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Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

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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: anxio 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.


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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: anxio 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.

30 review for Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Cass

    Half-way through this book I wanted to go back to teaching and use this knowledge in my classrooms, alas I am devoted to raising my children, at least for the next few years. I am a high school teacher, a John Holt fan-girl, and a parent of two children under 5. The major concepts of this book are not new to me, but it was full of so much research and new thoughts that I absolutely loved it. Some stories (and accompanying research) resonated. I remember as a teenager, I was doing a task and my litt Half-way through this book I wanted to go back to teaching and use this knowledge in my classrooms, alas I am devoted to raising my children, at least for the next few years. I am a high school teacher, a John Holt fan-girl, and a parent of two children under 5. The major concepts of this book are not new to me, but it was full of so much research and new thoughts that I absolutely loved it. Some stories (and accompanying research) resonated. I remember as a teenager, I was doing a task and my little sisters came to help, I told them to go away. I have never forgotten the words of my father "If they offer to help, don't tell them to go away, they may not offer again". He was saying that when children offer to help, you find a way to let them, otherwise they will grow up and never offer again. It stuck with me, years later I read The Continuum Concept: In Search Of Happiness Lost and that book added the extra idea of having readily available child-size tools. When my children were born I always applied the idea. We have child-sized mops & brooms, and stools in the kitchen, and a child is never rejected if they offer to help, even if, like the old man in the story, fingers get in the road and the task takes a great deal longer. Work becomes play, or play never becomes work. I had the pleasure of attending a small school in my primary school years. It had 32 children, 2 classrooms, and 2.5 teachers. The play was almost always mixed-ages and both genders. I remember with relish the sports we would play during recesses. My favourite memory was a time when we succeeded in playing a game of softball from the start of recess all through until the end of lunchtime (about 2.5hours). We didn't plan it, but as the end of recess neared the older kids knew we could get away with it. We whispered amongst each other the requirements that we knew we would have to meet... every single kid would have to be playing and no one could fight or cry or cause a fuss. We intentionally forgot to ring the school bell (the task of one of the older boys) and we giggle amongst ourselves as the time passed, wondering at what stage the teachers would come out and hunt us into the classrooms in which we belonged. I remember a moment when tensions rose and two kids started to get annoyed at each other, but the other children quickly calmed them "come one, we can get away with this" and we played on, through recess, through the next teaching period, and when the time for lunch came we cheered knowing we had done it, and we kept playing until the end of lunch when the teachers did come out and ring the bell. As a teacher I get it, they were in the staff room, probably looking out absolutely impressed with what was going on and had no intention of breaking it up... instead they also enjoyed a long lunch. I am what is called a "life long learner", I read veraciously on all manner of subjects. In the past 10 years my interests have included, sailing, running, cycling, nutrition, mathematics, physics, literature, hiking, learning new languages, engineering, WoW, writing, sewing, knitting, photography, gardening, cooking, and probably a good few more. My bookcase grows with each interest and my library is becoming increasingly diverse. When Gray says that we have an inbuilt desire to educate ourselves, I absolutely agree. I noted how often and how varied an education my 4yo is already giving herself. Yesterday alone I remember her sitting beside me with a dinosaur book discussing a sea-based dinosaur that she refers to as "Predator X" (like any 4yo, dinosaurs are a hot topic), later she excitedly drew me a picture of a bird that she had seen outside, wanting me to identify it (and we watch later on as the cat half-heartedly attempted to stalk the much larger prey), she shaped bread rolls (she is perfecting her own method of shaping dough to make them look like animals), she assisted making a cake (impossible to be in the kitchen without helpers learning voraciously), she replanted strawberries, she found a snail and discovered that it loves water, she asked me what slugs eat and so we looked at youtube clips of slugs, she learnt how to use the mouse to move the youtube clip to the next one, etc etc etc. Some of the things she learnt and discovered where obvious (drawing a bird to identify the species, learning about slugs) and some things are much more hidden as she wanders through the bushes and asks me seemingly random questions. What is so obvious is that every single day she is very actively and consciously engaging in her own education (even if she is not aware that that is what she is doing when she sits beside me with a book about ocean life and asks me to tell her the names of the fish species). Now that I have said all that I will sound like a traitor when I say that despite the part of me that toys with the idea of unschooling, my children are going to a regular school (in Australia). I have found a small school of 80 students, that will hopefully provide the mixed-age play that I am hoping for, and with my background as a teacher I hope to be able to make school a part of their lives, not the dominating force. The big take-home I got from the book was the idea of not subjecting children to tests or grades of any sort. I loved tests when I was a kid, I always did well, but I see that that isn't really a great thing (even for myself). In fact at my tiny primary school I was awarded Dux, and I recall overhearing the principal tell a girl in the year below me that she would have been awarded Dux if she was in my grade. In other words - she was better than me. We had been rivals for quite some time. Funny, because we should have been fast friends, we should have had a lot in common, not felt the need to compete.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Stefani

