When I was a child, in the 1950s, children were far freer than they are today. By the time I was five, I could go anywhere in town, on foot or bicycle, without adult accompaniment. My family moved often, and in every town I found a new, different culture of childhood. In one town, when I was eight and nine, we made and flew crazy-looking kites, and we played endless games of baseball with our own made-up rules to fit the odd-shaped vacant lot and the motley, age-mixed group of players. In another town on a big lake, when I was ten and 11, my friends and I spent summers swimming, fishing, and adventuring out to islands in a rowboat that belonged to the whole community of children (or so we conveniently assumed). In the winter we skated or skied on the lake and stopped on islands to make fires to warm up, or just for the fun of making fires. Adults were not involved in these activities. They rarely knew what we were doing.

When I was 17, I worked as waterfront director at a summerlong sleepaway camp for kids from about age seven to 14. It was pretty much a place for continuous free play. The campers made up their own games, just as kids did everywhere, and they used the camp facilities in their own chosen ways. I spent several hours each day at the waterfront, and campers came and went as they pleased, to swim, canoe, or play on the beach. Sometimes a camper would ask for a swimming lesson, and I was glad to oblige, but I never gave group lessons. A staff member was also assigned to the archery range and another to the tennis courts to provide help for those who asked. Then, for the next three summers, I was waterfront director at a church camp. Each week a new group would arrive. They had their own counselors, who might teach a daily Bible lesson and organize two or three other group activities, but most of the day was free play.

At neither of those camps do I remember staff members worrying much about safety. Kids seemed to know how to take care of themselves. We certainly didn't worry about how to get them active or how to regulate their play. All kids knew how to do that and generally preferred to do it without adult intervention. Sometimes, because we were still just big kids ourselves, some of us on the staff would join in the play, just to play, not to direct, lead, teach, or be role models.

The Decline of Play and the Rise of Mental Disorders

In some ways we are a better society today than we were in the 1950s and early '60s, but we are a much worse place for children. Children are designed by nature to grow up largely in a culture of childhood, where they learn from other children through play; but we have destroyed that culture. Children now grow up more or less continuously dominated by adults. They no longer have much opportunity to practice independence, freedom, personal responsibility, and the ability to get along with peers without authority figures present.

The decline in children's play has been well documented by historians. For example, Howard Chudacoff, in his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), refers to the first half of the 20th century as the Golden Age of children's play. Ever since about 1955, he contends, there has been a continuous decline in children's opportunities to play freely, independently of adult control. My own analyses of the historical and anthropological evidence suggest that our children today are less free to play and explore on their own than children have ever been in the history of humanity, with the exceptions of those times and places of slavery or intense child labor.

There are many interrelated reasons for the decline in children's freedom. There's not space here to elaborate, but they include:

  • a continuous rise in time spent at school and doing homework, accompanied by a decline in recess
  • a rise in adult-directed, school-like activities outside of school, supported by the false belief that children gain more from adult guidance than from their own play
  • a rise in the view that childhood is a period of résumé building to get into an elite college, rather than a time for fun
  • a media-driven rise in fears for children's safety, accompanied by a growing belief that children are incompetent to look out for themselves
  • an increased litigiousness, with fear of lawsuits if a child gets hurt
  • a decline in neighborhoods, and therefore in neighborhood play, as both mothers and fathers now work away from home and rarely know their neighbors

Over the same decades that children's freedom has declined, we've seen declines in young people's psychological wellbeing, as well as their physical wellbeing. Elsewhere (including in my book, Free to Learn), I've reviewed the evidence for these changes, which comes from assessment questionnaires that have been administered, in unchanged form, to normative groups of young people over the decades. These assessments reveal a continuous, gradual, but ultimately huge increase in anxiety and depression in young people; a sharp decline in their sense of being in control of their own lives; a significant increase in narcissism (self-centeredness); and a significant decline in creative thinking (Gray, 2013). These are precisely the changes that any scholar of play would expect to result from restrictions in children's opportunities to play.

What Exactly Is Play, and How Does It Promote Healthy Psychological Development?

My definition of play is similar to that of other play researchers and scholars. I define play as an activity that has four characteristics. As I describe each characteristic here, I'll comment on how it contributes to play's promotion of healthy development.

One: Play Is Self-Chosen and Self-Directed

Play is always voluntary. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one must do. Players choose not only to play, but also what and how to play. If a coach, teacher, or anyone other than the players themselves directs the action, it is not play, or at least not fully play. In play children must decide what to do, follow through on that plan, and solve any problems that arise along the way. This is how children practice creating their own activities and seeing them through. It's also how they discover what they love to do and become good at it.

In social play with other children, which is the kind of play that children everywhere most enjoy, the ways of playing must be agreed upon by all the players. There's a simple reason for this: The most fundamental freedom in play is freedom to quit. That's part and parcel of play's voluntary nature. Every player knows that all of the other players are free at any time to quit, and will quit if they aren't having fun. Because players want to keep the game going to continue their own fun, they're motivated to be sure the others are having fun. That means paying attention to what the others are saying and even to their nonverbal expressions of happiness or unhappiness. It is in social play that children overcome narcissism. Play is where children learn to negotiate, compromise, and see from others' points of view.

When adults take over — when children's play becomes a teacher-led or coach-led activity, all this gets lost. Now adults create and direct the activities, solve the problems, and settle the disputes, so children don't learn to do it.

Two: Means Are More Valued Than Ends

Play is activity that, from the conscious perspective of the player, is done for its own sake more than for some reward outside of itself. In other words, it is behavior in which means are more valued than ends. When people are not playing, what they value most are the results of their actions, and they typically take the least effortful way of achieving their goal. In play, in contrast, players enjoy the means and don't necessarily look for the easiest routes to the ends. Players may exert great effort to move gracefully or create a beautiful product, but the reward comes from the doing, not from the product.

Play often has goals, but the goals are experienced as part and parcel of the activity, not as the primary reason for the activity. For example, constructive play (playful building) is always directed toward the goal of creating the object that the players have in mind; but the primary objective is the creation of the object, not the having or displaying of the object. Children play intently at building a beautiful sandcastle even though they know the tide will wash it away. Similarly, competitive play is directed toward the goal of scoring points and winning, but if the activity is truly play, then it is the process of scoring and winning that matters, not some consequence of having scored and won. Competition can turn play into nonplay if rewards for winning extend beyond the game itself. "Players" who are motivated by trophies, praise, or increased status outside of the game — as so often happens when adults take control — are not fully playing.

Play is the ideal context for practicing new skills or trying out new ways of doing things precisely because it has no real-world consequence. Nobody is judging, no trophy is on the line, and so the player is free to fail. With freedom to fail comes freedom to experiment. The play world is a simulation world; a safe, fun place to practice for the real world.

Three: Play Is Guided by Mental Rules

Play is freely chosen activity, but not freeform activity, not random activity. Play always has structure, which derives from rules in the players' minds. All forms of play have rules, which may be explicit or implicit. A basic rule of constructive play, for example, is that you work within the chosen medium to produce or depict some object or design that you have in mind, such as a sandcastle. In shared fantasy play, as when little children play "house" or pretend to be superheroes, the fundamental rule is that players must abide by their shared understanding of the roles they are playing; they must stay in character. Even playful fighting and chasing, which may look wild, is constrained by rules. An always-present rule in play fighting, for example, is that the players mimic some of the actions of serious fighting but don't really hurt the other person. They don't hit with all their force (at least not if they are the stronger of the two), don't kick, bite, or scratch.

Because of its rule-based nature, play is always an exercise in self-restraint. As pointed out long ago by the great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, play is how children learn to control their impulses and behave in accordance with socially agreed-upon rules (1933). Some researchers, including the esteemed neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, have even suggested that heightened impulsiveness stemming from lack of play may be part of the reason for today's high rate of diagnosis of ADHD (2007).

Four: Play Is Imaginative

Play always involves at least some degree of mental removal of oneself from the immediately present real world into an imaginary world. Imagination is most obvious in fantasy play, where the players create the characters and plot, but it is also present in all other forms of play. In rough-and-tumble play fighting, the fight is a pretend one, not a real one. In constructive play, the players may say they are building a castle, but they know it's a pretend castle. In formal games with explicit rules, the players must accept an already established fictional situation that provides the foundation for the rules. For example, in the real world you can get home by any of an infinite number of different routes, but in the fantasy world of baseball you must get "home" by running from base to base around a diamond-shaped path, only after a pitch occurs.

The imaginative aspect of play is the aspect most strongly emphasized by researchers who study play's role in intellectual development and creativity. A great human ability, which distinguishes us from other animals, is our ability to think about things that are not physically present. That is the foundation of our inventiveness, our ability to create hypotheses and think logically about them, our ability, even, to think about tomorrow. Children practice these abilities in all sorts of play as they develop logical constructs within their play world.

