What We’re Reading: Free to Learn (Peter Gray)

If you start perusing the pages of any alternate schooling, freedom advocating, or unschooling text, you will likely see Peter Gray quoted somewhere. He’s a psychologist and researcher who studies education from an evolutionary biological perspective. In other words, how children learn naturally. His book, Free to Learn, began through his writings for Psychology Today and is “about children’s natural instincts to educate themselves” and the conditions needed for that learning to take place (6). Gray argues, and provides compelling evidence to support his claim, that “Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently” (4).

As one might expect from a evolutionary psychologist, Gray takes us back to the hunter-gatherers (both historic and modern in places like aboriginal tribes), showing how children learn complex skills and indeed the whole of their tribe’s culture through play and self-directed learning. Gray argues that the methods these children use are “sufficient for learning in our culture , if we provide conditions that are equivalent, for our culture, as the hunter-gatherer adults provide for their children” (41).

Gray continues his tour of education with a history of the modern school system, revealing a thinly veiled disdain for organized religion and a clear belief that the existing system of public school is one of oppression, coercion, and injustice. He concludes that “Children do not need more schooling. They need less schooling and more freedom” (20).

“In the name of education, we have increasingly deprived children of the time and freedom they need to educate themselves through their own means. And in the name of safety, we have deprived children of the freedom they need to develop the understand, courage, and confidence required to face life’s dangers and challenges with equanimity.”

Peter Gray, Free to Learn

As one might guess from the title, Gray is a big advocate of Free play, which he says is:

  • “the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing” (5)
  • “how children learn to structure their own behavior” (7),
  • “nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless” (17)

Gray breaks down, in a chapter called “Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education”, the primary causes for concern with our schools, which I’ve listed below but essentially all boil down to “children need freedom to educate themselves” (54).

  1. Denial of liberty without just cause and due process
  2. Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction
  3. Undermining the intrinsic motivation to learn (turning learning into work)
  4. Judging students in ways that foster shame, hubris, cynicism, and cheating
  5. Interference with the development of cooperation and promotion of bullying
  6. Inhibition of critical thinking
  7. Reduction in diversity of skills and knowledge

The second half of Free to Learn focuses on the importance of play, identifies different types of play and their critical roles in the development of the child. Surprisingly, Gray also talks about the value of a “playful” state of mind for adults operating in real life. He argues that the lessons taught through social play as children are the best training for reality because “real life is an informal game” (163) that functions on the same principles as social play – such as “Conflicts are settled by argument, negotiation, and compromise” (160).

Siblings are great for age-mixing learning moments

For play, education, and life, Gray points out age-mixing is the most natural and beneficial structure – something obviously not done in public schools. He concludes with a wistful homage to what he calls “trustful parenting” and advises parents desiring to become more trustful of their children, more open to free and natural learning, to follow these principles:

  • Examine your own values – what do you think makes a good life?
  • Don’t think you alone determine your child’s future
  • Resist the urge to monitor all of your child’s activities
  • Find or create safe places and opportunities for children to play and explore [haha! does that sound familiar?]

    And, finally, his main recommendation:
  • Consider alternatives to conventional schooling

Much of this book rings true for me from the perspectives of parent, teacher and student. I like that Gray also gives a nod to the value of technology and screen time (but still says there’s “no equal” to “outdoor play with friends” (12)). However, I didn’t appreciate his overtly critical opinions of religion (which didn’t serve to further his argument so much as alienate religious readers), nor did I particularly care for his all-out condemnation of public school.

Peaceful naptime activities on a snowy day

His argument compels me though. I had been considering enrolling my son in a part-time preschool program next fall (mostly for his social experiences and to give me a bit of a break, let’s be honest), but after reading Free to Learn, I couldn’t stomach the though of my little wildling being forced to follow instructions inmate-style for 6 hours a day, 3 days a week. So guess who missed the registration window (*raises hand*).

Stay Wild and Free little one


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