    I've only read the introduction and part of the first chapter, but I'm already wary about where this book is headed. On the cover (which I read as I grabbed it off of my library's shelf) it looks like a book advocating more free time for kids (agree 100%). The author explains how kids used to have more free time, and how less free time over the past 50+ years is correlating with an increase in mental disorders in children and teenagers. I'm on board with that. But he moved on to talk about presen I've only read the introduction and part of the first chapter, but I'm already wary about where this book is headed. On the cover (which I read as I grabbed it off of my library's shelf) it looks like a book advocating more free time for kids (agree 100%). The author explains how kids used to have more free time, and how less free time over the past 50+ years is correlating with an increase in mental disorders in children and teenagers. I'm on board with that. But he moved on to talk about present-day hunter-gatherer societies and how they transmit knowledge, through play and storytelling... and I'm thinking--but they don't have a mass of knowledge to impart! In their isolated tribes, the kids are learning how to take care of themselves and work within their tribe, but these kids are not going to be learning advanced arithmetic or mathematics, foreign languages, writing (grammar, literary devices, etc.), advanced science, world history, etc. Ug. I can now see he's going to be advocating unschooling. While I agree that young children learn best through play, at some point, there is a vast amount of basic knowledge that children need to be introduced to--like everything mentioned above. This is why we homeschool. Because our "school day" is shorter than public school days and there's no after school homework, my kids get free time to learn on their own, learn who they are, rest, and recharge their brains. I feel it's a better balance. Yes, too much school is stressful, but to swing to the opposite side for unschooling also seems unbalanced, too. Nearing the end of the book now, and while some of his reasons are compelling, it's just not convincing to me that all "schooling" needs to be play instead. For example, in his anti-Catholic diatribe in Chapter 3, he points the finger at the top-down educational model of the Catholic schools and universities during the Middle Ages. He ignores the fact that the Roman Catholic church DID actually value education and valued classical studies and were the only ones with money and means to provide any sort of culturally/historically connected education--rather than what was only relevant and/or necessary for survival. The only reason we emerged from the Dark Ages was BECAUSE of the churches forced preservation of knowledge. The children in hunter-gatherer societies learn because they HAVE to--it's a matter of life and death, but learning cursive, for example, is not a matter of life and death, so if given the choice, many kids won't learn it. If enough don't learn cursive, for example, some historical documents may be unreadable in the future. ALSO, in hunter-gatherer societies, everyone learns and everyone participates because everyone has to for the good of the tribe. BUT the tribe is limited in size. Once your tribe, or village or city becomes too large, there is no longer a connection between parties, so doing things for the good of others loses some of it's charm because you don't know everyone anymore. This also breeds anonymity leading to some taking advantage of other's education, or more directly, taking advantage of people's earnings from their acquired education in the form of feigned needed handouts. (I'm not saying that all people who get hand-outs are faking it, but we've all heard of "welfare queens" and people who would rather live off of welfare, watch TV and do drugs than try to better themselves.) Finally finished... still not convinced. We'll keep up our formal homeschool studies and give our kids as much free time as possible to pursue their passions.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tasha

    This book fits my family like a glove. We unschool and this book was a wonderful reminder to me why we do it. I love reading books that remind me that it is so amazing for my kids to stay outside of the box...although the outside is becoming busier, which is awesome by the way! This is a book that I would love to get hundreds of copies of and just leave them around for people to pick up. Not because the book is written amazingly well, or grabs your interest and doesn't let go, but because it is This book fits my family like a glove. We unschool and this book was a wonderful reminder to me why we do it. I love reading books that remind me that it is so amazing for my kids to stay outside of the box...although the outside is becoming busier, which is awesome by the way! This is a book that I would love to get hundreds of copies of and just leave them around for people to pick up. Not because the book is written amazingly well, or grabs your interest and doesn't let go, but because it is packed with such great info for those who are new to the concept of letting children learn what they want, when they want, how they want. Kids DO learn without forced curriculum, in fact, they learn better and more eagerly. I did walk away with even more permission to relax my hovering over my kids. I already parent in a non-traditional way (my kids have no rules and we live pretty much in total equality in the house) but I have always been a bit overprotective. Reading this book has helped me realize that kids need to be less protected and given more freedom to take chances, experiment and build their own level of confidence. I hope this book gets circulated and touches some people in a way that the world opens up for their kids, their family dynamics change and life just becomes so fun! Although I learned from this book, I was also comforted to be reminded of how lucky my kids are and how I would love to see change in other families. The ending is full of hope for change and this author is right on. He has done extensive research starting with his own family (when he pulled his son out of school) and reaching out to the community to gather all this wonderful information.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Case

