Posted by: Tracy Barsamian | March 3, 2014

Book Review: Free to Learn

free to learn

I have been meaning to review this book for some time, as I read it back in August!  But, introducing the Alternatives in Compulsory Education Website last week jogged my memory – because Peter Gray, the author of Free to Learn:  Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, is one of the driving forces behind the site!

Here’s what has to say about the book…

…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.


Well, I loved the book!  And I should admit at the outset that I also love Peter Gray!  I heard him speak at a conference once and I thoroughly enjoyed his talk, as what he has to say makes a lot of sense to me.  His message is simple:  parents get out of the way!!  Let kids do what they do best:  play!

The one thing that surprised me about the book was how much it centered around the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA.  The author’s son, in fact, after a long, hard, miserable experience in public school, transferred into – and blossomed at – the Sudbury Valley School.  It’s so hard to find a good description of the school and its philosophy.  The school’s Website doesn’t even do a bang-up job.  But, in searching the internet, I kinda like Wikipedia’s definition!  It states, “The Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts.  There are now over 35 schools based on the Sudbury Model.  …The model has three basic tenets: educational freedom, democratic governance and personal responsibility. It is a private school, attended by children from the ages of 4 to 19.  At the Sudbury Valley School, students individually decide what to do with their time, and learn as an aside to their personal efforts, interactions and ordinary experience, rather than through classes or a standard curriculum.

The school felt like a variation of unschooling – as both strictly follow a child-led learning philosophy – and back in August (and even now really), it felt a bit easier than unschooling because there would always be other kids around!  Unschooling requires the parents to find ways to connect their families with other kids.  And depending on your child’s temperament (and your own!), that can range from super-easy to tricky.  And if you remember back to my Networks vs. Communities post, I personally, am finding the process more tricky than easy.  In fact, I think that it is for this reason (constant availability of other kids), that Peter Gray seems hesitant when he talks about home-based learning as a viable alternative to compulsory education.  He’s open to it, but hesitant.  I can appreciate his hesitancy, but I think that home based learning just requires more work on the parent’s part.  And in speaking with other unschooling parents, it seems that the creation of this community for one’s family is a process; it takes time and effort and patience.  But a community that we build ourselves is much stronger than a network that we simply plug into (Gatto).

I was so affected by reading Free to Learn last summer, I set up a family interview at the Sudbury Valley School.  The school and campus are beautiful.  Breath-taking, really.  Rob and I liked it a lot.  We both wished that we’d spent our childhoods at a “school” like this!  Keira, on the other hand, upon meeting the interviewer (one of the original staff at the school — they don’t have “teachers” or “faculty”, all adults are “staff”), scrambled onto my lap and didn’t even want to make eye contact with her, never mind answer her qustions.  Every three minutes or so, Keira repeated her solemn wish to me, “I want to go home now”.  So…luckily for us, our big girl’s cues are like huge neon flashing signs; no need to dig deeper with this kiddo.  So, the Sudbury Valley School was not for us.  BUT if you have an extraverted, high energy child, perhaps this school would be a good match for your family?  For our family, home based child-led learning is definitely a better fit!

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