Academic Minute Podcast

Peter Gray, Boston College – Why Children Need More Independent Adventure Than They Are Currently Allowed

Children need independent play.

Peter Gray, research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College, examines why.

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College who has conducted and published research in behavioral biology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of an internationally acclaimed introductory psychology textbook (Psychology, Worth Publishers, now in its 8th edition), which views all of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. His recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves through play and exploration, when they are free to do so. He has expanded on these ideas in his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books), which has been translated into 18 languages. He also authors a regular blog called Freedom to Learn, for Psychology Today magazine. He is one of the founders of the nonprofit Alliance for Self-Directed Education and of the nonprofit Let Grow, the mission of which is to renew children’s freedom to play and explore independently of adult control. You can follow him on Facebook and many of his published articles at

Why Children Need More Independent Adventure Than They Are Currently Allowed

I’m a researcher who has focused on the value of children’s independent activities for their development. Over the past half century, we’ve seen a huge decline in children’s opportunities to behave independently of adults. Children today are far less free to play and roam outdoors, to have part-time jobs, or engage in any activities without direct adult supervision and control than they were in decades past. Over these same decades, we have also seen huge increases in anxiety, depression, and even suicide among children, teens, and young adults. There are good reasons to believe that the decline in freedom for independent activity is a major cause of this decline in mental health.

This cause-effect relationship may be best understood by introducing the concept of internal locus of control, which is the sense a person has that they can solve their own problems and, generally, meet life’s challenges. There is a clinical questionnaire for assessing internal locus of control, and research shows that those with a weak internal locus are far more likely to experience severe anxiety or depression in response to life’s challenges than are people with a strong internal locus of control.

Research has also shown that, as children’s independent activity has declined so has their internal locus of control. This should be no surprise. Internal locus of control is strengthened through practice, in which the person has experience exerting control and solving their own problems. By not allowing children independent activities, we are not allowing them to develop the internal sense of control and confidence that they need to avoid severe anxiety or depression as they confront the inevitable bumps in the road of life.

To reverse the rise in mental health problems among young people, we must find ways to allow them more opportunities for self-directed activities and adventure than we currently do.


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