    I was homeschooled a bit growing up. It wasn't by choice, and I so suppose it wasn't actually true homeschooling. Rather, I had a "home-bound teacher" who delivered my assignments and lessons for portions of eighth, tenth, and eleventh grades when I was too sick from chemotherapy to attend classes. So this, to be fair, probably colors my perspectives on alternate schooling options: for me, going to public school was always a privilege. It was something I got to do when things were normal and hea I was homeschooled a bit growing up. It wasn't by choice, and I so suppose it wasn't actually true homeschooling. Rather, I had a "home-bound teacher" who delivered my assignments and lessons for portions of eighth, tenth, and eleventh grades when I was too sick from chemotherapy to attend classes. So this, to be fair, probably colors my perspectives on alternate schooling options: for me, going to public school was always a privilege. It was something I got to do when things were normal and healthy, and I enjoyed it immensely. Public school meant interacting with my peers; it meant a challenge, a chance to meet new people and experience new things. And by the time my illnesses were behind me and I could attend high school consistently for my senior year, it was in truth a long-time goal come true. I enjoyed every aspect of it (at least in retrospect). So again, this all colors how I see public school. And to be fair again, I'm probably the kind of person that the current paradigm of schooling serves best anyway: introverted, structured, competitive, and motivated. I was always good at school. I found it challenging and stimulating, and I was dutiful enough to work around it or through it when it wasn't. I played-- and enjoyed-- the game: honor roll, AP classes, scholarship applications, etc., etc. But for me growing up, school-- with all the structure and adult-directed learning-- was school, and what wasn't school, was free time. That is, my days and my summers were rounded out with lots and lots of unstructured time. I didn't do organized sports or really any other extra-curricular activity on the weekends, in the evenings, or over the summers. Those times were empty and open, free for reading, exploration, and play. (Yet I was always excited and definitely ready when summer was done and school started again.) According to the Gray in Free to Learn all this openness and freedom is a very good thing. Indeed, the author goes a lot further than this in his arguments, but we'll get there in a second. For now, we'll start with what I agree with: kids need freedom to play, and they learn best through open, unstructured play with other kids that's not directed by adults, ideally play among a wide age range of other children. There is, according to Gray, a sort of assault on this freedom of childhood in the constant erosion of free time into structured, measurable, adult-directed activity. This is the paradigm of our school system, but it continually encroaches elsewhere as well in the host of activities and events well-meaning parents push their children into. The loss of childhood play isn't simply something to be wistful about and something that stresses out both parents and kids-- more than this, it stunts the best way kids learn. This is the theme of the book: that we misunderstand learning in children. We think it's something that is done to them instead of something they do themselves. By marshaling a wide array of cognitive and developmental studies as well as anthropology on hunter-gatherer groups (which Gray things embody the ideal of learning), the author makes the claim that the best and most natural means by which children learn is playing: free exploration, discovery, imitation, and mutual instruction. Our institutionalized public schools have it exactly backward: structured, goal-driven, mandatory instruction is what crushes the naturally curious drive within kids to teach themselves according to their own interests and inclinations. As an appeal for the necessity of free play in an overly-structured world (a world that is equally fearful for the safety of children and dismissive of their own abilities), this book is quite compelling. As an appeal to reform the way we educate, it's something that I could even get behind. But the author is not a reformer: he's a revolutionary. This isn't a book about the right balance between freedom of play and the role of structured education. For Gray, there is no proper role for the latter in the lives of children. My fondness for public education--both in my own experience, in that of my children, and as something I believe can help create and foster diversity, community, and opportunity when done right-- as well as my role as an educator may make me a biased reviewer. But I think Gray's view of public education is a fairly one-dimensional straw man, easy to demonize. Moreover, his summary of the history of education, through the four general stages of hunter-gathering play-learning, to the rise of agriculture, through the Middle Ages, to Protestant America is simply wrong. The Middle Ages were not a time when stepping out of line would get you burned at the stake, and institutionalized learning in monasteries and cathedral schools did not exist to bring about submission to an ecclesiastical order. These tropes are embarrassing and lack any real historical context. If such generalizations were indeed the case, how is it that institutionalized centers of learning were so often from where new, subversive, dangerous, and beautiful ideas so often at odds with secular and ecclesiastical authority often emerged? In addition, his history of education takes no account at all of one of the primary roots of Western education: the philosophical schools that flourished throughout antiquity and evidenced a very different kind of learning, a dialectic that challenges the free-play/structural-authority duality he sets up. Again, I would be the first to agree that kids need more time and freedom to learn by just being kids. Yet the irony is that often public schools provide the best opportunities to play in ways, with tools, and with other kids that many children would otherwise not have. I still remember the "Writing to Read" lab at my elementary school, where pre-literate kindergarteners were put in front of computers and encouraged to "play" at writing. We typed out phonetic stories before we could read. I loved it. We had no computer at home at this point, no way to engage in this kind of exploration outside of the classroom. The experience of my own children so far in our public school system's dual-language magnet is similar. Sure, my pre-schooler could stay at home and play during the half-day he's in a classroom. But in that classroom, he's playing with kids from other backgrounds who speak other languages. That's something we couldn't give him on our own. Of course, we as a family probably have the resources to make "unschooling" (the author's preferred approach) work for our kids if we decided it was best. But what about all the kids who come from families who don't? What about kids who find their way to freedom through a school library, a teacher who challenges and engages them, the resources of a public school classroom? This remains my primary complaint against the independent mindset of the home-schooling movement: it pulls away the energy and passion of those families who really do want to do education well, who want to help make our classrooms places of freedom and learning, who have the resources to help change the system. It takes those children and those parents out of a system, and abandons both the system and those kids who most need the system and who need our help to make the system better. To me it seems like reactions to books like Gray's become simply another form of white flight: but now instead of abandoning our inner cities because we lack the inclination to build community together, we're doing the same thing to our classrooms. Plus, I'm not entirely convinced that play is the only way to learning. Sure, I'd like to chop this book in half and give the second half (the half that doesn't include Gray's awful history sections) to teachers, administrators, and parents with the appeal to resist more standardization and regimentation and to take back free play approaches to learning. Yet I'm not willing to jettison completely an approach to education that still has a place for memorization, drills, and learning things that don't seem immediately appealing. From my own experience, I know there have been many times I've found meaning and wonder in something I didn't initially want to read but was told to (assigned to) by a teacher. I didn't want to learn the tedious trigonometric identities (or the Latin grammar or whatever), but I found later that those tools were the grammar necessary for doing elegant mathematics (or reading the heritage of the Western tradition). I'm enough of a Burkean conservative to maintain there are aspects of our cultural heritage everyone should be exposed to at a young age, an age when they might not even realize why these things are important or want to learn them at the time. I still believe there are or can be "authorities"-- teachers, guides, mentors-- who can lead me into a body of knowledge and help me absorb it. Gray's book will convince you of the value of free play, which is something we probably need to be reminded of today and continue to champion for our kids. But I won't follow Gray as far as he wants to go. I think if you talk to many experienced teachers, they would say that Gray hits on one side of the dynamic tension they try to maintain: between children as self-directed learners and between the curriculum as a tool that has merits above and beyond a child's particular interests-- and, of course, to hell with the standardized tests. I'd prefer to live there, in that more difficult place, working to find an approach to education that holds both of these in balance.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    “Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play…kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.” I’ve been a professional educator for over twenty years, and Free to Learn is likely the most comprehensive, convincing account I’ve ever read of how children actually learn. Passionate yet scholarly, abundantly supported by re “Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play…kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.” I’ve been a professional educator for over twenty years, and Free to Learn is likely the most comprehensive, convincing account I’ve ever read of how children actually learn. Passionate yet scholarly, abundantly supported by research and anecdotes, Dr. Gray’s work explains and confirms my own experiences of the past two decades. It’s a remarkable, at times even stunning, treatment of how we can work with children’s natural drives rather than against them. It superbly balances his own research, reviews of others’ research, and personal observations. The scope of Free to Learn ranges from our species’ many millennia as hunter-gatherers to the tragic curtailing of children’s play since the mid-twentieth century. As Dr. Gray notes, correlation does not imply causality, yet the correlations are alarming and sickening: the rise in childhood psychopathology over the past sixty-plus years is an irrefutable indictment of increasing limits on free play and exploration. We have disempowered children and then blamed them for the results of our negative self-fulfilling prophecies. “Children need freedom in order to be happy, to learn how to be responsible, and to develop the character traits needed to deal with life’s inevitable dangers and setbacks.” A key strength of Dr. Gray’s work is that it draws not only from extensive academic research, but also his personal experience as a parent at, and thorough researcher of, the Sudbury Valley School (www.sudval.org). In fact, his encounters with Sudbury Valley were what led him to seek an explanation for this unconventional school that would satisfy his scholarly, empirical standards. Free to Learn achieves an all-too-rare blending of scientific research and accessible, compelling social commentary. It turns out that children must play and explore in order to learn, in order to fully develop. Having worked in both conventional and Sudbury schools, I can assure you that Dr. Gray’s accounts of the wonders of play, age-mixing, and the freedom to direct one’s own learning are neither exaggerated nor rare. What’s perhaps most encouraging is not only the aptness of his analysis, but the ample accounts he offers of ways in which we can align the context of children’s learning with their innate drives and instincts. “Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.” If you want a deeper understanding not only of what’s wrong with schools, but what can be done about that, I can’t urge you strongly enough to buy this book. I wish I could present a hundred copies to friends and family, as Free to Learn has the potential to nudge our culture toward the tipping point Dr. Gray envisions in his final chapter: one that will make self-directed learning based on free play and exploration the norm, not some radical experiment.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Michael Fitzgerald

