Free to Learn: A book review by Bob Morris

Free to LearnFree to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
Peter Gray
Basic Books/The Perseus Group (2013)

How and why new insights concerning children’s learning environment can help them “to educate themselves through their own playful means”

According to Peter Gray. he wrote this book in response to the implications and consequences of a school-centric model for childhood development: “The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own [informal, self-directed] activities are wasted time…Related to this anti-play attitude is an ever-increasing focus on children’s performance, which can be measured, and decreasing concern for true learning, which is difficult or even impossible to measure. What matters in today’s educational world is performance that can be scored and compared across students, across schools, and even across nations to see who is better [who scores higher] and who is worse [who scores lower]. Knowledge that is not part of the school curriculum, even deep knowledge, doesn’t count.”

Credit Gray with brilliant use of sequences to explain the development of a key concept or the steps/stages of a key process. For example, seven reasons why children don’t like school; lessons to be learned from exemplary schools (e.g. Sudbury Valley School); universal types of children’s play; five of the most valuable lessons to be learned from children’s informal, self-directed ways of playing games such as baseball that formal, adult-directed games do not; three primary styles of parenting (i.e. trustful, directive domineering, and directive-protective; reasons for the decline in trustful parenting; and how to become a more trustful parent.

I wholly agree with Gray that most children will never learn how to trust themselves, become more self-reliant, unless and until their parents and other adults with whom they have direct and frequent contact (e.g. family members, teachers, coaches) demonstrate trust in them. Many adults (especially parents) would like to adopt a more trusting style but find that hard to do. “The voices of fear are loud and incessant,” Gray observes, “and the fears never completely unfounded. Terrible accidents do happen; adult predators do exist; delinquent peers can have harmful influences; children and adolescents (like people of all ages do make mistakes; and failure can hurt.” It is also important to keep in mind that, now that there are so many single-parent homes, the school-centric model of childhood has taken increasingly stronger hold over time and affected all aspects of children’ lives. Hence the great need for school administrators, teachers, and coaches to read this book.

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of Gray’s coverage.

o The Rise of Psychological Disorders in Young People, The Decline of Children’s Freedom and the Rise Psychological Disorders (Pages 12-24)
o Autonomy, Sharing, and Equality (24-26)
o Self-Control (38-41)
o How Agriculture Changed the Roles of Parenting (44-51)
o How Schools Came to Serve the State (60-63)
o Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education (66-83)
o A Truly Democratic School, and, The School as an Educational Institution (88-97)
o Howe Sudbury Valley Is Like a Hunter-Gatherer Band (100-104)
o Curiosity: The Drive to Explore and Understand (114-122)
o Human Sociability, and the Natural Drive to Share Information and Ideas (126-137)
o The Power of Play: Four Connections, What Is Play? (133-152)
o Lessons from Informal Sports (157-164)
o The Value of “Dangerous Play” (171-174)
o The Value of Free Age Mixing for Younger Children, and, for Older Children (185-204)
o Three Styles of Parenting, and, Reasons for Decline in Trustful Parenting (209-219)

Before concluding his brilliant explanation of why “unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life,” Gray observes, “I’m only guessing here on the details of what might replace coercive schools. I suspect, and hope, that the details will vary considerably from community to community, depending on local needs and demands. The decline in coercive schools and the rise in voluntary educational opportunities will be gradual, but eventually the coercive system will fade away. And then we will witness a full renewal of children’s capacities for self-control and desire to learn, and an end to the epidemic of anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness that plague so many youth today.”

Books such as this one could help to facilitate, indeed accelerate the “full renewal” to which Gray refers. Given the fact that my ten grandchildren are now enrolled in schools and colleges, I fervently hope it happens soon rather than “eventually” but that seems highly unlikely, given the coercive system now firmly in place. I wish I were as optimistic as he is that “we as a culture will come to our senses and restore to children the freedom to take control of their learning, so learning will once again be joyful, exciting, and integral part of life rather than tedious, depressing, and anxiety provoking.” Perhaps to a significant extent, schools today resemble — for better or worse — the dysfunctional homes in which many of their students are raised.

I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the material that Peter Gray provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will gain a better understanding of how at least some public schools can become learning centers for everyone rather than remain warehouses for children.

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