Did What You Played as a Kid Influence Who You Became as an Adult? 

Readers — The folks at Playworld Systems, makers of playground equipment, not only made this elegiac video about saving outdoor free play, they’re also keen on reminding us all about the importance of early childhood play. Me too, for a variety of reasons, including one you don’t hear that much about: How early childhood play can be eerily predictive of who we become as adults. Example? Here’s what one middle-aged woman remembered about the games she played in childhood:

“We had all kinds of games, playing hard every day after school, every weekend, and from dawn until our parents made us come in at dark in the summertime. One game was called chase and run, which was a kind of complex team-based hide-and-seek and tag combination… As with all our games, the rules were elaborate and they were hammered out in long consultations on street corners. It was how we spent countless hours.”

She still spends countless hours in consultations and team-building. Her name is Hilary Rodham Clinton. I have to thank peter Gray’s book, “Free To Learn,” for digging up that gem of a memory, but whenever I give talks about the value of play and ask the audience, “Can you see any connection between the games you played as a kid and the adult you are today?” most everyone can. (When I asked that at an Early Childhood Education conference, practically everyone remembered  playing “Teacher.”)

The thing that makes free play different from Little League,or school, or really, any other organized activity, is that you don’t get to BE the powerful or brilliant “you” you envision yourself in those. You are stuck being the kid. Do this. Do that. Follow the rules. But free play is powerful and unrestricted.

And while I did not grow up to become the Wicked Witch of the West (the role I always chose when playing), I DID grow up to enjoy going against the grain. And while Joel, my playmate, did not grow up to build log cabins (at least, not out of Lincoln Logs), he did grow up to be a real estate developer.

Give kids freedom to play and one of the things they’ll do is start practicing for adulthood, and even learning some of the skills they’ll need. (Though I never did learn how to train a flying monkey.) – L Playworld Systems sponsored this post about play, for which I thank them!

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33 Responses to Did What You Played as a Kid Influence Who You Became as an Adult? 

  1. Dirk July 14, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    This is perhaps the BEST post ever to this website. Constructive to the core and so true. Love it.

  2. Powers July 14, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    “Can you see any connection between the games you played as a kid and the adult you are today?”

    I can’t.

  3. TRS July 14, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    No. I can’t. I live in two different environments. I used to live in a small town where free range is an understatement. Now I live in Northern Virginia full of people and more rules. It took me a while to conform to the more rigid society. However, I love the Culture and Opportunities here.

    My free range upbringing did not give me the discipline I needed to hold a job…… I then enrolled in Nsg school – became an ARMY RN and the discipline set in.

    I want my kids to be less free range than I was but more than their peers. Their Summer is full of Swim and Tennis – On-line PE, Mathnasium – peppered with some free time. It is what they want. Getting PE out of the way so they they don’t have to drop their instruments and art class in High School. I will say that on-line PE – while hard and takes close to 40 hours a week. They do it independently…..and get there is more flexibility in their projects and sports they want to play.

  4. Michelle July 14, 2014 at 10:22 am #

    I always played pioneers (and I was the mom), or school (where I was the teacher). I’m a stay-at-homeschooling-mom with eight kids. I don’t think I’d last a day on the frontier, but I do occasionally bake my own bread.

  5. Wendy W July 14, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    I think it’s probably the other way around. The personal traits that will ultimately influence our job choices show themselves early in some people and affect the choices they make in their play.

  6. Michelle July 14, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    Wendy, I agree with that. I do think that free play gives you a chance to explore such personality traits.

  7. Mary Hill July 14, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    I cut all my dolls hair to my mothers dismay but now she gets free haircuts!;)

  8. Scott July 14, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    Lincoln Logs, Erector sets, Legos (not the kind like today where you build what’s on the box, just bricks, doors, windows, gears and motor, etc.), HO trains, built model airplanes – what did I become? An engineer. Still can’t wait to figure out how something works or how it’s put together.

