Free to Learn

The following is a review I just posted at Amazon and Goodreads of Peter Gray’s amazing new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

Free To Learn“Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play…kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.”

I’ve been a professional educator for over twenty years, and Free to Learn is likely the most comprehensive, convincing account I’ve ever read of how children actually learn. Passionate yet scholarly, abundantly supported by research and anecdotes, Dr. Gray’s work explains and confirms my own experiences of the past two decades. It’s a remarkable, at times even stunning, treatment of how we can work with children’s natural drives rather than against them. It superbly balances his own research, reviews of others’ research, and personal observations.

The scope of Free to Learn ranges from our species’ many millennia as hunter-gatherers to the tragic curtailing of children’s play since the mid-twentieth century. As Dr. Gray notes, correlation does not imply causality, yet the correlations are alarming and sickening: the rise in childhood psychopathology over the past sixty-plus years is an irrefutable indictment of increasing limits on free play and exploration. We have disempowered children and then blamed them for the results of our negative self-fulfilling prophecies.

“Children need freedom in order to be happy, to learn how to be responsible, and to develop the character traits needed to deal with life’s inevitable dangers and setbacks.”

A key strength of Dr. Gray’s work is that it draws not only from extensive academic research, but also his personal experience as a parent at, and thorough researcher of, the Sudbury Valley School ( In fact, his encounters with Sudbury Valley were what led him to seek an explanation for this unconventional school that would satisfy his scholarly, empirical standards. Free to Learn achieves an all-too-rare blending of scientific research and accessible, compelling social commentary.

It turns out that children must play and explore in order to learn, in order to fully develop. Having worked in both conventional and Sudbury schools, I can assure you that Dr. Gray’s accounts of the wonders of play, age-mixing, and the freedom to direct one’s own learning are neither exaggerated nor rare. What’s perhaps most encouraging is not only the aptness of his analysis, but the ample accounts he offers of ways in which we can align the context of children’s learning with their innate drives and instincts.

“Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

If you want a deeper understanding not only of what’s wrong with schools, but what can be done about that, I can’t urge you strongly enough to buy this book. I wish I could present a hundred copies to friends and family, as Free to Learn has the potential to nudge our culture toward the tipping point Dr. Gray envisions in his final chapter: one that will make self-directed learning based on free play and exploration the norm, not some radical experiment.


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