Search: peter gray


by Bernard De Koven on March 16, 2014

Warning: this post is a brag.

Dr. Peter Gray

Dr. Peter Gray, whose research into play appears frequently in this very blog, has recently published his review of A Playful Path in his Freedom to Learn column in Psychology Today.

But first, this story, from his post:

A few years ago I had an experience that helped me see the difference between play and play. I was invited by two ten-year-old girls, whom I knew well, to play a game of Scrabble.  I’ve played a fair amount of Scrabble in my life and am not bad at it. (In fact, some might even say I play a pretty mean game of Scrabble; and, depending on who says it, mean could have any of its common adjectival meanings here.) The two girls, in contrast, were complete novices. So, I saw this as an opportunity to teach; I would teach them the rules and some of the strategy of Scrabble. I would be their Scrabble mentor!

But, as it turned out, they taught me something way more important than Scrabble.

They loved the basic situation—taking turns at putting down letters in an organized way on the board, with sets of letters interlocking with other sets in crossword fashion, making interesting designs. But they had no interest at all in keeping score, and the idea of limiting themselves to real, actual words—words that can be found in the dictionary—bored them. They very quickly and effortlessly, with no overt discussion at all, and despite my initial protests, developed their own rules and strategy.

Their unstated but obvious goal, on each turn, was to put down the longest, funniest nonsense word that they could, using as many letters as possible from their rack combined with at least one letter on the board. It had to follow the rules of English phonology (or, as they would have put it, it had to sound like it could be a word), but it could not be an actual word. The object was not to score points but to make each other laugh, and laugh they did! They laughed like only two high-spirited ten-year-old girls who have long been best friends can laugh. Sometimes one would “challenge” the other’s “word,” asking for a definition, and the other would offer an hysterical definition that somehow seemed to fit with the way the “word” sounded; and then they would laugh even harder.  I realized, as I pulled back and watched them and began to laugh along with them, that my way of playing was something like what we usually call work. Their way of playing was play. I realized, too, that I used to play like that, as a child. What had happened to me in the interim?

Clearly, a man who would share a story like this on a blog like Psychology Today is someone whose appreciation I can appreciate. Clearly.

It took 25 years for The Well-Played Game to get connected to anything approaching the main stream (see Rules of Play, (Salen and Zimmerman), and three months for A Playful Path. Go figure.

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a ludic theory of human nature

by Bernard De Koven on January 28, 2014

As you know, I’ve become a more and more committed follower Peter Gray’s explorations in the fields of play. Which is why I’m writing now about an essay he wrote four years ago. It took me this long to find it. Go figure. It’s called: “Play Makes us Human 1: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature.”

I quote:

“I’m calling my theory a ludic theory because if I called it a playful theory you wouldn’t take it seriously.”

And then:

“Heaven take pity on those few of us who try to take play seriously. It’s hard to do. Play, by definition, is something that is not serious. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why most serious scholars stay far away from the topic.”

And a bit later:

“Playfulness in humans does not end when adulthood begins and it serves many functions beyond the learning of species-specific skills.”


“In our culture today, play and humor are still forces for defeating aggression, dominance, and hierarchy, though we don’t use them as effectively as hunter-gatherers did.”

And, all right, finally:

“Fun, beauty, creativity, representation, imagination–these are the essences of art, music, literature, theoretical science, and (I will argue two weeks from now) religion. These activities, which characterize our species everywhere, make us human. They all originated biologically in play. Play is the biological germ, which we inherited from our animal ancestors, which grew in us to make us human.”

Ah, such fine, scholarly, profound, and, for yours truly, profoundly comforting words! So, OK, so we could get better at this whole play thing. And we, apparently, once were much better. And yet, despite historical forces that are beyond our ken, take heart! For we have still within us the “biological germ” that “grew in us to make us human.”

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Life is an informal game

August 2, 2013

Peter Gray continues to provide inspiration and clarity to anyone who suspects that fun and play may, in fact, be important to our growth and, maybe even our survival. Recently, the Journal of Play published “Play as Preparation for Learning and Life: An Interview with Peter Gray.” (PDF) It’s a long article. The following is […]


are we the hunter-gatherers of the information age?

June 24, 2013

In another section of Peter Gray’s article on Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Existence (the same article we already quoted extensively), there’s a section describing how the “characteristics of a group playing a social game are precisely the elements that anthropologists refer to repeatedly, and often emphatically, in their discussions of social relationships and governance […]


hunter-gatherers, pick-up games, and the play community

June 17, 2013

Did I write this?: Imagine a neighborhood group playing together. To make the example more specific, imagine a game of baseball—not a little-league game run by coaches and umpires, which is not fully play, but a mixed-age pickup game run by the players themselves. The stated goal of each player might be to win, but […]


Free to Learn infographed

May 31, 2013

  Maria Droujkova is a mathematician, educator, and author of Moebius Noodles. She is also extremely playful, and believes, passionately and convincingly, that math itself is a play form. And, she is an infographicist. Recently, she published a post in which she infographicized much of a favorite book, by a favorite author of mine: Peter […]


playing at violence

April 9, 2013

In yesterday’s post I became a bit too overwhelmed by the stories of children’s games during the Holocaust to share with you a further, and perhaps even more penetrating insight into play that Peter Gray shares with us. “In play…children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to […]


Five lessons of informal games

March 13, 2013

There’s a section in Peter Gray’s Free to Learn that elegantly and intelligently reflects the very core of what I’ve been teaching about games and kids and adults and life. It’s core to the message of The Well-Played Game. It’s core to what New Games represents. It’s core to what I represent. It’s in Chapter 8, “The Role of […]


Free to Learn – free to play

March 7, 2013

As you know, Peter Gray has become an oft-quoted resource for us as we go about our mission to make the world safe for fun. He is a frequent contributor to Psychology Today, his articles regularly appearing on their blog in a section called “Freedom to Learn.” Today, we draw some more inspiration from his […]


should kids work like adults?

February 29, 2012

…or should adults play like kids? That’s the title of an inspiring and insightful post by another of my friends in fun, Mike Lanza, and, for a brief recent time, even politically relevant. And I most definitely encourage you to read the whole thing. In the always abbreviated mean moment, here’s a rumination-worthy part: People […]