    A lot of this felt like a warmed-over rehash of other things I have read, especially John Holt, but also Lenore Skenazy and Susan Linn. I felt that there was an unschooling agenda and that the book wasn't up-front enough about it. I disagree with the author that "fifty years from now, if not sooner, the Sudbury Valley model [basically unschooling at a school] will be featured in every standard textbook of education and will be adopted, with variation, by many if not all public school systems." On A lot of this felt like a warmed-over rehash of other things I have read, especially John Holt, but also Lenore Skenazy and Susan Linn. I felt that there was an unschooling agenda and that the book wasn't up-front enough about it. I disagree with the author that "fifty years from now, if not sooner, the Sudbury Valley model [basically unschooling at a school] will be featured in every standard textbook of education and will be adopted, with variation, by many if not all public school systems." One good quote: "I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children's abilities more than we North Americans do today" (p.209)

  7. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    On Trustful parents view of children..."You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and more desire. We are with yo On Trustful parents view of children..."You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and more desire. We are with you, not against you." On play... " Play is nature's way of teaching children how to solve their own problems, control their impulses, modulate their emotions, see from others' perspectives, negotiate differences, and get along with others as equals. There is no substitute for play as a means of learning these skills. They can't be taught in school. For life in the real world, these lessons of personal responsibility, self-control, and sociability are far more important than lessons that can be taught in school." On compulsory schooling... "How did we come to the conclusion that the best way to educate students is to force them into a setting where they are bored, unhappy, and anxious?...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 understanding, courage, and confidence required to face life's dangers and challenges with equanimity...we have created a world in which children must suppress their natural instinct to take charge of their own education and, instead, mindlessly follow paths to nowhere laid out for them by adults. We have created a world that is literally driving many young people crazy and leaving many others unable to develop the confidence and skills required for adult responsibility.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Aimee

    The first chapter was excellent, but the book went steadily downhill from there. After several chapters spent idealizing living in a primitive hunter-gatherer society and another few chapters defending the mediocre reputation of the author's favorite private "unschool", the final straw was the argument that video games are a valid substitute for child-led, unstructured outdoor play. At that point, two thirds of the way through, I gave up any hope of a return to the helpful insights of the first The first chapter was excellent, but the book went steadily downhill from there. After several chapters spent idealizing living in a primitive hunter-gatherer society and another few chapters defending the mediocre reputation of the author's favorite private "unschool", the final straw was the argument that video games are a valid substitute for child-led, unstructured outdoor play. At that point, two thirds of the way through, I gave up any hope of a return to the helpful insights of the first chapter. The author's condescending tone was also difficult to stomach. Not recommended.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Starr

    Bottom line: Let kids play free of most adult interference. In this book, you'll read about fascinating research on play and its importance for development. I loved reading about Sudbury Valley in Mass. and their free curriculum (free as in, the children guide themselves). This is no touchy-feely book--expect data and compelling arguments in favor of less school, and more play. [Some free advice: Next time you feel like butting in on your kids' imaginative play, stop yourself.]

