Tamariki School

A Brief Review of the Literature on Play

The Importance of Play

Play is the fundamental work of the students at Tamariki School

A Brief Review of the Literature on Play and its Role in Cognitive, Emotional and Social Development

Prepared for Tamariki School, March, 2013



As part of its special character as a democratic school, Tamariki emphasizes the role of ‘free play’ in self-directed learning. This kind of learning is ‘owned’ and determined by each child and is supported by older children and adults who assist, support and sometimes inspire the self-directed process.

This approach surprises many people who are used to thinking of learning and education as a process of instruction about knowledge and skills that the child does not possess. From this latter point of view, learning must necessarily be directed from outside the child and its success must be measured by standards not developed by the child. Understood in this way, the child’s learning (performance) can often become a source of anxiety. Steady - or even ‘accelerated’ - progress along these measures or expectations is seen as a sign of effective teaching and learning. A lack of steady, measurable improvements against these measures and expectations is, by contrast, seen as an immediate cause of concern, perhaps needing remedial actions to be taken. This is sometimes called ‘supporting’ a child’s learning.

A focus on ‘free play’ as an effective means of learning may seem surprising from within such an instructional view of learning, but it is not at all surprising when relevant areas of the research literature are considered. From the perspective of the relevant literature what is surprising is the standard way that children are educated in modern societies.

The following is a brief review of some of the areas of research on understanding the nature, role and effectiveness of play in the development of human cognitive, social and emotional skills and in the acquisition of knowledge that is required in order to function well as an adult in any given society. Its aim is not to be exhaustive but to provide an accurate account of what is known.

The best, current, single source for a well-written and readable account of the research case for free play as the basis of children’s education is Professor Peter Gray’s recent book ‘Free to Learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life’.  (It was released on 5 March, 2013). As he argues,

“All of this work tells a remarkably consistent and surprising story, a story that defies modern, mainstream beliefs about education. Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with our children’s natural ways of learning.”

[Peter Gray, 2013, pp. 5-6.]

Professor Peter Gray is an evolutionary, developmental psychologist who is one of the world’s leading researchers into play, its evolution and its role in the developmental and learning process. He has published work on play and learning, including studies of the graduate outcomes of a democratic school in the United States (to which he sent his son). He is widely acknowledged and respected by his peers.

To take one example, Professor David Sloan Wilson – one of the foremost evolutionary biologists - had this to say about Peter Gray and the book ‘Free to Learn’:

“The modern educational system is like a wish made in a folk tale gone horribly wrong. Peter Gray’s Free to Learn leads us out of the maze of unforeseen consequences to a more natural way of letting children educate themselves. Gray’s message might seem too good to be true, but it rests upon a strong scientific foundation.”

[David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, and author of Evolution for Everyone]

Sloan Wilson et al. (in press) in a paper for the leading journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled “Evolving the future: Toward a science of intentional change” have taken Gray’s work, in particular in relation to Sudbury Valley School (a democratic school in the United States that runs on principles almost identical to those at Tamariki), in the context of a discussion of the ‘core evolutionary principles’ derived from Elenor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work on how groups can successfully, and intentionally, organize in relation to common-pool resources they discuss the “exceptionally well” functioning Sudbury Valley School:

The core design features that enable groups to function as adaptive units are so general that they have been independently derived on other “islands” of the applied behavioral science “archipelago,” without any awareness of Ostrom or core evolutionary theory. We will focus on the field of education, where a number of programs have converged upon the core design principles and appear to work exceptionally well, compared to the conventional American classroom environment.

An alternative school called the Sudbury Valley School embodies most of the design features and functions exceptionally well (www.sudval.org). The governance of the school is democratic, with students taking part in all of the major decisions, including hiring and firing of faculty. Norms of good behavior are agreed upon by consensus, monitoring is efficient, and conflicts are resolved by a judicial committee that all students and staff members are expected to take turns serving upon. Within this strong democratic and normative environment, students have complete freedom to learn what they want, without any formal courses or examinations. The adult staff facilitates the self-motivated learning by the students and provides explicit instruction when asked.


Part of this “folk tale gone horribly wrong” is a focus on monitoring, testing and grading the progress of learning towards pre-determined goals, not set by the child. Gray has a succinct comment about this focus on children’s performance and its measurement:

“Related to this anti-play attitude is an ever-increasing focus on children’s performance, which can be measured, and decreasing concern for true learning, which is difficult or impossible to measure. What matters in today’s educational world is performance that can be scored and compared across students, across schools, and even across nations to see who is better and who is worse. Knowledge that is not part of the school curriculum, even deep knowledge, doesn’t count. By “true learning” and “deep knowledge,” I mean children’s incorporation of ideas and information into lasting ways of understanding and responding to the world around them (more on this in later chapters). This is very different from superficial knowledge that is acquired solely for the purpose of passing a test and is forgotten shortly after the test is over.”