  9. Hellen July 14, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    One thing missing now with all the organized sports is playing with kids of different ages and sometimes abilities. I remember playing with all the kids in my street older and younger and having to adjust the rules so they’d be fair to the younger kids.

  10. lollipoplover July 14, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    Having the ability to pick and choose how I spent my free time as a child didn’t necessarily shape my career choices, but more my personality.

    The time I spent playing completely shaped my life. I grew up in the woods surrounding our neighborhood where I played endless days with the group of kids in my neighborhood. We built our own treehouses, excavated the land and made bridges over creeks that we later jumped with on bikes. We even had a church where we said prayers and a store where we we shared candy we smuggled from home.
    I still love to be outside. I spend hours in my garden and running my dogs. I have never worked in an office and have always traveled and held creative jobs that allowed my free spirited personality to be happy. The idea of a desk job gives me heebiejeebies.

    I let my kids guide me to what and where they enjoy playing. Right now, my son is busy in the garage at his workbench building a cornhole game and leveling and detailing the cat tree he made for our neighbors cats that he pet sits. He uses some cool wood he salvaged from downed trees in the winter’s ice storm. These are things I never would have dreamed of doing but given freedom, he comes up with some pretty cool projects.

  11. kate July 14, 2014 at 12:13 pm #


    I absolutely agree that kids should be learning to play with kids of all ages and abilities. We used to play with kids ages 5-12. The little kids learned from the big kids and eventually became the big kids themselves. You can still be competitive and have fun with everyone.

  12. J- July 14, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    @ Scott


    Legos, tinker-toys, erector sets, Lincoln Logs, model rockets, and tools (real ones) which were used to take apart everything I could get my hands on – that was my childhood too. Three degrees in engineering later, I still have fun tinkering with stuff, now they call it prototyping and I get paid to do it.

    I’m not 100% sure I grew up, as much as just got older. I don’t know if it’s toys like these that make the engineer, or if the kids who grow up to be engineers just gravitate to these toys.

  13. K2 July 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    I think most adults would agree that children need play and that as they age they need unsupervised time too. I think CPS has quietly made some significant cultural changes, most of which are for the worse. They’ve added neglect into the picture, even if all the kids do is wander a little. If police get called to help find them or the equivalent the parent can get arrested. Like it or not we can not legislate that no child ever will get hurt or temporarily lost. There isn’t enough bubblewrap and it is better for the other millions of kids to continue to have the right to play without the fear of Mom or Dad getting arrested than it is to try to bubblewrap them all, EVEN if something happens to one or a few children.

  14. SKL July 14, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    Honestly, I don’t see much connection either. My favorite thing to do was play with baby dolls (until my baby siblings were born, and then I played with them). I enjoyed playing “school” and later tutoring younger kids for real. I also enjoyed playing musical instruments (mostly self-taught), drawing, bike riding, and reading. Yes, we had “clubs” like most kids, and I was usually the president, and I came up with some elaborate rules and even “published” a newspaper (written longhand) for a little while, but it didn’t hold anyone’s attention for long.

    So, today I’m an accountant / lawyer / financial consultant. Not really sure where that came from.

    The older I get, the more convinced I am that kids are wired at birth, and experiences can only impact the wiring to a limited degree.

  15. J.T. Wenting July 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    ““Can you see any connection between the games you played as a kid and the adult you are today?”

    I can’t.”

    I can. What I played was mostly running away from the bullies and then hiding at home with a book.
    Left me severely introverted and a voracious reader who likes to travel to remote areas where there are few people…

  16. E July 14, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    I’m way more influenced on how I was raised outside of playtime than anything else. My mom wasn’t a girly girl…I’m not. We camped for vacations (for $ reasons) and I still love to camp (though we do take hotel vacations too). I don’t spend money on frivolous things (designer anything, mani-pedi), don’t drive expensive cars, etc. I was raise partially in the NE and the deep south. There is much about the south I LOVE, but I’m far more influenced personally on my parents upbringing in the NE.

