Back to Playing, Not Back to School

It’s been a busy few weeks for me and I haven’t updated my blog in a while. However, I’ve been collecting some stories I want to share with you that give support for living and learning with children in non-technocratic ways.

At a time in our culture when economists and educators who view schools as giant machines that process people for jobs and social cohesiveness are in control, it is always refreshing—and important—to find researchers and opinion leaders from within the school system who support more human, relationship-based approaches to living and learning with children. One example of the technocratic view of education is the diminishment of physical activity, especially free play, for children. Many parents have internalized the messages the schools have been putting out over the years—your children need lots of academic rigor and the earlier they are brought into line with school standards the better—to the point that children’s free play, pick-up sports games, and other child-initiated and organized games are considered frivolous, if not an actual waste of time. However, as homeschoolers know and have written about for decades, free play is how children naturally learn and develop interests and skills. John Holt explains how this happens beautifully in his revised edition of How Children Learn, in his chapters “Games & Experiments” and “Fantasy Play.” Most recently, Dr. Peter Gray has edited a special edition of the American Journal of Play that focuses on the importance of play for children and its diminishment among schoolchildren.

The journal is available for free, and I urge you to read it if you, or people you know, are having doubts about how much time your children spend playing instead of doing school work. Here is some information about the issue to whet your reading appetite.

Go out and play! Parents today are less likely than ever to utter these words. However, hovering helicopter parents who restrict their kids’ unstructured play may actually harm, rather than help, children according to an interview with Lenore Skenazy (syndicated columnist and author of Free-Range Kids) and Hara Estroff Marano (author of A Nation of Wimps). The authors’ condemnation of overprotective parenting appears in a special themed issue of the American Journal of Play devoted entirely to the importance of free play among children.
Guest editor Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College, has gathered a distinguished group of contributors who probe the near-extinction of free play and its effects on children and society from historic, anthropologic, and psychological perspectives:

“Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let them Play,” an interview with Lenore Skenazy and Hara Estroff Marano

“The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play” by Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College

“The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adults” by Peter Gray,Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College

“Evolutionary Functions of Social Play: Life Histories, Sex Differences, and Emotional Regulation” by Peter LaFreniere, Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine


“Marbles and Machiavelli: The Role of Game Play in Children’s Social Development” by David F. Lancy, Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, and M. Annette Grove

“Empowering Groups That Enable Play” by David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor for the Department of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University; Danielle Marshall, Senior Manager of Research and  Education at KaBOOM!; and Hindi Isherhoff, former board president of City Repair

“The Design Your Own Park Competition: Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Outdoor Play on a Citywide Scale” by David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor for the Department of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University.

The American Journal of Play is published by The Strong in Rochester, New York. For more information, visit

Another piece of the technocratic school is technology. Homeschoolers have been dealing with online learning for many years now, being courted, even co-opted, by some companies to embrace their products. Now research is showing that High-tech classrooms don’t mean higher test scores.” This article, that I read in the Boston Globe, has three fascinating paragraphs near the end that I feel summarize one of the many problems that school innovation suffers from: how well-funded advocates can capture and control school funds into their agenda despite a basis in sound research. Homeshoolers have for decades heard that teaching your own children is irresponsible because there is little research to support it (which is just hogwash, by the way); however, when Big Schooling wants to do something it thinks is worthwhile it will press on regardless of what research exists. For instance:

In 1997, a science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton issued an urgent call about the need to equip schools with technology.

If such spending was not increased by billions of dollars, American competitiveness could suffer, the committee said.

To support its conclusion, the committee’s report cited the successes of individual schools that embraced computers and saw test scores rise or dropout rates fall. But while acknowledging that the research technology’s impact was inadequate, the committee urged schools to adopt it anyhow.

One reason our children are outside less and doing less physical play with each other is their increased access to technology that tethers them to screens. If only this money were spent improving playgrounds, parks, and public spaces; improving library resources (such as public computer access) and children’s health and nutritional needs; creating programs that encourage children and adults to mingle in person in their communities. If those billions had been spent in these ways since 1997 I think we would have improved children’s social capital and, in doing so, improved their school performance. Even if it didn’t improve their test scores, it would have had a positive effect on their everyday lives, which is, to me, even more important than test scores.

Finally, if you worry that you’re not spending enough time on academics with your children at home, this article might help you loosen up and let your kids play in the mud, ride their bikes, or help you do something around the house instead of doing school. The Associated Press reports that South Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming have shortened their school week in response to budget cuts. The article notes:

According to one study, more than 120 school districts in 20 states, most in the west, now use four-day weeks.

The schools insist that reducing class time is better than the alternatives and can be done without sacrificing academic performance . . .

 . . . Melody Schopp, South Dakota’s state education secretary, says schools that have switched to four days haven’t suffered in achievement tests.