Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

A Playful Path, and DeKoven's Advice for Getting Back on It

We are born to be playful. We are, as Johan Huizinga put it long ago, Homo Ludens (the playful human) even more than we are Homo Sapiens (the wise human). But many of lose our playfulness. Why do we lose it, and how can we recover it? Here’s why, and here, especially, is how to recover it—from a new book by Bernard DeKoven. Read More

Playful is the only way to be

You know, in a universe where there are no fiery letters written in the sky telling us what to do or why we're here, where there's no "purpose" or meaning to anything in itself, where things and people simply are, and where death will probably take us completely out of existence in the end (no memories, no thoughts, no floating around as spirits, nothing), I think the playing and having fun is the only thing that makes sense.

I hate to bring the dark, heavy topic of death up, but looking at life through its lens can clear things up. The one-upping that school's grading system teaches shrinks to nothingness in the face of death. The hierarchy of performances in various activities evaluated arbitrarily by judges, etc. is all so mechanical, pointless, and stupid; the self-judging performance mindset also turns us into machines of unfeeling efficiency and seriousness. I mean, seriousness for WHAT? Who cares how "good" I am at chess or dancing? I can just see hunter gatherers howling in laughter when they watch our competitions we hold and how seriously we take them. Again, a playful life in my eyes is the only one that makes sense.

Sorry for that long soliloquy. To answer your prompt though, I feel my playfulness evaporated in middle school when more and more competitions were introduced to us, recess was taken away, and it was no longer cool to draw pictures in class. I left the world of Legos, drawing, and adventures and picked up religion and athleticism-- both obsessively, I might add.

Everything I did had to have a purpose in the grand scheme of that religion. And I took my athletic performances extremely seriously. In contrast, when I was a kid, my twin and I once made a "radio show" with a tape player. Sometimes we created hilarious sounds on the computer to replace the "warning" beep, like farting or dying noises. That DEFINITELY had no grand purpose, haha. But... all I can think of when I compare that to the seriousness my life later became imbued with, is how much, well, better it was.

Currently, one of the things I struggle with is wanting to be financially independent. So it's hard not to view the things I do in my free time now through the lens of, "Will this make me money?" And when I push for improvement in any one of those areas with the intent for making money off of it, somehow it's no longer fun. It's stressful. "Will people like this? Will people want to buy this?" etc.

So, WOW... Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Peter. I think it's worth repeating that, in the face of our universe's pointlessness, being playful is the only sensible way to be during our short visit here. I'm going to soak this in for a while; it's huge!!

As the Oaqui says...

Thank you for this great comment, Michael. In the words of the Oaqui: “In the beginning it was fun. In the end, it was all for fun. 
And in between is where it tickles most.” Let's enjoy the tickling. -- I think you will enjoy Bernie's book.

From a highschoolers perspective

I can't help but become excited everytime I see a new article from you about some book. I've pretty much read everyone of your articles multiple times and bought your book, which I'm rereading now. I find this field of developmental psychology-- that is, the field of play-- to be fascinating and absolutely devour everything on it. So a new book to read is always a delight to find on another dreary school day.

As a highschool student with clinical depression and ADHD, I can truthfully say school does destroy play in every way it possibly can. It's been such a struggle to revive that playfulness that you and Bernie are talking about. Putting in 3 or 4 hours of homework after 9 hours of school leaves little time to do things I actually enjoy. I have trouble believing that the same mentally taxing and tedious math that I am forced to learn is the same math that John Nash, Isaac Newton, and Carl Gauss love.
"Pure mathematics is the world's best game. It is more absorbing than chess, more of a gamble than poker, and lasts longer than Monopoly. It's free. It can be played anywhere - Archimedes did it in a bathtub."
--Richard Trudeau

But I also believe some of the blame must be put parents. My parents seem very intent on forcing to study for hours on end because my grades "aren't reaching their potential" and I'm "not reaching my potential." They have been threatens me with severe consequences if I can't get all of my grades up no matter how badly I hate each class. And worse yet, they are trying to get me to drop my favorite class because I'm trying my best. Most of my friends are in that class and I don't normally see them any other time thoughout the rest of the day. They even tried to force me to do water polo because they believed it would beneficial for me even though I already get enough excercise at LA Fitness.

I just wanted to say thank you for all that you are doing. I used to believe I was so stupid because my grades weren't all A's. Your blog really set me free. I appreciate all you are doing for us children. Thank Dr. Gray.

Sincerely, John

John, I felt really sad

John, I felt really sad reading your comment, and thinking about you and most other teens spending their adolescence that way, locked away in tedious classes completing work set by adults and government authorities, striving for academic excellence to please their parents or get into the best universities, memorizing and spewing forth facts and figures to complete tests that are becoming less and less relevant in our modern society.