    So I guess I’m just looking at this differently. I’m one of 6 who were as free range as they come….we all ended up doing different things with our lives (though there are a number of teachers).

    I work in IT…I can’t see anything in my youth predicting that. Then again, I wish I’d done something different with my career.

  17. K2 July 14, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    Lenore’s other story for the day. Free-range is something we should all write to our elected officials about.

  18. Bernard July 14, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

    I was raised free range by a mother who was a feminist “way” before that notion ever existed. We were 9 kids. The 5 boys were taught early on that none of the girls would EVER shine their shoes, iron their pants or sew on their missing buttons. At 5 we all learned to make a bed (as best we could). By then, we all did dishes and cleaned the kitchen after dinner. At 8 we all learned to sew and darn socks. At 11 we all learned to iron. On Saturdays, after chores, we were lead to the front door where we picked up a bag lunch and were sent off for the day with the only instructions we ever got : “You had better not be late for supper! (6pm)”

    From the age of 6 onward, my weekends and after school hours were filled with walking alone for miles, over highways, railroad tracks, in the iridescent creek beds next to the Decalcomania factory, the 15 foot (climable) fence around the Chrysler yard where new cars were displayed. And then there were the rusted freighters in drydock and broken glass in fields by the oily water’s edge of the Detroit river and the rotted out foundations where houses no longer covered the basements in which I would roam. Often, I visited parks just to observe the old and the young and the toddlers. I would sketch to my hearts content – discovering what made everyone “tick” and not realising that this information colored the work I was producing. I was constantly hungry to discover the world and to day-dream as much as possible. The silence of those hours wandering about and looking and listening gave me an appreciation for being alone rather than lonely. Today, I realise there was no such thing as being a “normal” child. Everyone seemed different.

    Now near 70, I continue to roam the streets of the world. At the behest of commissioning clients I create painted portraits. And when I don’t, I write, paint landscapes and still-lifes and abstracts, draw figures, compose music and observe from a distance the awe-inspiring world which surrounds and feeds my soul. Yes. Childhoods determine who and what we are and how well we both encounter and deal with what we are given. Thank you for the question, Lenore. Never thought about it before. . .

  19. Lisa July 14, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    My sister and I often talk about this! We used to play very complex role playing games as kids — we’d pretend to be characters from our favorite books and movies, and we went on quests and had fantastical adventures. Now she’s an actress and I’m a writer. Coincidence? Definitely not.

  20. Mandy July 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    I definitely see a correlation between my play choices and my adult choices. I wasn’t big on outdoor play because I never liked the Florida heat. I was a voracious reader (still am); loved puzzles, building with Legos, helping Dad in his wood shop. Was something of a loner and hated organized sports, primarily because of the hierarchies.

    As an adult I own my own practice as a developmental optometrist. All day I help
    Kids develop visual-spatial skills and have to come up with creative ways to rehab my brain-injury patients. It’s very experimental including building some of my own equipment. I’ve travelled with just one friend to unusual places and tend to take more risks than my peers. Now that I’ve settled down and have kids I’m determined to keep them from turning into over scheduled robots.

  21. Melissa July 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    I agree with the others that claim correlation, not causation. I think my childhood self was drawn to the same things that my adult self has been.

    I spent hours in the woods and along the canal and in the street gutters manipulating water. Building dams out of leaves, floating sticks down the rapids, at the beach building sand aquaducts. I would come home from my walkf from school soaked to the skin on rainy days, because the gutters were so fascinating. Today – I’m a water resources engineer. Ha! I never really thought about how funny that is.

    But even though I think my play reflected my interests, more than that my interests were shaped by my play – I still believe that my interests would have been, hrm, realized if I hadn’t had the free play time. If my mother had picked me up from school rather than walking home, all those delightful gutters jammed with leaves and sticks would have been passed by unnoticed.

  22. anonymous mom July 14, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    I played a lot of house and a lot of school as a kid, and I’m a mom and a teacher. So, at least in my case it was pretty true.