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tasha

    The author makes some good points, but often undermines themselves by relying fairly heavily on anecdotal evidence, and using a relatively small sample size for the actual, completed research. Sadly, most of the research in the book seems to be the author's own, and there is little reference to others who have studied play as learning in the modern, Western context. In general, there does not seem to be a lot of research on this subject, but the author presents a very narrow slice.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Unny

    I am generally sympathetic to the conclusions of this book. However, the author makes many sweeping characterizations that I'm skeptical of. For example, he makes it sound like primitive people's lives were utopian. These kinds of characterizations made me skeptical to the entire book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Moira

    While I love Peter Gray's writing--and this book is no exception--I think this particular work may be more for those new to the idea of self-directed learning and the importance of play (or perhaps as something to be given to a hesitant partner or questioning family member who isn't sure what you do or why--if you homeschool, unschool, or your child attends a Summerhill- or Sudbury-like school). This belief did not affect my rating of the book; I just mean that if you've read a number of works o While I love Peter Gray's writing--and this book is no exception--I think this particular work may be more for those new to the idea of self-directed learning and the importance of play (or perhaps as something to be given to a hesitant partner or questioning family member who isn't sure what you do or why--if you homeschool, unschool, or your child attends a Summerhill- or Sudbury-like school). This belief did not affect my rating of the book; I just mean that if you've read a number of works on play or self-directed learning, you might not find much in the way of new material. What you will find, however, is a wonderful, approachable writing style and he weaves a nice story about how humans seem to be best adapted to learn. Dr. Gray shares an uncanny ability that I love in a few other non-fiction writers: he presents ideas and information as almost the unfolding of a mystery so that you've "solved" the problem yourself before he has presented his final conclusions. Thus, in his writing about being free to learn, the reader is free to discover without ideas being needlessly repeated or so blatant as to be condescending. His historical references and look into hunter-gatherer societies is interesting when you contrast what, say, toddlers are allowed to do in other societies that many teenagers "cannot" do in ours. And, of course looking at the Sudbury, Summerhill, and unschooling models of learning, he shows that, yes, learning can and does take place in such environments (as it does in _all_ environments as learning is not confined to a "place"). He also includes some "reassuring" anecdotes taken from a survey of past Sudbury students. So, all in all, while I wasn't necessarily presented with much new information, it was still a nice read and for those who are just beginning to explore this view of "education," this is an ideal work as it covers a good deal of material in one book and also provides many other references if you want to continue reading on similar topics.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alison

    "Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other mammals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. That, indeed, is the mechanism that natur "Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other mammals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. That, indeed, is the mechanism that natural selection has built, and we refer to the resultant behavior as play." This book was a game changer for me, and I just love it. Granted, I read it just having decided (more from the heart than from hard research) to unschool our two children, so I was prepared to be in agreement with many of Gray's ideas. That said, I was unprepared for the transformational journey it took me on with regard to my own education and my own ways of learning, then and now. I was also so delighted to be formally introduced to the term "trustful parenting," and to start an exploration of our family's patterns of communication and trust. I have carried around many unquestioned assumptions about school and education - that we all have to go to school to learn what we need to function in the world, that we all need to learn the same body of knowledge, that it's always great to have a built in peer group at the ready, that school is a kind of necessary drudgery (that's also a privilege), that there was something wrong with me when I wasn't interested and excelling in the material folks were teaching me. It has been my pleasure to let say goodbye to these assumptions with the help of this wonderful, hopeful book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    p

    The author has a mission, which he makes very clear from the beginning: If we want our kids to grow up as sociable, self-sufficient, confident, happy people, we need to totally revamp our arbitrary education system. Chapters 1-3 are arguably overzealous, and could use some more citations, but starting with chapter 4 he makes clear and compelling illustrations of how an alternative education system can provide results that we want. Gray has an evolutionary viewpoint on education - kids were born t The author has a mission, which he makes very clear from the beginning: If we want our kids to grow up as sociable, self-sufficient, confident, happy people, we need to totally revamp our arbitrary education system. Chapters 1-3 are arguably overzealous, and could use some more citations, but starting with chapter 4 he makes clear and compelling illustrations of how an alternative education system can provide results that we want. Gray has an evolutionary viewpoint on education - kids were born to learn, and were born to do self-directed learning. Interfering with self-directed learning will likely produce some negative side-effects - boredom, anxiety, low self-esteem, and most horrifically - prevents kids from learning even when they want to learn. Gray also argues that improving our education system will also have additional spillover effects, and argues that implementing his ideas will significantly reduce bullying: "By segregating children by age, by caging them in so they can't avoid those who harass them, by indoctrinating them in a setting where competition and winning - being better than others - are the highest values, and by denying them any meaningful voice in school governance, we establish the breeding grounds for bullying."

