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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 Hardcover – March 5, 2013

4.7 out of 5 stars 116 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Laurette Lynn, Unplugged Mom.com
“[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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; F First Edition edition (March 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465025994
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465025992
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #300,346 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By B. Dixon on 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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Format: Hardcover
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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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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