[Gray, 2013, pp. 8-9, emphasis added]


One aspect of free play that resonates directly with an often-heard call is its relationship with creativity. Today we are implored to be creative, innovative, adaptive and imaginative. Such properties are thought to be the leading factors in successful economic performance at the national level as well as personal success. In New Zealand, Callaghan Innovation, for example, was established this year as a Crown Entity charged with creating and delivering innovative products and services.

Innovation, creativity and imagination, however, are not easily measured, let alone controlled or generated ‘on demand’. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell, a pre-eminent philosopher of the 20th century, put it,

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, 'progress' would become mechanical and trivial.


Cast-iron rules are above all things to be avoided.

In a mechanistic civilization, there is grave danger of a crude utilitarianism, which sacrifices the whole aesthetic side of life to what is called 'efficiency’.


Since Russell penned these thoughts the empirical literature on the development of cognitive, emotional and social skills has supported his conclusion about the role of open-ended creativity in achieving success, at both the level of individuals and society.

It is therefore disturbing that a recent meta-analysis of the literature on creativity (Kim, 2011 – http://kkim.wmwikis.net/file/view/Kim_2011_Creativity_crisis.pdf) has found that scores on creativity tests have been declining over recent decades in the United States, especially since the late 1980s. At the same time, the proportion of time that children spend in free play, particularly in the outdoors, has also been declining.…


It is behind the scenes, by participating in collegial planning, being studious of innovative learning modalities, and valuing the background experience of each student that the teacher preparing for this supportive learning environment ensures student success while avoiding the pitfall of teaching to the test. What is seen by the untrained eye as merely ‘play’ actually incorporates these integrated- thematic studies, whole-language approach, manipulative math activities, and opportunities to learn through socialization and differentiated curriculum.

(Rushton and Juola-Rushton, 2008).


Possible areas to collect references about …

What is Play? – A Definition

For many people, the notion of play suggests activity done purely for enjoyment, recreation or to pass the time. It is often assumed to involve a lack of seriousness or practical purpose. In this view, to be just ‘playing around’ (or ‘mucking around’) is little more than an active form of idleness. Play, in this sense, signifies little and leads nowhere.

In the life of young children, by contrast, it is often understood as a useful means to an end. Play, from this perspective, involves the practice of skills and the exploration of potential. The ‘point’ of play is therefore to master (adult) skills and to develop personal capacities for use in more practical pursuits such as work, child-rearing and, generally, how to operate effectively in one’s society and culture.

A straightforward definition of play, however, suggests that there is more to the notion of play than either idle distraction or preparation for more serious pursuits.

The research literature defines it variously, divides it into different domains - e.g., Pellegrini, 2009, suggests four domains - locomotor, object, social and pretend - and sees its benefits as both immediate and longer term. Play or playfulness may also be a continuous variable (i.e., any behaviour is more or less playful) rather than dichotomous (play or non-play). One sophisticated definition is discussed by Pellegrini (2009, p. 132):

“Burghardt (2005) has advanced a more principled, and categorical, approach to defining play. He suggests that core criteria must be present for behaviors to be categorized as play; if these criteria are not met, the behaviors are not play. The behaviors must be voluntary, be observed in a ‘‘relaxed field,’’ not be functional in the observed context, and have elements that are exaggerated, segmented, and nonsequential in relation to the functional behavior. A relaxed field is one in which the individual, typically a juvenile, is well provisioned, safe, and healthy. Further, the child should voluntarily choose to engage in some social, locomotor, fantasy, or object-directed activity that is not directly functional. The nature and sequence of these behaviors should not resemble those in a functional context.

Play is very closely related to other concepts used in the literature: intrinsic motivation, autonomy, creativity, curiosity, exploration. Fundamental to most definitions, however, is the idea that it must be self-chosen and, in the case of children, involve little or no adult supervision. Pellegrini (2009, p. 134) points out that:

From my definition, not everything that children do is play, even though educators may label it as such. For example, it is not play when teachers or researchers tell children to ‘‘play’’ a phonemic awareness game or require them to sing a scripted letter–sound correspondence song.


The Origins of Human Play

Humans as Homo ludens


Play in Mammals and Primates

Play in Human Evolution and Prehistory

Play, intrinsic motivation, curiosity and exploration

The Role of Play in Social Development

The Role of Play in Emotional Development and Regulation

The Role of Play in Cognitive Development – Piaget, Vygotsky

Play and the Zone of Proximal Development

Creativity, Innovation and Play

Free Play and Academic Achievement

Non-Directive Learning (‘Discovery Learning’), Play and Life Achievement



Bibliography: Play and its Role in Human Development, Learning and Life




This page was last modified on: 02 Jun 2024 12:09:32