• Meredith Shaw

Peter Gray, Ph.D. offers Tri-Town community much to think about

Please note: No need to look for rhyme in this blog post (and good job if you noticed our initial post on play is written with near-rhyme).


TTC was honored to host such a thought-provoking talk by Dr. Peter Gray at Masco last Thursday Oct. 20. It’s always helpful to begin an exploration by developing a shared understanding of the concepts: essentially digging into the “what” on the way to “why.” The Boston College research professor’s talk “What Exactly Is Play?” gave us some good common ground, as he outlined the qualities that define true free play and its power.


Many thanks to the in-person and live-stream attendees, and everyone still watching the recording from Boxford Cable: 10/20/22 Peter Gray: What Exactly Is Play? with this accompanying outline: PDF Play Outline.


It will be great to have this conceptual foundation as we go into our next event: the documentary film “Chasing Childhood” at Masco on Thursday, Nov. 3. We will watch the film at 6:30pm in the auditorium and then break out into discussion groups at 8pm in the cafeteria. If you can’t join us to watch the film at that time, it is also available to watch on-demand Nov. 1-8.


Please consider registering with one of these options. The film is only available during this window of time, and we’d love for you to see it! If you watch it virtually, you can still attend our discussion Nov. 3 at 8pm.


Thank you for following this link to register for either method to view the film.


In Dr. Gray’s talk, he outlined five defining characteristics of true play, as well as types of play, the paradoxes and power of play, and the reasons why this is such a crucial issue today. Some parts weren’t easy to hear. Some validated our own instincts and beliefs. Some may have caused disagreement or curiosity. But overall the talk no doubt prompted some deep thinking about the nature of parenting, schooling, media, culture, time and the developmental needs of our youth.


Gray began by impressing upon the audience that there is a very concerning relationship between the decline of free play over the past few decades and the rise of anxiety and depression in young people. He also linked this concern to declining creativity and sense of control over one’s own life.


He described various types of play—from physical to linguistic; constructive to fantasy—many of which often involve social play. According to Gray, the five main characteristics that define true free-play are:

  • Play is self-chosen and self-directed.

  • Play is intrinsically motivated.

  • Play is guided by mental rules.

  • Play is creative and imaginative.

  • Play happens in a frame of mind that is alert and active, but not stressed.


Gray unpacked each of these points in his talk, with a wealth of insight on what children learn because of these qualities. He also added two defining qualities that make free-play truly powerful, both tied to the concept of freedom:

  • Play is trivial: because it is a simulation that doesn’t really “count” in the real-world, there is freedom to learn from failure.

  • Play has the freedom to quit: Gray described this as the “key to good human life” saying that when playmates are free to quit, players have to figure out how to get along and pay attention to each other’s needs.


Having these concepts and qualities clearly outlined is especially helpful because of the paradoxical nature of play: It is at once both serious and not, imaginative and bound by rules, not real and about the real world, and childish yet the foundation for the greatest adult accomplishments.


Being paradoxical is fitting, of course, as play exists in the realm of life’s biggest and most essential concepts. This is part of what makes it so interesting to explore.


What better reasons to join this exploration with our community?—Because we care about the developmental needs of our youth, because the idea is really intriguing, and because the possibilities with our new understanding are limitless.


We hope to see you Thursday!

Register to watch the documentary film Chasing Childhood

(view the trailer and learn more here)


MORE Play resources




50 views0 comments
Tri-Town Council

Tri-Town Council is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, and all donations are tax deductible. Please click the "Donate" button to securely donate using a credit or debit card. All donations are greatly appreciated!

Registered Charity:

Tax ID # 237-130-785

Quick Links

Contact Us:

(978) 887-6512

7 Grove St., Unit 202, Topsfield, MA 01983