My teens have lived their lives free from all of that, free to play endlessly, and pursue their passions as vigorously as they desire. It's a concept called Unschooling. Have you heard of it? I write about it at my blog, but your best source of inspiration would be

There is an old book that could be an interesting read for you. It's from the 70's, written to teens just like you. It is called The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life.

It sounds like your parents would do well to read The Playful Path! I hope they do. I would also recommend Parent Teen Breakthrough (The Relationship Approach). It tells parents about why control simply doesn't work with teens, and even addresses things like grades etc.

Good luck!

Thank you for this wonderful

Thank you for this wonderful comment. I have heard of the concept of unschooling since I'm a regular here on Dr. Gray's blog. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't pass up on the opportunity to expand my knowledge. I appreciate the recommendations. I think I heard of the Teenage Liberation Handbook before but put it aside because I thought my situation hasn't that dire, at least, until now.

It's people like you and Dr. Gray that keep me going. The last thing I want to do is give up and conform to schools expectations but it seems that everyday they suck a little of the fight out of me. Hopefully these resources will rejuvenate my fading spirit. While i have been pushing for homeschooling for a while now my parents are resolute. Maybe if I do give them the playful path, which I read on my ipad for free, they might have a change of heart.

Sincerely, John

Thank you for this wonderful

Thank you for this wonderful comment. I have heard of the concept of unschooling since I'm a regular here on Dr. Gray's blog. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't pass up on the opportunity to expand my knowledge. I appreciate the recommendations. I think I heard of the Teenage Liberation Handbook before but put it aside because I thought my situation hasn't that dire, at least, until now.

It's people like you and Dr. Gray that keep me going. The last thing I want to do is give up and conform to schools expectations but it seems that everyday they suck a little of the fight out of me. Hopefully these resources will rejuvenate my fading spirit. While i have been pushing for homeschooling for a while now my parents are resolute. Maybe if I do give them the playful path, which I read on my ipad for free, they might have a change of heart.

Sincerely, John

Playful math

You are right -- there are very different approaches to learning math. Here is a playful approach that many mathematicians seem to like: I don't know if it's much consolation to you at this point, but it does show that there is indeed another way.

Wow this is wonderful. Thank

Wow this is wonderful. Thank you. This is just what I needed. I really want to learn math even thought it is such a struggle for me in school. I was hoping math could actually be fun and this is perfect. This is a great article. I really appreciate it.

Sincerely, John


Great to hear from young people like yourself John, who are conscious in the moment of what's happening to them. Keep that upper-mind when interacting with the world John. Stay determined to have fun. Fun and happiness are all that will be important to you when you are out into the 'adult' world. All the money and all the qualifications in the world won't compensate for a lack of Joy.

Thank YOU, Jasiu

Thank you for this very kind note, Jasui. Maybe you should buy Bernie's book for your parents and ask them to read it; perhaps it will help them lighten up. And here's a link you might show them, which suggests we are entering an age where grades and college are far less important than most adults think they are:


NFL vs. "play"

Great one Peter. And the push for pre-pre-pre school, is to prepare them for the competitiveness of school, not through play, but control, which is the real purpose of school, plus babysitting. And with only play, they'd say we would still be hunter gatherers; as some politicians saying They built their business single handedly, not mentioning the infrastructure surrounding them. However, nearly all of the social infrastructure surrounding children is anti "play".

I would assume that very soon after being exposed to the controlling conditions of preschool and the expectations of society, most kids would feel bored/guilty if JUST allowed to play. Much as I started working in a stone quarry when 16, 10 hrs. a day and only 9 on Sat., at the same time playing trumpet in a 7 piece dance band, every Fri. and Sat. and often Sun. night, always from (9 PM to 1 AM), but if it rained we couldn't work and I would feel guilty, just swimming, playing ball and goofing around. Thanks, Dick


This is so relevant for where I'm at right now. We've recently transitioned from five years of homeschooling to unschooling. I went out and bought all sorts of games, craft supplies, and fun books. I just didn't get that you don't need these sorts of things to have fun. Thank you for pointing this out because more than once recently, I've confronted my kids while they were being silly with, "I bought all that stuff for you to do! Why aren't you doing anything?" I think I really needed to read this. Thank you.

Read the book

Bernie is so playful he's giving the book away. How playful is that?

What a nice essay ...

i'm looking forward to reading bernie's book - but can nonhuman animals as well as humans animals be too playful and have too much fun -- -- and good for bernie's wonderful generosity!

Original Play

Thanks for the recommendation, Peter.

