July 22, 2014

Book Review for Parents: Free to Learn by Peter Gray

I just finished 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 Gray and I have some thoughts.

First, everyone should read this--and I mean everyone.  Not so much because everyone should homeschool or unschool or even send their children to a "unschool-school" but because it helps provide a different vision of our schools than the media currently espouses wherein our children need to go to school younger and work more intensely to be more competitive.  While I am still on the fence about a lot of things Gray said, I am adamantly opposed to the politician/media model that is ruining our education system currently and stressing out our children.

Second, I think Gray's overall premise is correct: children learn better when they are having fun.  I disagree with Gray's conclusion that school inhibits all fun and learning.  I had a lot of fun in public school.  I read a lot of great books, assigned and unassigned. I had a lot of great friends and some excellent teachers.  I had three recesses, gym, art, and music.  I was good at school so I rarely felt much stress or pressure.  I may be the exception, but I think public school works just fine for a lot of kids.

Gray spends a lot of time in this book examining hunter-gather societies and how children are reared within those communities.  He then then takes certain characteristics of those child-rearing approaches and tries to apply them to our current first world society.  I didn't think it worked very well.

Then Gray moves on to talking about the importance of self-directed, adult-free play.  This is the section of the book that is easiest to buy into.  Gray defines play as: 1) self-chosen and self-directed, 2) motivated by means more than ends, 3) guided by mental rules, 4) imaginative, 5) conducted in an alert, active, but non-stressed frame of mind.  Gray then proceeds to explain how many people play while working because their work meets all the criteria of play.  I think my husband feels this way about his work as a computer programmer.  My hubby has often described his work as "spending all day solving really cool puzzles."  When my hubby was an accountant he dreaded going to work every day and he was not happy.  Accounting was never play for him.

I saw a lot of myself as a homeschool mom in this section of the book.  My favorite part of the day is when we are working on school.  I chose to homeschool my children and continue to choose to do so every day.  It is very much a creative outlet for me.  I love picking the books to read, reading to my children, putting together curriculum, enjoying my children's enjoyment of everything we do for school.  Sometimes my kids get annoyed about practicing piano, or computation practice, but overall the school part of our days are pretty awesome.  I wouldn't hesitate to call it play.  (Getting my children to do the chores around the house is another matter entirely.)  I sometimes worry a little bit that the reason I don't want to put my children in school is because I get so much out of homeschooling.  On the other hand, all of my children adamantly refuse to attend public school so I can't feel too guilty about it.

After he defines play, Gray explains why play is so valuable for children.  The man was clearly preaching to the choir (me).  He said everything I've ever thought about children needing more time away from adults to make their own decisions and take their own risks.  He also talked about the value of multi-age play and the value of "dangerous" play.  I liked that he has the science degrees to make what he says sound more legitimate than my ravings on these topics.  :)

Where are you on the free-range parenting vs. tiger mom parenting scale??  I'm so curious about other homeschoolers' perspectives on these topics.

So, overall, I thought his ideas were pretty awesome and inspiring.  The drawback, as I see it, is his absolute conviction that learning should be entirely self-led.  He is a huge fan of unschooling. His son attended Sudbury--a school model that is very like unschooling, only with lots of kids together in the same building.

I've thought about unschooling a lot over my five years of homeschooling.  When I first started homeschooling, I tended to worry a lot more about getting things done.  However, I've never thought children should be studying academics in the early grades so my approach to homeschool was a tad more flexible than many newbie homeschoolers.  As Gray correctly pointed out on his blog, most homeschoolers start out fairly rigid and then relax as the years go by and they realize that their children learn all the time, with or without much effort on the part of the parent.  I am far more trusting of my children's basic curiosity then I was at the beginning.

However, I am not an unschooler and am not entirely convinced that unschooling is a good model of schooling in the younger grades.  As a child gets older--say early teens and upwards--they develop more pointed interests.  An unschooling approach, at that point, makes a lot of sense to me.  The older child can create a plan of action to develop those interests and he is old enough to understand why a broad base of knowledge (we'll call it a classical approach or cultural literacy approach) can be helpful. He can also cut out the unhelpful parts of a traditional education (like high school gym) and streamline his learning to best work with other areas of his life.

A younger child doesn't have the life experience and knowledge to know what his interests are.  I know unschoolers would adamantly disagree, and I understand their point of view and freely admit that I might be wrong.  However, I see a lot of value in exposing my children to a more typical classical approach in the younger years to help make therm aware of all the possibilities out there.  Also, I think they should have a familiarity with some general concepts like WWII and atoms.  Sure, if my 16 year old had no interest in history I could see myself not being too worried about it, but only because I'd already have covered history during the elementary and middle school years.  Teenager has been exposed to ideas, is not interested in said ideas at this time, does not have to pursue those ideas.  This works for me.

The child-directed model from birth does not.  How does a seven year old know if he's interested in history or not?  How does a seven year old know if he's interested in chemistry or not?  How does a seven year old even know what chemistry is unless an adult introduces him to the idea?    

Maybe I still don't trust my kids enough, but I feel strongly that my purpose as a homeschooler of young children is to expose my children to a variety of ideas in all subject areas.  When my children have been exposed to many subjects and ideas then they can start to specialize.

Where are you on the unschooling scale?  I would love to know.

Regardless of my disagreeing or, at least, questioning some of Gray's conclusions, I really think the book is a must-read.

Now really, tell me where you are on the unschooling scale.


  1. I agree with you on many of the points you brought out. I am definitely not an unschooler. While kids need time to play and discover, they also need some guidance and some kids need more guidance than others. I know my children wouldn't know anything about Christopher Columbus if I hadn't pulled out one of our history books and read about him -- whether they liked it or not. After doing a notebooking page on him, they thought he was awesome. :) How long would it have taken my children to find out about this key person from history if I had never said anything and waited for them to ask about how this land was discovered? Would they ever *wonder* about America and how it was founded? I highly doubt it. I have no problem purposefully teaching my children history and science. But, I also let them do a lot of discovering on their own. I figure as long as free time is in their school day, we are good. :) I agree, too, that most elementary-aged children have a hard time pinpointing what they are interested in and wanting to actively study it and explore it. My own children would probably play all day long outside if I left them to their own education. Who knows when they'd get around to reading anything beyond fiction and learn about real people and real events?

  2. I'm with you on Gray and unschooling - how he may be a little too in love with it. The "Sudbury Valley School" he touts often doesn't really have a stellar record of producing amazing kids either (over 40 years). There's a book on their alumni that one can read.