords.

The power of storytelling continues to inform us as we read books, attend plays, watch films, and form our own stories. The stories that our parents told us, that we tell our children, that we choose to tell each other, become a constant source of learning. The most important stories are always told and retold. Peter Gray shared his own story, how his young son led him to rethink education and understand the necessity of play. We pass along other stories with our own, playing with them, and in the process of telling and performing and retelling, we understand and learn more.

Through play we can discover our true selves. If we indulge in unstructured play, we will naturally play at our eventual purpose, finding our true path. Play is the creative mind seeking to experiment until it finds a truthful moment that resonates in the soul. It is the way of all learning.

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More information and books on play:

Further reading from Peter Gray: