Just Let the Kids Play: The Science Behind Play Based Learning

by | Oct 27, 2021

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman

Children come into the world with instinctive drives to educate themselves. These include the drives to play and explore. Compared to previous generations, today’s children have more homework, more adult-led activities and less free time to just play. According to psychologist Dr. Peter Gray, (one of our favs here at Forest School) this is a worrying trend that is having a negative impact on society. . Dr. Gray is a research professor at Boston College and past chair of its Psychology Department, originally trained in neurobiology at Columbia and Rockefeller University. He is also the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life”

Dr. Gray’s research shows that free-play is an important part of child development. It’s where they learn things like courage, creativity and social skills. Play is enough and play is the only form of early-years learning that is backed by brain science. Check out this extensive and ever-growing list of play-based research and articles here.

aishling forest school freedom to learnThis past week at Aishling Forest School, we have been able to bear witness to the children coming alive in the woods and creating unique worlds, all their own with minimal or no adult direction. Whether decorating their multi-purpose dens, defending their kingdoms, working with real tools, such as hammers and bow saws, learning to create mini fires or simply telling a friend, “that scared me,” the children took ownership of what makes them each feel more alive. And isn’t that what the world needs more of?

As someone who has been struggling to come alive in the real world for three decades, I’m finally learning that a life with minimal danger, without pushing out of your comfort zone is a life that is well, minimal. We can instead teach our children how to confront risk mindfully, as risk stands at the center of most everything worth doing, be it climbing a mountain, asking for a raise, quitting a job, standing up for what you believe in, and/or telling someone you love them.

This authentic aliveness we see in children comes when they have the freedom to play and in result, the freedom to learn. This freedom is only multiplied by nature herself, an element that amplifies time, rather than steals it. So what is REAL play and how do we cultivate it at Forest School?

True Play, according to Dr. Gray is:

  1. “Play is self-chosen and self-directed. Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty. Play is not always accompanied by smiles and laughter, nor are smiles and laughter always signs of play; but play is always accompanied by a feeling of “Yes, this is what I want to do right now.” Players are free agents, not pawns in someone else’s game.
  2. Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends. Play is activity conducted primarily for its own sake. The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares less about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends. Think of a cat preying on a mouse versus a cat that is playing at preying on a mouse. The former takes the quickest route for killing the mouse. The latter tries various ways of catching the mouse, not all very efficient, and lets the mouse go each time so it can try again. The preying cat enjoys the end; the playing cat enjoys the means. (The mouse, of course, enjoys none of this.)
  3. Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players. Play is freely chosen activity, but it is not freeform activity. Play always has structure, and that structure derives from rules in the player’s mind. This point is really an extension of the point just made about the importance of means in play. The rules of play are the means. Among the most complex forms of play, in terms of rules, is what play researchers call sociodramatic play—the playful acting out of roles or scenes, as when children are playing “house,” or acting out a marriage, or pretending to be superheroes. The fundamental rule here is that you must abide by your and the other players’ shared understanding of the role that you are playing. If you are the pet dog in a game of “house,” you must walk around on all fours and bark rather than talk
  4. Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life. Imagination, or fantasy, is most obvious in sociodramatic play, where the players create the characters and plot, but it is also present to some degree in all other forms of human play. In rough and tumble play, the fight is a pretend one, not a real one. In constructive play, the players say that they are building a castle, but they know it is a pretend castle, not a real one.
  5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind. This final characteristic of play follows naturally from the other four. Because play involves conscious control of one’s own behavior, with attention to process and rules, it requires an active, alert mind. Players do not just passively absorb information from the environment, or reflexively respond to stimuli, or behave automatically in accordance with habit. Moreover, because play is not a response to external demands or immediate strong biological needs, the person at play is relatively free from the strong drives and emotions that are experienced as pressure or stress. And because the player’s attention is focused on process more than outcome, the player’s mind is not distracted by fear of failure. So, the mind at play is active and alert, but not stressed. The mental state of play is what some researchers call “flow” and is the ideal state of mind for learning new things.”

 Fortunately, for us at Forest School, nature provides the perfect container for pure play to occur as nature is both calming and stimulating at the same time, and allows each of us to enter a state of natural flow. Many of us experience and recognize the calming effects of nature. Biologist, Edward Olson may have explained it best in his biophilia theory— that humans are innately drawn to connect and commune with nature.

Natural environments not only soothe and center, they stimulate. Outdoor classrooms present learners with captivating sights, smells and textures, stimulating all of the senses. Sensory engagement could not be more critical to early learning—the more kids engage their senses, the more they increase their capacity to take in and turn new information into knowledge.

And a bonus is that our outdoor free play includes the wisdom of trees, whom we refer to as Standing People. For although they may not walk, they do hold the energy of the Earth and Sky and are living examples of balance, allowing humankind to discover the flow of life force that brings inner peace …and, of course, aliveness.

Ways to Cultivate Pure Play at Home (Because Play is Important for Adults Too!):

  1. Take time throughout the day to mindfully check in to see how you’re feeling and what you need in that moment. Sometimes we can’t meet that need completely but usually we can attend to it in some way, e.g., you might realize you’re exhausted but you’re at work so you might just choose to sit down for a minute and feel your breath and your body relax into the chair
  2. Learn from expert players—kids! Next time you’re hanging out with your kiddos, drop your agenda and see if you can let yourself sense into their playful energy. Follow their lead. We are relational beings so your nervous system will start to mirror their playful vibes when you allow it to.
  3. Play with your pets. Watch the joy in their eyes and their entire body as they play or snuggle or rest.
  4. Schedule free time into your week where you don’t have any agenda (maybe while the kiddos are at Forest School?) Put away your “to do” list during this time and follow your joy. As yourself, what do I feel like doing? What would bring me joy in this moment? Play doesn’t have to be high energy so go with whatever feels right. Make a “Playlist” and go back to what worked for you.
  5. Let yourself be silly. I have a duffel full of wigs and they are instant silliness in a bag. Create a silly bag or just dance around the room to some of your favorite music. Let yourself go- you deserve it, even in the kitchen while making lunches.

More Quotes by Dr. Peter Gray:

“To me, education is whatever it is that you learn that helps you to live a meaningful and satisfying life.”


“When you look closely at what kids are doing when they are ‘just playing’ it becomes increasingly amazing what they are doing and after watching this for a while it becomes not so surprising that they are becoming educated”


“The belief is that if you present an environment where kids truly have to be responsible for themselves then they raise to the occasion and become responsible”


“I think often the ‘problem child’ is the brilliant child”


“Our typical public schools try to push everyone through the same square hole, whether you fit or not.“


“Children need play, they NEED play to develop well. It’s not a luxury, it’s not something that we should regard as recess or a break from learning it IS learning.”


“Play away-from-adults is traditionally how children have always learned the most important skills.”


“If adults are always telling you what to do, then you’re not learning how to do it yourself.”


“A little girl who climbs a tree higher than her mom would want her to climb, comes down a more courageous person than she was before she climbed.”


“Even in terms of long term protection of the child, it’s important that children have the opportunity to play in risky ways.”


“Our job as parents is not to make that child into something. The job of parenting is for us to learn who that child is.”


Recent posts.
Meeting Children Where They Are Amidst a Global Pandemic

Meeting Children Where They Are Amidst a Global Pandemic

“The key is to meet children where they are. The way children choose to play and learn is usually better than enough- it is the perfect thing for them to be doing at that particular time.”- Janet Lansbury, author of “Elevating Child Care” These past few years have...

What It Means to Belong

What It Means to Belong

“Most children fail in school not because they lack the necessary cognitive skills, but because they feel detached, alienated, and isolated from others and from the educational process.” - Dr. Peter Gray Our home in the forest at Aishling Forest School is a community,...

Discovering the Light Within Each of Us

Discovering the Light Within Each of Us

“The light you give to the world multiplies the light you receive from the universe.” ― Matshona Dhliwayo As our days shorten, we feel the weather change and as we enter deeper into the brisk winds of autumn, we begin discussing these changes with our learners at...