Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Free to Learn by Peter GrayFree to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray
Published by Basic Books on March 5, 2013
Pages: 288
Source: I purchased a copy of this book.
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Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests—often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave. Even outside of school children today seldom play and explore without adult supervision, and are afforded few opportunities to control their own lives. The result: anxious, unfocused children who see schooling—and life—as a series of hoops to struggle through.
In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that our children, if free to pursue their own interests through play, will not only learn all they need to know, but will do so with energy and passion. Children come into this world burning to learn, equipped with the curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to direct their own education. Yet we have squelched such instincts in a school model originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth.
To foster children who will thrive in today’s constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development. Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, and history, Gray demonstrates that free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient. This capacity to learn through play evolved long ago, in hunter-gatherer bands where children acquired the skills of the culture through their own initiatives. And these instincts still operate remarkably well today, as studies at alternative, democratically administered schools show. When children are in charge of their own education, they learn better—and at lower cost than the traditional model of coercive schooling.
A brave, counterintuitive proposal for freeing our children from the shackles of the curiosity-killing institution we call school, Free to Learn suggests that it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with our children, and start asking what’s wrong with the system. It shows how we can act—both as parents and as members of society—to improve children’s lives and promote their happiness and learning.

That blurb makes the book sound far, far more “anti-school” than it actually feels. Even though Free to Learn presents very unconventional ideas about education, it reads in a balanced way, without alienating people, and even admitting this approach might not be a right fit for everyone.

If you’re familiar with Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen or Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy, you’ll recognize a lot of the same fundamental ideas in Free to Learn: How children learn through play, how well they learn when given the freedom to explore and discover without intervention, the benefits of mixed-age groups.

I enjoyed this book on a personal level. It’s very similar to the way my own family approaches homeschooling. Gray mixes anthropological evidence and psychological studies with his own anecdotes, most of which consists of his observations of his son’s alternative school, Sudbury Valley. Gray wasn’t completely sold on the philosophy of this school when his son first started attending, so his observations were approached with a skeptical eye. This was also the first time I’d heard of the Sudbury school, so those portions of the book were pretty fascinating to me.

My only criticism: Privilege is a bit of a problem. I wanted Gray to spend more time talking about how these ideas might work outside of homeschooling or private school circles. Is there a practical way that this philosophy can be implemented in public schools? What about in low-income and/or violence-prone communities? I was thinking about these questions as I read, but the book didn’t do too much to address them. This left me feeling overwhelmed (maybe a little depressed) when I thought about education on a large scale.

Maybe tackling those issues in depth would have required writing another book. Regardless, I appreciate that this book made me slow down, stop and think deeply about its points before moving on to each next chapter. Free to Learn was an interesting read that inspired me at a family level.