Free to Learn

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was homeschooled a bit growing up. It wasn’t by choice, and I so suppose it wasn’t actually true homeschooling. Rather, I had a “home-bound teacher” who delivered my assignments and lessons for portions of eighth, tenth, and eleventh grades when I was too sick from chemotherapy to attend classes. So this, to be fair, probably colors my perspectives on alternate schooling options: for me, going to public school was always a privilege. It was something I got to do when things were normal and healthy, and I enjoyed it immensely. Public school meant interacting with my peers; it meant a challenge, a chance to meet new people and experience new things. And by the time my illnesses were behind me and I could attend high school consistently for my senior year, it was in truth a long-time goal realized. I enjoyed every aspect of it (at least in retrospect).

So again, this all colors how I see public school. And to be fair again, I’m probably the kind of person that the current paradigm of schooling serves best anyway: introverted, structured, competitive, and motivated. I was always good at school. I found it challenging and stimulating, and I was dutiful enough to work around it or through it when it wasn’t. I played– and enjoyed— the game: honor roll, AP classes, scholarship applications, etc., etc.

But for me growing up, school– with all the structure and adult-directed learning– was school, and what wasn’t school, was free time. That is, my days and my summers were rounded out with lots and lots of unstructured time. I didn’t do organized sports or really any other extra-curricular activity on the weekends, in the evenings, or over the summers. Those times were empty and open, free for reading, exploration, and play. (Yet I was always excited and definitely ready when summer was done and school started again.)

According to the Gray in Free to Learn all this openness and freedom is a very good thing. Indeed, the author goes a lot further than this in his arguments, but we’ll get there in a second. For now, we’ll start with what we agree on: kids need freedom to play, and they learn through open, unstructured play with other kids that’s not directed by adults, ideally play among a wide age range of other children. There is, according to Gray, an assault on this freedom of childhood underway in the constant erosion of free time into structured, measurable, adult-directed activity. This is the paradigm of our school system, but it continually encroaches elsewhere as well in the host of activities and events well-meaning parents push their children into. The loss of childhood play isn’t simply something to be wistful about and something that stresses out both parents and kids– more than this, it stunts one of the best ways kids learn.

This is the theme of the book: that we misunderstand learning in children. We think it’s something that is done to them instead of something they do themselves. By marshaling a wide array of cognitive and developmental studies as well as anthropology on hunter-gatherer groups (which Gray thinks embody the ideal of learning), the author makes the claim that the best and most natural means by which children learn is playing: free exploration, discovery, imitation, and mutual instruction. Our institutionalized public schools have it exactly backward: structured, goal-driven, mandatory instruction is what crushes the naturally curious drive within kids to teach themselves according to their own interests and inclinations.

As an appeal for the necessity of free play in an overly-structured world (a world that is equally fearful for the safety of children and dismissive of their abilities), this book is quite compelling. As an appeal to reform the way we educate, it’s something I could even get behind. But the author is not a reformer: he’s a revolutionary. This isn’t a book about the right balance between freedom of play and the role of structured education. For Gray, there is no proper role for the latter in the lives of children.

My fondness for public education–both in my own experience, in that of my children, and as something I believe can create and foster diversity, community, and opportunity when done right– as well as my role as an educator may make me a biased reviewer. But I think Gray’s view of public education is a one-dimensional straw man, easy to demonize. Moreover, his summary of the history of education, through four general stages of hunter-gathering play-learning, to the rise of agriculture, through the Middle Ages, to Protestant America is simply wrong. The Middle Ages were not a time when stepping out of line would get you burned at the stake, and institutionalized learning in monasteries and cathedral schools did not exist to bring about submission to an ecclesiastical order. These tropes are embarrassing and lack any real historical context. If such generalizations were indeed the case, how is it that institutionalized centers of learning were so often the place from which new, subversive, dangerous, and beautiful ideas so often at odds with secular and ecclesiastical authority emerged? In addition, his history of education takes no account at all of one of the primary roots of Western education: the philosophical schools that flourished throughout antiquity and evidenced a very different kind of learning, a dialectic that challenges the free-play/structural-authority duality he sets up.

Again, I would be the first to agree that kids need more time and freedom to learn by just being kids. Yet the irony is that often public schools provide the best opportunities to play in ways, with tools, and with other kids that many children would otherwise not have. I still remember the “Writing to Read” lab at my elementary school, where pre-literate kindergartners were put in front of computers and encouraged to play at writing. We typed out phonetic stories before we could read. I loved it. We had no computer at home at this point, no way to engage in this kind of exploration outside of the classroom.

The experience of my own children so far in our public school system’s dual-language magnet is similar. Sure, my pre-schooler could stay at home and play during the half-day he’s in a classroom. But in that classroom, he’s playing with kids from other backgrounds who speak other languages. He’s learning to play in Spanish. That’s something we couldn’t give him on our own.

Of course, we as a family probably have the resources to make “unschooling” (the author’s preferred approach) work for our kids if we decided it was best. But what about all the kids who come from families who don’t? What about kids who find their way to freedom through a school library, a teacher who challenges and engages them, the resources of a public school classroom? This remains my primary complaint against the individualistic mindset of the home-schooling movement: it pulls away the energy and passion of those families who really do want to do education well, who want to help make our classrooms places of freedom and learning, who have the resources to help change the system. It takes those children and those parents out of our community schools, and it abandons both the schools and those kids who most need them and who need our help to make the system better. To me it seems like reactions to books like Gray’s become simply another form of white flight: but now instead of abandoning our inner cities because we lack the inclination to build community together, we’re doing the same thing to our classrooms.

Plus, I’m not entirely convinced that play is the only way to learn. Sure, I’d like to chop this book in half and give the second half (the half that doesn’t include Gray’s awful history sections) to teachers, administrators, and parents with the appeal to resist more standardization and regimentation and to take back free play approaches to learning. Yet I’m not willing to completely jettison an approach to education that still has a place for memorization, drills, and learning things that don’t seem immediately appealing to the learner. From my own experience, I know there have been many times I’ve found meaning and wonder in something I didn’t initially want to read but was told to (assigned to) by a teacher. I didn’t want to learn the tedious trigonometric identities (or the Latin grammar or whatever), but I found later that those tools were the grammar necessary for doing elegant mathematics (or engaging the heritage of the Western tradition). I’m enough of a Burkean conservative to maintain there are aspects of our cultural heritage everyone should be exposed to at a young age, an age when they might not even realize why these things are important or want to learn them at the time. I still believe there are or can be “authorities”– teachers, guides, mentors– who can lead children into a body of knowledge and help them absorb, engage, and explore it.

Gray’s book will convince you of the value of free play, which is something we probably need to be reminded of today and continue to champion for our kids. But I won’t follow Gray as far as he wants to go. I think if you talk to many experienced teachers, they would say that Gray hits on one side of the dynamic tension they try to maintain in their classrooms: between children as self-directed learners on the one hand and the curriculum as a tool that has merit above and beyond a child’s particular interests on the other (and, of course, to hell with the standardized tests). I’d prefer to live there, in that more difficult tension, working to find an approach to education that holds both of these in balance.

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