Free to Learn by Peter Gray

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If you’ve done any extended reading on unschooling online, you’ve no doubt come across some of Peter Gray’s articles. He writes a blog for Psychology Today called Freedom to Learn. I’ve enjoyed his articles for years, so when I found out that he just came out with a book, I snapped it up.

The book is about how children and all people learn better when they are playing or have a playful attitude. Of course children have the most to learn, so they play the most. That is, when they are free to do what they want, they play.

Gray analyzes the path humans took from hunting and gathering to agriculture to industry to the present, and how the role of children changed over the years.

“Thus, the ideal hunter-gathere is assertive, willful, creative, and willing to take risks, hunter-gatherers’ permissive parenting served well to foster those traits.”

As humans moved to agriculture and then to feudal societies (rather than the democratic societies of the hunter-gatherer bands), obedience and work in the fields were valued above all else. Children were beaten into submission by parents who were beaten into submission by their lords.

“In medieval society, the life purpose of those in the lower classes was to serve and obey those above them. It was in this way that education became synonymous with obedience training. Willfulness and the spirit of freedom had to be beaten out of people to make them good servants.”

There is a great section in the book about the Catholic church and how they had a monopoly on knowledge during the Middle Ages (or they wanted to have a monopoly). The early religious schools were not designed to foster free thought, they were designed to foster obedience and make sure that children learning the “right” knowledge.

Later on as protestantism spread, they started schools as well. But as in Catholic schools, “The primary method of instruction in the early Protestant schools was rote memorization. The goal was indoctrination, not inquisitiveness. The schools were designed to enforce the Protestant work ethic. Learning was understood to be work, not play.” Sound familiar?

He shows how the obedience model that served religious schools so well was co-opted by the state, when they also got interested in schooling as a means for controlling learning and attitudes.

But the history of schooling is only a small section of the book. For the rest, he cites studies after study that shows that people that play learn better and faster than those that are stressed, forced, and rewarded.

He also makes a strong case that free play is essential for kids psychological well-being, and that by removing it, our society has caused the rise of childhood suicides and anxiety disorders.

“Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals…”

He also discusses the Sudbury Valley School (a free school) at length to show how children learn when they are not coerced.

Free to Learn is the best book I have read on education in a long time, maybe ever. It’s well researched, surprising, yet you feel like you already knew these things. I think everyone should read this book. Even if you never plan on homeschooling or alternative schooling, the information in this book is important for everyone to know.

I’ll leave you with this quote:

“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.”

You can read the prologue here.

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2 thoughts on “Free to Learn by Peter Gray

  1. I’ve been following his articles for awhile and just read this book also! My husband and I are planning on keeping our son home from school and this book really helped us feel more comfortable with that decision. Are there any other books on homeschooling/unschooling that you recommend?

  2. Thank you for introducing this book to us! What an amazing read. Making me rethink things once again and try to be more vigilant of my actions with my children and the life a truly want to give my children……

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