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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 [Kindle Edition]

Peter Gray
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews


Laurette Lynn, Unplugged
“[A] well written, well organized and beautifully stated piece of work….I emphatically recommend this book for any parent as well as any educator or anyone interested in improving education for our society.”
“[Free to Learn is] a powerful agent of transformation. I'd like to put a copy in the hands of every parent, teacher, and policy maker.”

Publishers Weekly
“[E]nergetic…Gray powerfully argues that schools inhibit learning…. [Gray’s] vivid illustrations of the ‘power of play’ to shape an individual are bound to provoke a renewed conversation about turning the tide in an educational system that fosters conformity and inhibits creative thinking.”

Frank Forencich, author of Exuberant Animal and Change Your Body, Change the World
Free to Learn is a courageous and profoundly important book. Peter Gray joins the likes of Richard Louv and Alfie Kohn in speaking out for a more humane, compassionate and effective approach to education.”

Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works
“Peter Gray is one of the world’s experts on the evolution of childhood play, and applies his encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, and his humane voice, to the pressing issue of educational reform. Though I am not sure I agree with all of his recommendations, he forces us all to rethink our convictions on how schools should be designed to accommodate the ways that children learn.”

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids
“All kids love learning. Most don’t love school. That’s a disconnect we’ve avoided discussing—until this lightning bolt of a book. If you’ve ever wondered why your curious kid is turning into a sullen slug at school, Peter Gray’s Free to Learn has the answer. He also has the antidote.”

David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, and author of Evolution for Everyone
“The modern educational system is like a wish made in a folk tale gone horribly wrong. Peter Gray’s Free to Learn leads us out of the maze of unforeseen consequences to a more natural way of letting children educate themselves. Gray’s message might seem too good to be true, but it rests upon a strong scientific foundation. Free to Learn can have an immediate impact on the children in your life.”

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool
“A compelling and most enjoyable read. Gray illustrates how removing play from childhood, in combination with increasing the pressures of modern-day schooling, paradoxically reduces the very skills we want our children to learn. The decline of play is serious business.”

Stuart Brown, M.D., Founder and President, The National Institute for Play, and author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
“Peter Gray’s Free to Learn is profoundly necessary as a fundamental illumination of the continuing tragedy and entrapment of both kids and their teachers in a generally failing and failed educational system. Gray demonstrates through science and evolutionary biology that the human species is designed to play, is built through play, and that for kids, play equals learning. Free to Learn is timely, paradigm shifting, and essential for our long term survival as adaptive humans.”

About the Author

Peter Gray is a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College. The author of Psychology, a highly regarded college textbook, he writes a popular blog called Freedom to Learn for Psychology Today. He lives in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

Product Details

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
60 of 60 people found the following review helpful
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 [begin italics] performance [end italics], 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.
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80 of 90 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Love it. Hate it. Worth reading! March 11, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some books you read and think "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Some others, "No, No, No." This one, for me, had parts of both.

The "Yes!" parts:

1) A very insightful critique of traditional education. Peter Gray offers a rare, poignant critique of what is fundamentally wrong with public education in his outline of the seven sins of forced education. As he states, children generally don't like school, and for many good reasons, the paramount of which is that government schools are forced education:

"A prison, according to the common, general definition, is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty. In school, as in adult prisons, the inmates are told exactly what they must do and are punished for failure to comply. Actually, students in school must spend more time doing exactly what they are told to do than is true of adults in penal institutions. Another difference, of course, is that we put adults in prison, because they have committed a crime, while we put children in school because of their age."

Beyond the denial of liberty, Gray also identifies many other real problems of schools:
- They interfere with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction.
- They undermine intrinsic motivation to learn, and turn learning into work.
- They judge students in ways that foster shame, hubris, cynicism, and cheating.
- They interfere with the development of cooperation, and encourage bullying (in large part by their forced nature and their strict age-segregation.)
- They inhibit critical thinking, because of their focus on getting high marks on very simplistic multiple-choice tests.