Imagination, of course, underlies all forms of creativity. Many research studies have s hown that adults, as well as children, are more creative, more able to think outside the box and solve novel problems, when they are in a playful state of mind, doing it for fun, than when they are in a competitive state of mind and motivated by rewards. People whom we think of as creative geniuses seem to be those who have retained the childlike capacity to play and have combined that with what they have subsequently learned. Einstein, for example, always described his work in theoretical physics as "combinatorial play" (1949), and he famously claimed that he came up with his understanding of relativity partly by imagining himself chasing a sunbeam and thinking about what would happen if he caught up with it.

Can Today's Camps Be Places for Play?

An almost reflexive response to this question is to think of all the barriers to play at camp:

  • the potential lawsuits if someone is hurt
  • parents' expectations that camp is a place for lessons
  • complaints from parents if staff don't react immediately to their children's minor injuries or settle their disputes
  • children's learned habits of expecting adults to solve their problems
  • children's lack of knowledge about how to create their own games
  • staff members' ingrained beliefs that their job is to supervise, direct, and teach

Can we think of these as challenges to overcome rather than as roadblocks? I would love to see a nationwide dialogue among camp directors about how to meet these challenges.

To further my own thinking on this, I interviewed Laura Kriegel, who, along with Jack Schott, is co-founder of Stomping Ground, located at Camp Amahami in Deposit, New York, which has just completed its second summer. Their goal was to create a camp where children would, to the degree possible, be self-directed, free to play in their own ways, and would make their own rules. It's a sleepaway camp for children and teens age six to 16, who may stay for anywhere from one week to three weeks.

A secret to the camp's success, I think, is the free age mixing of the campers. My own and others' research indicates that the presence of younger children brings out the nurturing instinct in older ones. Older children are kinder not only to the younger ones, but also to one another, when much younger children are around; and older children boost younger ones up into more advanced levels of activity when they play together.

In response to my question about getting parents to buy into a camp for free choice and play, Kriegel had this to say: "We had heard from other camps that parents were unwilling to pay for a program that did not provide structured lessons or measurable outcomes. But we found that marketing a self-directed program was easier than we anticipated. By clearly and repeatedly communicating the value of free play and the benefits of letting kids make decisions and control their experience, we found parents who were hungry for that opportunity . . . unlike many other camps, we are finding a high percentage of campers from families that are new to the whole idea of summer camps. We think this can be a strong push to a new market of parents who wouldn't typically think about overnight camp for their children but who value free play . . . we had about a 70-percent return rate from our first summer to our second."

In response to my question about today's children adapting to the freedom offered at the camp, Kriegel said: "We have found that even in the span of a week campers acclimate well to the amount of choice and freedom in our environment. Some campers, more than others, look toward the staff for things to do, and we accept this. We see ourselves as narrators and bridges into a more unstructured and choice-based environment." She added that counselors often help to get play started and scaffold campers into self-direction by playing with the campers as players, not coaches or directors.

In response to my question about safety concerns and quarrels, Kriegel said: "When campers are allowed to design how they want to spend their time, they sometimes come up with 'risky' ideas. We let campers work through rough-and-tumble play and decide for themselves what feels safe and intervene if we think serious injury is likely, but not for things like skinned knees or bumps and bruises. We have found that when campers are given responsibility, they take it seriously and understand safety concerns. Their parents are generally passionate about the idea that campers learn best how to solve problems and conflicts by having a chance to try it out in a loving and supportive community. One of the key components of our program is the trust we place in kids to work out their own conflicts. We have a circle system that works as our justice system. There are three levels of circle, all based on nonviolent communication, peer mediation, and restorative justice."

Today's camps can be places that start with the realities of today and help children gain the sense of autonomy and trust that is so frequently absent in the rest of their world by deliberately promoting free play and self-direction. I believe camps have a role to play in solving what I see as a huge social problem today, the lack of trust, freedom, and opportunities for real play accorded to our children.

Chudacoff, H.P. (2007). Children at play: An American history. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Einstein, A., & Schilpp, P. (Ed). (1949). Albert Einstein: Philosopher-scientist. Evanston, IL: Library of Living Philosophers.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Panksepp, J. (2007). Can play diminish ADHD and facilitate construction of the social brain? Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 16, 57–66.
Vygotsky, L. (1933; 1978). The role of play in development. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 92–104. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peter Gray, PhD, is a research professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology at Boston College. He is author of an internationally acclaimed introductory psychology textbook (Psychology, Worth Publishers, now in its 7th edition). His recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves through play and exploration, and he has expanded on these ideas in his book, Free to Learn: Why Releasing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. He also authors a regular blog for Psychology Today Magazine called Freedom to Learn.

Photo courtesy of Avid4 Adventure, Colorado Mountain Camp, Bailey, Colorado.