    My youngest is constantly relegated to the role of “pet” during all imaginary play with his older siblings–puppy, cat, often a baby dragon–so I don’t know how well that bodes for him. 😉

  23. Laura July 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Yes, I think so. Most I my childhood memories are of being out and about and being spontaneous, exploring the neighborhood and meeting new people. My parents were as freerange as they get and it being the 70’s-80’s that freedom was expected. I grew up with a great desire to travel and experience new places, people and things. I’ve traveled around the world, almost all by myself, visiting 28 different countries and 47 US states. With two young daughters now I don’t travel as much but will continue doing so as much as I can for as long as I can. I encourage my girls to play in the same way; just go outside and play, talk to stranges, experience new and different things and people. At 7 and 9 they’re not afraid to talk to strangers, kids and adults, and they’re not afraid to stand up for themselves, and they’ve already expressed a desire to travel to different places. Makes me proud.

  24. nina July 14, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    What do engineers, optometrists and home schoolers have in common? Apparently they like this website :). As a child I equally enjoyed reading and exploring outside. Never even thought about a medical field until college. And yet I can’t imagine myself doing anything else now. Except maybe being a book critic, but then I’d have to read books I don’t like, so maybe not :). I don’t think there is a direct causation between childhood play and adult vocation. However our personalities and interests develop during childhood and influence what kind of adults we become. Otherwise I might have a superhero ballarina with an affinity for digging up worms on my hands.

  25. Puzzled July 14, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    Hmm, maybe it did at that. I always played firefighter/EMT. I’ve been a teacher for 8 years, but now planning on going back to EMS at least part-time. I guess the answer is ‘eventually?’

    I worked full-time in EMS before. Funny story how I made that decision. I was in grad school for philosophy and working the summers on the beach as a Paramedic. The first few years, I had spent the summers with my parents and they lived 2 minutes from the beach. Then they moved 2 hours away. I started spending some time at their house, and other nights at a local firehouse where I provided Paramedic coverage in exchange for a place to sleep (they got angry the one time I slept through a bad accident, but really, they should have gotten me a louder pager.)

    Anyway, on my way to work, I walked down the stairs and onto the apparatus floor, which was where the door was. I was overcome by the feeling that “hey, I’d love to have kids someday, and I want to have a job where I can be as proud as I am walking by these trucks.” So I moved to Texas and worked for Harris County ESD1. Now it’s time to go back, I suppose.

    PA in the future!

  26. Sarah W July 14, 2014 at 10:26 pm #

    Until the age of 12 (1980) we lived in a town of about 3000 people that housed a private school (where my parents worked) and a ski resort and a country club. In the summers when all the students and wealthy resort-goers left town (the summer club was too far away for me to feel it’s effect), my brothers and other “faculty brat” friends and I would have to fill our time between chores and trips to the swimming pond. Our favorite neighborhood “toy” was an enormous wooden spool left in a field by the electric company in our town. We pried off a couple slats to access the center of it, and we’d take turns climbing in and getting a ride down the street. Traffic (not much) always slowed down for us. Today we are a motley collection of teachers, artists, librarians and handy-person-tinkerer types. No one makes much money, but we’re always occupied and fix our own broken appliances and such.

    I find it very hard to raise kids these days with anything close to this level of freedom and brain-play – at least in a small urban environment. I do what I can to make them be bored as much as possible (it’s a negative feedback loop, since they always figure out something to play), but they’re still so stifled by their understanding of “norms” (“Don’t do anything dangerous!”) that I don’t always know how to broaden their scope without saying “Go do something dangerous.”

  27. SOA July 14, 2014 at 10:33 pm #

    what Dirk said. Best post to this blog ever.

    Free play is so important and kids don’t get much of it anymore. Too much homework, activities, running around to see family and here and there. It is a shame. I make sure to schedule in free play for my kids every day.