  15. 4 out of 5

    E.E.

    To me, this is not so much a four-star book as a mix of five-star chapters and three-star chapters. The key points concerning the value of mixed-age play in both learning and social/emotional development were clearly made and well-demonstrated, and the author makes a convincing case for more trustful parenting. I could not agree more with Dr. Gray's arguments on those points. Furthermore, I believe him entirely children do not need "formal" schooling to grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults, To me, this is not so much a four-star book as a mix of five-star chapters and three-star chapters. The key points concerning the value of mixed-age play in both learning and social/emotional development were clearly made and well-demonstrated, and the author makes a convincing case for more trustful parenting. I could not agree more with Dr. Gray's arguments on those points. Furthermore, I believe him entirely children do not need "formal" schooling to grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults, that our current public school system creates behavioral, emotional, social, and intellectual problems for many children, and that for some children, options like Sudbury Valley schools or unschooling at home are the best option. However, Dr. Gray seems so committed to his belief that the latter two approaches are the only valid ones that he does not really give thought to the many alternative schools/educational methods that occupy the vast space in between the most restrictive public schools and Sudbury Valley. His only reference to them is a single throwaway line that says they're all basically the same, because they have some kind of curriculum designed by adults, which he dismisses as inherently oppressive. This is where (I feel) he gets it a bit twisted. In Montessori, for example, what he would call the curriculum is better defined as the "prepared environment", and the purpose of it isn't to force children lockstep through a series of lessons, but to ensure that children have a wide variety of tools and activities in their environment, adapted to their zone of proximal development, that allow them to build knowledge through their own self-directed and generally collaborative learning processes (N.B.: there are certainly some Montessori schools that do force children through the sequence of works in a more restrictive manner, usually in high-income communities with very demanding, results-focused parent populations, but this practice is not inherent in the method). What Montessori gets right and Gray gets wrong, I believe, is that children can learn beautifully on their own, but they can only learn from what they have to work with in the environment, and for many kinds of learning the incidental environment children are exposed to in the modern world is not that great. In the hunter-gatherer societies he speaks of so often, children have lots of time for independent play, but they also have lots of time to access and observe the expertise of adults in the environment, which encompasses the full range of skills they need to learn, and which often times forms the basis of subsequent play. In our society, kids do not naturally have that kind of access to most of the work of adults that goes into making our world function and to sustaining the vast wealth of knowledge and skills humans have built up over the centuries. Left together to play, with a small number of adults to observe, they will certainly learn many of the daily life skills that they see, but their interest, and ability to develop expertise, in other things will be constrained by what isn't in their environment. Gray casually throws this concern off with references to the internet, but especially for young children, the internet is no substitute for real-world experiences, and for children of any age, it is full of wild misinformation that even non-specialized adults find difficult to identify as such. I find it instructive that he often sites Sugata Mitra's work with hole-in-the-wall computers, without giving much thought to the fact that those computers included programs designed to teach children target topics, for example genetics. Mitra's computers are not simply raw internet access thrown in front of kids; they are virtual prepared environments, with adults behind the scenes creating programs that fit children's learning needs and actual adults (in the form of the 'grannies') providing direct support and encouragement. Some children-- some adults, even-- experience any kind of institutional structure or constraint as a prison, and for them, sure, free-democratic schooling or unschooling may be the best option. But most children can thrive and learn happily with some amount of pre-set structure, and for those kids, structure can provide the scaffolding necessary to go further in their learning than they could with only the assistance of other children, non-specialist adults, and the internet. I personally hated a lot of the restrictions I experienced in my public high school, but for all its flaws, it also provided me with the opportunity to take advanced courses in psychology, philosophy, economics, history, environmental sciences, and even Latin. I chose these courses, yes, but once I chose to take them, I was subject to the structure of readings, attendance, and assignments created by the teacher, who was an adult with specialized knowledge and (usually) a passion for the field. I remember those classes fondly to this day, and they set the stage for many of the interests that I have followed into adulthood. Now, had I been unschooled, I could have done readings on my own, but I wouldn't have seen as much in them as I did when I had the opportunity for dialogue with an adult expert, and many of the texts I simply wouldn't have heard of on my own. Yes, I could have pieced together some courses ad-hoc from different schools or community centers in my area, but at the price of a great deal of logistical challenge per each class, and fewer overall classes available. It's true, my public school didn't expose me to everything, but I appreciate that there were adults putting effort into thinking about how to give me and my peers lots of resources and well-scaffolded material for the pursuit of all kinds of different interests, rather than simply leaving us to figure it out for ourselves. So, on the whole, I agree with Gray more than I disagree, but I don't think he's correct that Sudbury Valley is the ideal of education for all people. A thoughtfully-prepared environment for learning, with experts who support and guide learners within it, is not inherently oppressive, and in fact for many people it is more liberating than raw freedom without any structure, because it actively facilitates growth rather than simply permitting it. I'm sure that some free-democratic schools and unschooling families end up creating wonderful prepared environments, because someone in their community has the expertise, time, and energy to create them, but I don't think-- if we're talking about the ideal of what education could be-- that learning environments should be left up to chance, or ignored to the extent they are in this book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Stan

