By Laura Grace Weldon
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 isn’t just a book, it’s a powerful agent of transformation. I’d like to put a copy in the hands of every parent, teacher, and policy maker.
Gray, a research professor in the field of psychology, is an expert on the evolution of play. I discovered his work when he started writing a blog for Psychology Today where he explores topics I’d just finished researching for my book. He writes entirely logical, children-are-human posts illustrated with marvelous examples from Democratic schools and hunter-gatherer cultures around the world. Just as he does in this new book.
Free to Learn explains why lively, inquisitive children have to be “motivated” in the school environment. It details the benefits of freeing kids from same-aged peer segregation. It highlights the social, emotional, and intellectual maturity gained through play. And it reinforces who we are as a species. We are relentlessly hungry to learn and we do so primarily using the momentum of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability. Interfere with those traits, you interfere with learning.
As Gray writes early in the book:
“We have here a terrible irony. In the name of education, we have increasingly deprived children of the time and freedom they need to educate themselves through their own means. And in the name of safety, we have deprived children of the freedom they need to develop the understanding, courage, and confidence required to face life’s dangers and challenges with equanimity. We are in a crisis that continues to grow more serious with every passing year. We have lost sight of the natural way to raise children. We have, not only in the United States but also throughout the developed world, lost sight of children’s competence. We have created a world in which children must suppress their natural instincts to take charge of their own education and, instead, mindlessly follow paths to nowhere laid out for them by adults. We have created a world that is literally driving many young people crazy and leaving many others unable to develop the confidence and skills required for adult responsibility.”
You may think Gray has gone overboard here. That’s why his book is entirely necessary. You’ll see clear evidence that mental health as well as learning are connected to the more natural childhood he recommends. After a chapter or two, I’m guessing you will be nodding your head in agreement.
You may already agree with Gray’s points. That’s why his book is so completely useful. He pulls together information from all sorts of disciplines to make a masterfully compelling case, the kind of reinforcement you need in a culture hell-bent on shaping kids to be the best and the brightest no matter what.
I’ve already bought a copy for a baby shower gift. Maybe I’ll grab another one for the new grandparents. It’s not every day you can gift wrap transformation.
Laura Grace Weldon