2) An insightful analysis why and how play and playfulness can foster real learning.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling…though I don’t fully agree February 21, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If I had to summarize the first part of Peter Gray’s book in a few words, it would be something like the following: “Traditional schools are too authoritarian. Traditional education stifles children’s curiosity and desire to learn by telling them what to study and by teaching them to do as they are told.” This part of the book, where he presents his understanding of the historical and psychological causes and human impact of traditional schooling (whether public or private), is extraordinarily compelling, and has forever changed my perspective on traditional education. Having read Dr Gray’s book, I will no longer take for granted that the use of a standard curriculum for everyone is a good idea, and I am thoroughly convinced that extinguishing a person’s natural desire to learn is at the root of many if not every unmotivated student. Whatever else we do, we must keep our children – and ourselves – wanting to learn, which is easy, Dr Gray argues, if we allow everyone to learn what about what interests them.

Although equally well-argued, I was less convinced by the second part of his book, his proposal for a solution. Although I am now thoroughly convinced that the student needs to be significantly involved in setting the direction of his learning (I would add, to the extent possible from his age and level of maturity), the specific implementation of this practice I believe needs some further refinement. Essentially, Dr Gray argues for the widespread introduction of “unschooling” environments and specifically schools like the Sudbury Valley schools that encourage each student from a very early age to choose on their own what to study, and how.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Absolutely the first book any parent should read when thinking about what school should offer their children.
Published 4 days ago by T. Walker
4.0 out of 5 stars An Eloquent Indictment of Our School System
In "Free to Learn," Peter Gray writes a powerfully eloquent indictment against the current education system. Read more
Published 9 days ago by Jiang Xueqin
5.0 out of 5 stars Just the way I like it.
Filled with reasoned arguments, relevant anecdotes, and lots of peer-reviewed research. Just the way I like it.
Published 10 days ago by Brassmouth
5.0 out of 5 stars A poignant and inspiring tribute to educational freedom
This book is an inspiring and informative look into the importance of individual centered and directed learning. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Joshua
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book!
This is a great book, very insightful.
Published 2 months ago by Open Minded
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book
This is an outstanding book for any parent with children that are school-aged. His argument for why children need more time to play and less time sitting in school is a compelling... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Andrew T. Bottner
5.0 out of 5 stars Must Read for the Masses
Loved reading about this subject. Being a new father, school for my kids is in the front of my mind. School today is nothing like it should be and how we are built to learn. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Avid Shopper
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for parents and educators! Peter Gray ...
A must read for parents and educators! Peter Gray understands the importance of childhood, and the crucial role of free play in the development of a child. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Katie Hurley
5.0 out of 5 stars Tangentially Speaking and loved his interview
I discovered Peter Gray via Chris Ryan’s Podcast: Tangentially Speaking and loved his interview. Gray’s book, “Free to Learn” offers an alternative to traditional schooling. Read more
Published 2 months ago by J.C. Fincher
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great, thought provoking read about our educational system and its significant flaws!
Published 2 months ago by DDinNTK
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More About the Author

Peter Gray has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of an internationally acclaimed introductory psychology textbook (Psychology, Worth Publishers, now in its 7th edition, with David Bjorklund as co-author), which views all of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. His recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves, through play and exploration, when they are free to do so. He has expanded on these ideas in his book, "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life" (Basic Books, 2013). He also authors a regular blog, called "Freedom to Learn," for Psychology Today magazine. His own current play life includes not only his research and writing, but also long-distance bicycling, backwoods skiing, kayaking, and backyard vegetable gardening.

Peter Gray grew up primarily in various small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but his family moved to Vermont when he was 16, and he has been east ever since. He studied psychology and biology at Columbia College in New York City and then earned a doctorate in biological sciences at the Rockefeller University. Ever since then, the location of his work has been in the psychology department at Boston College, where he served for 30 years as a professor and now, though retired from teaching and administrative duties, retains the title of Research Professor.


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