    For many, especially those who believe they are supposed to control our education system, this book will be utter heresy. I found it delightful. The current government-mandated system has always favored individuals with certain abilities: sit still and focus for long periods of time, learn in an environment completely detached from the real world, work fast, move from subject to subject at given time intervals, regurgitate correct answers to an endless procession of tests, do only what is set ou For many, especially those who believe they are supposed to control our education system, this book will be utter heresy. I found it delightful. The current government-mandated system has always favored individuals with certain abilities: sit still and focus for long periods of time, learn in an environment completely detached from the real world, work fast, move from subject to subject at given time intervals, regurgitate correct answers to an endless procession of tests, do only what is set out by the teacher, and—especially in the lower grades—never question. No one has proven that these skills are indicators of good learners or good thinkers, but they are the ones that work in the system. If drop-out rates and the number of struggling students are any indication, the current system gets at best a C grade. Yet, we continue tighten the screws on the system, increase the level of testing, and throw more and more money at it. The approach in Free to Learn is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It has some great concepts to think about, and provides alternatives that may be very helpful to students who have felt abused in the current system. Common sense would say that being at an extreme on education is not the best place to be, but common sense has been summarily rejected by the bevy of credentialed experts in the current top-heavy system, so a look at the other side is beneficial. A good portion of the book focuses on an open learning system—the Sudbury Valley School, also know as the unshcool—that has been operating with great success for over forty years. However, much of the book also adheres to the same worn out approach as other reports on the status of our education system: written by a Ph.D. university professor and citing numerous academic studies and research by his learned colleagues. If I were only going to read one book to get a sense of what the future of education may hold I would read Sal Khan's One World Schoolhouse, but if you want more or just have to have the credibility of the credentialed community to feel comfortable with these ideas this is a great book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Wow- what a game changer of a book. I cannot recommend this book more highly to anyone with children (or thinking about children) who feels that the current structure of education just feels somehow 'off'. I'm not talking about "not enough budget for a PE teacher" kind of stuff- but the more holistic "is this really what education is supposed to be about?" kind of questions. I have always seen myself as a person who fully supports the plan of "child goes to school, college, maybe grad school and Wow- what a game changer of a book. I cannot recommend this book more highly to anyone with children (or thinking about children) who feels that the current structure of education just feels somehow 'off'. I'm not talking about "not enough budget for a PE teacher" kind of stuff- but the more holistic "is this really what education is supposed to be about?" kind of questions. I have always seen myself as a person who fully supports the plan of "child goes to school, college, maybe grad school and embarks on successful life." But this book has completely upended me in my thought process about what it truly means to educate a child and what I actually want for my child to experience both with her education and with her subsequent life. While I already ascribe to the concept that experiential learning is vital to deeply understanding and engaging in a concept/idea, this book pushes the envelope more with questions that boil down to 'what does our entire current structure of education actually provide for our children, and are we destroying our childrens' natural curiousity by prescribing a structural set of educational goals to begin with.' Every chapter of this book threw me for a philosophical loop that made me pause and reassess 'why do I have the beliefs that I do about education?' While I can't say that I fully buy in to everything that this book offers and suggests, the radical (and deeply emotionally logical) hypothesis of this book intrigues me to no end. This has opened me into a new realm of education and study. I need to know more and think more on this subject.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sue Lyle

    This is a marvellous book that all teachers and all parents should read. I am inspired and fired up to change the world of school for my grandchildren. I met and worked with Peter Gray for a few days last summer and found him a quiet, unassuming, compassionate man and am now amazed he didn't try and influence our deliberations with his passion for unschooling that he discusses in this book. I guess he trusted me to find unschooling for myself as I am a self-directed learner. Peter wants to give This is a marvellous book that all teachers and all parents should read. I am inspired and fired up to change the world of school for my grandchildren. I met and worked with Peter Gray for a few days last summer and found him a quiet, unassuming, compassionate man and am now amazed he didn't try and influence our deliberations with his passion for unschooling that he discusses in this book. I guess he trusted me to find unschooling for myself as I am a self-directed learner. Peter wants to give our children the chance to direct their own learning, believing in the right and capacity of every child to find their own passions in life and to be happy and fulfilled as a result. This chimes with my own conviction about each child's uniqueness and capacity to peruse their own interests. I now have two small grandsons and I want so much to help change the world of schooling for their sake and I am afraid our world of surveillance and control will permanently stunt their growth. I need others to help me. Read this book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Yuliya

    An intellectual account of children's play and its effect on humanity. Every paren't must read and must understand book. In short, let your children play and get out of the way, unless asked to join in, and even then, control yourself, don't take over. Stop with the little league, competitive preschool/afterschool lessons and minimize all types of formal training. Don't knock the curiosity out of them by forcing learning. Let kids be kids. They don't need adults to teach them about life. They are An intellectual account of children's play and its effect on humanity. Every paren't must read and must understand book. In short, let your children play and get out of the way, unless asked to join in, and even then, control yourself, don't take over. Stop with the little league, competitive preschool/afterschool lessons and minimize all types of formal training. Don't knock the curiosity out of them by forcing learning. Let kids be kids. They don't need adults to teach them about life. They are natural learners. Their play is much more intelligent than we tend to think. For the tots, create a space that is educational. Take out the battery operated toys. Encourage open ended play. Create a playroom that offers a world of possibility, get outdoors, try and create opportunity for children of different ages to play together. This is not an unschooling or homeschooling book, byw. It's just a smart book that will make you think differently about traditional education.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kimberlee