  28. hineata July 15, 2014 at 12:48 am #

    @SOA – I know what you are trying to say, but I did laugh about ‘scheduling’ free play. Though heaven help me, I had to wind up doing the same thing often.

    These days I miss being able to schedule my kids a bit, actually – I love going to the museum, beach, park etc. But they’re all far too old for all that. Nowadays I have to practically play a trombone in the hallway if I want to see them before 11am in the holidays.

    I used to play in trees, read outdoors, bike around the place, play games. Always liked doing a whole range of different stuff, had trouble finishing anything. As a teacher, I get to play games, take the kids outside, do a whole range of different stuff, though I do try to get the kids to finish things – so maybe there’s something in it, I don’t know :-).

  29. hineata July 15, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    Given their nocturnal behaviour, maybe my kids will be bed manufacturers, or DJs at unsavoury nightclubs….

    Or maybe they’re just being teens :-).

  30. no rest for the weary July 15, 2014 at 1:44 am #

    I did a lot of crafty things. I would covet certain food/consumables containers in the house and wait and wait to “score” them so I could create something cool with them. I used to get excited in hardware stores, fabric stores, five and dime stores, anyplace they had odds and ends that could be “made into stuff.”

    I also spent a lot of time with buddies in the neighbourhood creating audio recordings on a cassette recorder… silly stuff, made up songs and “radio” type plays.

    And of course we ran around all over, played in the woods, lived at the public pool in the summer. I was the emotional one, the baby in age and temperament, constantly in a rage or tears or sustaining an injury.

    My daughter is EXACTLY the same way. It’s spooky. I don’t know what her future holds… hell, I don’t know what anyone’s future holds, at the rate we’re going as a species. I only hope she finds more contentment in her life than sorrow.

    I’ve had a ton of “jobs,” but the ones that made me happiest were puppeteer (made my own puppets and performed with them), ballroom dance instructor (for the social connections and community feeling of the studio, plus the vantage point I had to the human condition), communication instructor/consultant (every time I teach I learn the subject more deeply), singer/songwriter, street performer, product designer.

    The job I liked the least? Corporate art director. Blech. Made money, but felt like I was supporting the “dark side.”

    My biggest problem in work environments? The way people have “managed” me. Maybe because I was the littlest, I hate cruelty, policies without logic, and favouritism. And perhaps that’s what drove me to understand how to get along with others and level the playing field, eradicate power structures and encourage collaboration and creativity.

    Long answer. Really not sure. But thank God I was allowed to PLAY my own way. I offer that to our kids, and of the four, my daughter is the one who really runs with it. One of my kids is all about being told what to do. Turns into mush when left to his own devices. Can’t initiate to save his life. Another one is so competitive, she gets physically violent when games have “winners” and she isn’t it. And the last one is just a jock, through and through. Born wanting to wear a jersey with a number on it and be part of a team. It pains me to see how utterly structured nearly every day of his young life is, but he loves it, and it’s his.

    Ah, these kids, what will become of them?

  31. Papilio July 15, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

    I don’t see a connection. Yet. And I agree that both play choice and job choice are influenced by the same personal preferences, although I could see how experiences as a child (‘hey, I like X’) could influence later study and job choices, and how that could have been completely different if that person had grown up somewhere else where ‘X’ wasn’t available.

    “Wicked Witch of the West” – hahaha! Tell me you at least claimed http://www.wickedwitchofthewest.com for yourself! Or should it perhaps be Wicked Witch of the Web, these days? 😛

  32. John Tanker July 16, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

    Awright – Hillary Clinton and a real estate developer. Gee, just what I want my grandkids to be like: one an insane war hawk, the other, a creep who mows razes houses for malls and buildings. This only confirms what I’ve known for a helluva long time; unsupervised play is a sanctuary for budding sociopaths (see 2 above).

  33. W July 23, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

    I was always Fonzie when I was in school—or we played horses and used skipping ropes for bridles. Neither of those jobs panned out. :)