It sounds like DeKoven's book would complement O. Fred Donaldson's book, Playing by Heart. I had the good fortune to participate in one of Fred's weekend "playshops" a few years ago. He teaches parents the art of "Original Play," which he discovered by literally playing with wild animals -- wolves, bears, elephants, dolphins, even insects. And of course children are also wild animals prior to being enculturated. He claims that Original Play is a universal aspect of all creatures. It's easy to observe in a pack of puppies, but pure Original Play in humans is usually only seen in certain "primitive" cultures.

His book is more philosophical than instructive. To learn the actual skills of Original Play, attend a workshop if you can. Or get a taste of it by watching the YouTube video playlist I put together on the topic. (Go here and click Play all.

Building a life around play

I just discovered and read your book Free to Learn and absolutely loved it, it resonated with me in so many ways.
I realize now in hindsight that I built a career around the concept of having fun. My advertising company, which I founded 20 years ago this month, was built around the premise that advertising can be fun, surprising and playful. Check out our website if you're curious:
My Mom used to chide me that my primary premise in choosing a career was that it had to be something where I wouldn't have to wear a tie. As simple as they might sound, it's absolutely true! For me a tie was the penultimate symbol of "too serious to have fun" and I rebelled against that from an early age.
I used to think that my greatest attribute was my enthusiasm but now I'm starting to think that it's really my playfulness, of which enthusiasm is a part.
My wife jokes that I'm the only person she knows who has fun cleaning the toilets. I guess I've intuitively always known that fun is the most important thing in life and that "life" is really only today anyway so you just have to have fun today, and never tomorrow because tomorrow never comes, if you can follow that twisted logic :-)
Once again, thank you for taking the time and putting in the energy to create your marvelous, fantastic, awesome, incredible, dare I say revolutionary, book. I will be recommending it to everyone I know for days to come!


I spent this weekend making a care package for Bernie after his visit a month ago. And I'd found myself putting off doing it at the end of each day. I'd say I'd do it and then I wouldn't.

Finally, i realized that I wasn't being willing to play my way into a real and really satisfying experience with my desire to thank one of my great mentors in a way that would delight us both.

I finally slipped into it when I found myself cutting things out of a magazine and felt an urge to snip out an eyeball and thought "eye love you" wouldn't it be fun to use an eyeball instead of the letter I? And then it was on. Hours later, with a stiff back and a blissed out Me, I emerged with a care package that cared because I stayed in my true fun all the way through it.

I loved reading this article. I've been slow traveling through Bernie's latest book for a while and love bouncing my own play thots off his like a bat zooming around a cave. I'll add your blog to my bouncing! Thanks again!

Thanks, Peter. Great article!

Thanks, Peter. Great article!

Video Games


This is related to a previous post, but it is way back in the archives. Perhaps you saw the new analysis on video games:

""We just finished a major review of studies, looking at 381 effects of violent video games in over 130,000 people," says Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. "We found that violent video games unmistakably raised levels of aggression and heart rate, and decreased feelings of compassion toward others."

As I previously said, you are wrong on video games and will be proven so over the course of time.


Thanks, Matt

Matt, I appreciate your continued interest in this question. The USA Today article you link to here isn't very helpful, by itself, because it gives no references to the original work. The article refers to a study in the February issue of Psychological Science, but I looked through that issue and found no such study published there. However, you did subsequently send me by private email (and I thank you for that) a meta-analysis that purports to show moderate effects in short-term experiments and very small effects in long-term studies. The short-term experiments are probably not relevant to real-world violence. There is lots of research showing that it is easy to manipulate people's self-reports of aggressive feelings, or the degree to which they will do "aggressive" things in the laboratory. These are most likely experimental demand effects. You can get such effects through all sorts of manipulations, not just video games (even just seeing a gun lying on the table will do it) and there is little evidence that the effects carry over to real-world violence. Generally, the only studies purporting to show effects on real-world violence are correlational ones. The problem there is the effects are small and the studies are confounded because there is no random assignment of subjects to conditions.

This is not my area of expertise, and I may well in the end be proven wrong, as you suggest. However, at this point I am most convinced by Christopher Ferguson's criticisms of the research purporting to show a causal effect of video games on real-world violence and by his own research suggesting lack of such effect. It is interesting, at least, to note that ever since the advent of video games, real-world violence by youth has gone down, not up. Certainly video games are not producing a massive wave of violence among our youth. The most violent people in our culture don't play at all--not at video games or in other ways. If we want to decrease real-world violence, we need to take seriously the drive to restrict access to assault rifles and handguns. The NRA wants to divert attention away from gun control by telling us that video games are the problem!