    This book gave me so much to think about and I'll be mulling these ideas in my head for a long time. I began reading with only a vague notion of what unschooling was and ended with a greater understanding of the vital importance of free play. I'm not completely converted though. My main concerns with unschooling is that it sounds like a romanticized notion that children can completely educate themselves and learn everything they should know. Would I have been responsible enough for my own educat This book gave me so much to think about and I'll be mulling these ideas in my head for a long time. I began reading with only a vague notion of what unschooling was and ended with a greater understanding of the vital importance of free play. I'm not completely converted though. My main concerns with unschooling is that it sounds like a romanticized notion that children can completely educate themselves and learn everything they should know. Would I have been responsible enough for my own education as a kid? I'm not sure. I wholeheartedly agree that kids need control over their learning and they need the freedom to play, but is having a curriculum necessarily a bad thing? I'm still unsure of the balance that I feel comfortable with between child directed learning and teacher/parent directed learning.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Stillman

    This book makes me weep for the struggle I had in school to find a place there. This book makes me weep for the kids I know today who find themselves at war with a compulsory education system that hems in all of their instincts. Free to Learn is an inspiring read to help people look at the value of play as a valid educational method and it shows how formal schools actually encourage the sort of behavior in children that we don't want in society . It is a very disruptive book to standard mental mode This book makes me weep for the struggle I had in school to find a place there. This book makes me weep for the kids I know today who find themselves at war with a compulsory education system that hems in all of their instincts. Free to Learn is an inspiring read to help people look at the value of play as a valid educational method and it shows how formal schools actually encourage the sort of behavior in children that we don't want in society . It is a very disruptive book to standard mental models about children and school...but it worth having that cage rattled.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Recommended to me by a friend... Much of it was hard to get through without a lump in my throat, very moving, Gray states what we all need to hear, especially in education at the moment, filled with its measures, turning children into product and an unhealthy focus on results and pressure. Free to learn has an optimistic slant, something my colleagues and I are all searching for!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Eileen Holt

    In my opinion, this is MUST read for parents. It really changed the way I look at how my kids play and spend their time. This book discusses the value of play/free time in relation to children developing important life skills and the ability to learn valuable skills.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    This is the book that has just recently convinced Nik and I to throw ourselves unreservedly into the "unschooling" or "self-directed learning" deep end of homeschooling. More blogging to come about this topic!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lorna

    This book really made me think and made me glad of the decision we made to homeschool. Kinda makes me want a Sudbury-type school in Phoenix. They sound so cool!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    The chapters on Sudbury School were interesting, but they were sandwiched between things that weren't worthwhile. The first half dripped with assumption of the motives of groups and religions in the past, which I found particularly jarring considering that I was simultaneously reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, Postman details the extensive wealth of knowledge within the historically typographical generations; the hours-long debates, the capability of the populace to actua The chapters on Sudbury School were interesting, but they were sandwiched between things that weren't worthwhile. The first half dripped with assumption of the motives of groups and religions in the past, which I found particularly jarring considering that I was simultaneously reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, Postman details the extensive wealth of knowledge within the historically typographical generations; the hours-long debates, the capability of the populace to actually hold these ideas within their thoughts and consider them, without the need for a sound byte or the next flashy thing. While I agree with Peter Gray that there have been times where absolute obedience to authority has been promoted, he makes it sound as if the generations past were incapable of independent thought. It's generational pride, really - I would argue that for all of our "freedom of expression" these days, we're steadily LOSING the ability in our culture to think independently. As for the other half of the sandwich at the end of the book - the ideas for application, if you will - they were nothing new. I had heard them before. All in all, the parts that were actually the author's personal observations were intriguing. But two chapters does not a book make. I might as well have been reading a blog.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

    While I don’t hold with everything about this book (it has a strong streak of Rousseau-ishness) it is fascinating and absolutely valuable reading, running counter to much of our culture’s conventional wisdom. So many connections with Charlotte Mason philosophy— the book itself is more focused on what are typically considered “unschooling” ideals but to me it speaks to the wise balance in CM education between structured learning and the freedom of “masterly inactivity.” You could say this is a wh While I don’t hold with everything about this book (it has a strong streak of Rousseau-ishness) it is fascinating and absolutely valuable reading, running counter to much of our culture’s conventional wisdom. So many connections with Charlotte Mason philosophy— the book itself is more focused on what are typically considered “unschooling” ideals but to me it speaks to the wise balance in CM education between structured learning and the freedom of “masterly inactivity.” You could say this is a whole book explaining the purpose and merits of masterly inactivity (and thus why it is worth keeping lessons short and simple to preserve children’s freedom, when our tendency as modern parents and educators is to complicate and lengthen instruction).

  28. 4 out of 5

    Cassie

    I’ve never been so excited about a non-fiction book! Full review to come, but in the meantime, please just trust me and put this book on hold at your library.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Hatch- Dobelmann

    Must read for all parents! I absolutely love this book and think that all parents should read when they have children! It goes into detail about all my natural instincts for learning and teaching my children were already telling me.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

    This Book is AMAZING! I haven't read or listened to a Book in a while that completely blew my mind, but this one did. Well researched & put together, I loved it. Listened on Audible. This Book is AMAZING! I haven't read or listened to a Book in a while that completely blew my mind, but this one did. Well researched & put together, I loved it. Listened on Audible.

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