Free to Learn, by Peter Grey


I’ve been reading Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, by Peter Grey.

So fascinating, and worth a read if you have children, wonder how you can support their learning, if you have questions about schooling, learning and education – or if you have ever played!

Grey talks about the evolution of play in early human society, how effective free play has been, and still is, essential for human development, happiness and learning life skills. He talks aboutthe move from hunter gatherer life to agricultural life, how life changed for children as lifestyles evolved and where our modern schooling system came from and how it developed. And just why it is fails to meet the needs of most children, and what he thinks needs to change, including looking at alternative to industrial schooling, exploring Sudbury Valley School, the first well known democratic school.

He explores what is known of play in hunter gatherer society, how children were/are ‘free to play’ at all the things the adults in their community do, including making tools, hunting, preparing food, childcare, and more. Children were not forced to do anything, they were trusted and equal beings, the instance of violence towards children (and women) was almost non existent.  Grey notes the further society moved from what he points to as our original human society, the more children began to be seen as property, and needed to be controlled, the work involved in maintaining farms and property required many more hours of work, children became essential workers, children and often women lost much of their freedom.  As most parents know, people are bound to resist control and coercion, Grey talks about how this led to corporal punishment, more violence in families and out into the wider society.


What resonated with me, is the need for children to be in charge of their own learning, discoveries, mistakes and be free to play on their own terms. Basically, be available as parents/adults, but keep out of their way.  That and just a gentle reminder of when kids are playing, they are not ‘just playing’, but are learning and adapting, exploring, understanding and shaping their world, on their terms.

Peter Gray-Free_To_Learn

Here is an excerpt from another review:

“Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends,” says Gray, an expert on the evolution of play and its vital role in child development. “In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.”

All children are born with an innate curiosity, playfulness, sociability and deep desire to learn, but at some point after they enter school, what was once fun and engaging begins to feel forced, he explains. And, anxiety and stress levels among youths are at an all-time high: they are bogged down with homework, over-scheduled with extracurricular activities, deprived of free play, and faced with the pressures of getting into a top college.

“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?” Gray asks. “Our compulsory education system features forced lessons, standardized tests, and seems specially designed to crush a child’s innate and biological drives for learning.” The traditional “coercive” school model, he adds, was originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth….

…I present compelling evidence that over the past 50 years—as children’s opportunities for free play and exploration have declined—there has been a dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide in young people, who have not had the opportunity that free play provides to find meaning and joy in life.”

Free to Learn—which suggests that it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with our children, and start asking what’s wrong with the system—has earned acclaim from prominent psychologists, anthropologist and evolutionary biologists.”

You can read more of Peter Grey’s articles over here, he writes under Freedom to Learn at Psychology Today.

1 Comment

  1. A comment from a reader:

    “It is refreshing to read this. I often feel I am fighting against ‘modern society’ when I suggest the need for my children to play with other kids without us constantly watching over them.

    Some of my best learning experiences of life came when I had to make my own decisions as a child and I consider myself to be a more independently motivated adult because that.

    Thank you for the link. I will certainly be reading that one.

    Hope your day is full of sunshine.”

    Jane Ziemons aka The Loopy Red Hen


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