Best wishes,

Our society: built on a distrustful foundation

There are recovering smokers, alcoholics and druggies, who made the poor decisions to start and then try to kick the habits because of overwhelming evidence and encouragement from within and without, that these are not physically or mentally healthy activities. Only the individual can make those decisions.

Some say they are recovering Catholics, evidently trying to clear their minds of earlier indoctrination's. I assume my Methodist indoctrination was mild in comparison, though it has taken years to have the courage, if anyone asked, to say that I wouldn't be caught dead in church. We were saddled with whatever religious indoctrination's at an early age. We had no choice.

Since we were toddlers, we have been led to believe, that without schooling we would not read, write and would just huddle in a corner. It is difficult to imagine a more intense indoctrination, than 12 years of sitting where "the medium is the message", but we had no choice. For most, compulsory schooling was the unquestioned law and good people assumed the law was concocted by thoughtful, caring professionals.

Thirty five years ago, we didn't send our 6 and 7 yr. old sons to school. We were milking 40 cows, had a big garden and heated only with wood, so the boys and 2 younger sisters , knew where most of our food and all of our heat came from. We had no intention of "playing teacher", but Mother Earth News told of a visitor to Scotland being intrigued by their walking sticks. I read the article to the boys, showing them the pictures and suggested we cut some green gnarly trees, which we did, but walking sticks weren't my priority, nor their's, so I quit playing teacher and went back to spreading manure and they went back to playing on a big sand pile, with little trucks THEY had made with scrap boards.

In 1968, Bill Mullen with the older kids at the Antioch Campus School, was telling how like a family, they would gather first thing in the morning and after lunch, to visit about their lives and what THEY were spending THEIR TIME on. Bill would tell visiting college students to bring something they enjoyed doing and do it. If a student showed interest, to just visit with them and not try to cram their interest into them, for they could smell a tchr. and would leave. In my "Compulsory Schooling" letter to editor Fran, who is from Framingham, Ma., majored in English at an all girls Catholic college in Winona, married here and has run a biweekly for years, she was blasting students grades. I've asked, but she has never commented on Sudbury, though she still has family 1200 mi. back there. I've never known an unschooler in this town and didn't expect to hear from anyone and doubt any would understand Peter's comment about how Sudbury students would react to Master Teachers marching in to use them to show other teachers, how to teach.

All those school years of passively sitting. This small diversified farm was just the opposite. When 6, Kirstin was milking 20 cows,every third milking. The boys were driving tractor by 8 and the skid loader and chain saws by 12. When my wife and kids could handle milking, to survive, I'd go on the semi, usually with one of the boys along. The LA and Seattle runs with Watkins Products had 24 drops each, plus we'd pick up loads home, so in one run they would help unload, visit with and see more homes and businesses than ever in school. However, we didn't know another unschooling family within 100 miles, nor does the unschooling family that has lived here the last 16 years. Homeschooling is legal in all states, which is good, but read most unschoolers and you'll see the school monkey still sits solidly on their backs.

Mothers are the driving force behind home/unschooling, as long as they can afford to be home with their kids, often with little or no support from dads. If their kids decide to attend school, out of loneliness or for whatever reason, then mother gets a different job or takes up yoga.

Teachers circle like vultures, looking for carrion and when they land in a school, society pays them well to do their thing. "Those who can, do; those who can't,teach." I only like TALKING about DOING THINGS. Just came in from recycling barrels of food waste through our hogs. There was an email from Brian who has a Craigslist ad for an Orbit screener. He wants 50K and a new one is 70. I have neither, but the County and others want compost and I have 3,000+ yds,, loaders and time, Orbit will do a demo here soon.

Peter has put his passion into his "Free to Learn" book and blogs. My passion is trying to make this 175 acre farm, at the junction of 2 trout streams, 3 mi. from the center of Winona, a beautiful town of 26,000, built on a sandbar in the Mississippi River, yet protected from town by 500' hills and a Conservation Easement with the Mn. Land Trust an adjunct to a rustic Sudbury, that would be on 20 adjoining acres, plus 40 more acres with a large fancy home that is for sale. As with the screener, I don't have the means to acquire these parcels, which would protect this unique piece of land from encroachment and where as a steady supply of compostables keeps coming to this farm and I can handle compost, finding parents in this conservative area that would trust their kids to be free to learn, is a totally different animal. I still believe a film of kids growing up free, surrounded by doers, not teachers, which could happen here, would get through to parents and kids and help save those like John and millions more caught in the quagmire. If someone out there has a similar passion and the means, hope to hear from you. Thanks for listening, Dick .

michael kors watches cyber monday sale

thanks for share!

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).


Subscribe to Freedom to Learn

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.