Free To Learn

Gray-Free_To_rev1Peter Gray’s book is on the one hand terribly hard to read an on the other hand inspiring and hope giving. It is hard to read, because he doesn’t mince words when he describes the current state of affairs with regard to child rearing in general. He is particularly on target when he describes the result of the utter lack of free play our children have with other children.

Every area of our children’s lives are made more difficult because they don’t have enough time to play. And they certainly don't have enough time to play with other children. You name it. Mental health, cognitive ability, physical wellbeing, ability for empathy, happiness, prison. our children are hindered in all these areas because they lack the freedom to play. He minces no words indeed. And he doesn’t tolerate traditional schooling.

Play exists only in freedom. The strong control that adults exercise over children in schools is the very antithesis of freedom. No need to enumerate the ways in which children are not free in school. As parents we experience the heartaches of sending our children to school almost every day. I do at least. It is often a wrenching experience.

Sudbury Valley School

Alternatives do exist. Gray reviews Sudbury Valley school in Massachusetts, founded by Daniel Greenberg, a former professor at MIT, his wife Hanna and a group of other parents. The school runs on the democratic principle of one person one vote. That is, all children and staff, each have one vote.

And these votes are cast to determine the running of the entire school, including budget and staffing decisions. Why not put democracy into practice if you want to teach children about it, they thought. There is no curriculum. There are no classes, no age segregation, no assignments, no tests, no teachers.

Children are self-directed, create their own experience, play with each other all day—if they wish. They express their own curiosity and ask for help from whoever they want, fellow students or staff members. They can play outside or inside, board games, imaginary games, video games. Whatever they want. They form groups, make films, music, art, play sports, move about freely from room to room and are always thought to be responsible and self-directed.

And how do they do after school? Very well. Seventy-five percent of them go to college and find themselves very well prepared. How do they get to be so prepared?

  • They have time and space to play and explore.
  • Ages mix freely and young children form groups with ado- lescents.
  • They have access to knowledgeable and caring adults.
  • They have access to equipment and are free to play with it, though there are some restrictions on expensive breakable items such a computers.
  • Ideas are exchanged freely.
  • There is no bullying in the school. Students make up the rules and respect these rules as a result.
  • They are immersed in a democratic community. They have a real say in the school and share in the responsibility of everything that happens.


Why is play so powerful? Gray lists four conclusions from decades of academic research.

  1. The pressure to perform well interferes with new learning. Except when a child, or an adult, has practiced a skill really well, observation and interference with the learner makes one perform the skill less well.
  2. The pressure to be creative makes you less creative. Incentives, evaluation of work, observation of work, all reduce creativity.
  3. A playful mood improves creativity. This appears to be true not only for school aged children, but also for students at elite colleges and physicians who were part of psychological experiments.
  4. A playful state of mind enhances logical problem solving. That is what famous Swiss developmental psychologist Piaget never incorporated in his studies, the effect of playfulness. What he thought children of a certain age were capable of did not take into account what they could accomplish if they could make a game. Children, it turns out, are far more capable in a playful state of mind than most psychologists ever thought possible.

What is play?

Play is in itself trivial. Not because play doesn’t lead to great things, potentially, but because playing itself cannot have any other goals than the play itself. The child learns when she plays, but the goal of play cannot be learning. You play for the fun of it, or it isn’t play anymore and then the learning stops, or at least, decreases significantly.

Play is always self-chosen and directed. This is critical, because for play to be truly play, every player must have decided, freely, to engage. And if you are in a game with many players, all of whom have the freedom to stop playing, every player is responsible for everybody else’s participation. That is one reason why unstructured play is such a critical builder of social skills for children. You have to see the frame of reference for all the other players if your contribution is to land.

We must accepts play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.

Trustful Parenting

If parents are to provide a space for children where our children can have all the goodies of free play, we must adapt a style of parenting Gray calls Trustful Parenting. The main shift from most parenting styles is a shift away from directive parenting, be that a forceful directive style or a protective directive style.

Trustful parenting allows for self-education, unsupervised ex- perience and freedom of decision making. This is hard. Neighborhoods have become alien territory. Extended family lives in other parts of the country, and perhaps the actual targeting of children has indeed increased—we don’t really know, though we know that children carry more expensive things in their pockets and bags than I ever did as a child. Schools determine more about the lives of our children than they did 50 years ago. Homework has increased and teachers solicit parents in their work—instead of parents soliciting teachers in theirs.

Here are some things Gray suggests parents can do to express more trust in their parenting. Let go of the idea that you determine children’s future. As the poet Khalil Gibran put it:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life longing for itself. They come through you but not from you.

A trustful parent does not ask for detailed reports about the child’s day, all the hours spent away from you—but seeks to connect in the moment. Then the stories will come, that the child wants to share with you. And a trustful parent creates opportunities for their children to play. Mike Lanza, whose book Playborhood I review elsewhere, provides many examples.

And finally, is conventional schooling the only option for your child? Gray is not suggesting that every family adopt unschooling or homeschooling. That is not feasible or even desirable for most. But is it not possible to think of alternative schools such as Sudbury Valley School, where Gray’s son went and was happy? It is not a quick fix he proposes, and perhaps not even a solution for many, but in various places of our children’s lives, we can ask if we can express more trust in their own sense of direction, in the benefits of their self-chosen activities and their desire to play and have fun.

Free to Learn: Why unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, by Peter Gray.

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