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

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A leading expert in childhood development makes the case for why self-directed learning — "unschooling" — is the best way to get kids to learn.

In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that in order 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, he 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. 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 to promote their happiness and learning.




I’VE LEARNED FROM HUNDREDS of great teachers over the course of my life, but if I had to pick the single greatest it would be Ruby Lou. I met her the summer I was five and she was six. My family had just moved to a new town and, at my mother’s suggestion, I had gone door to door, by myself, up and down both sides of the street, knocking and inquiring, “Do any children about my age live here?” That’s how I found her, right across the street. Within a few minutes we were best friends, and we remained so for the two years that I lived in that town. Ruby Lou was older, smarter, and bolder than I, but not too much so, and that’s why she was such a great teacher for me.

In the mid-1980s Robert Fulghum published a wildly popular collection of essays, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I didn’t go to kindergarten. The little town we moved to when I was five didn’t have one. But I think even Fulghum, if pushed, might agree that most of the important lessons anyone learns in life are not learned in kindergarten or anywhere else in school. They are learned from life itself.

During that first summer, Ruby Lou and I played together almost every day, often all day, sometimes just the two of us and sometimes with other kids in the neighborhood. Then she started first grade and I did not, but we continued to play together after school and on weekends.

I’ve sometimes thought of writing a book titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Ruby Lou. The first thing I remember Ruby Lou teaching me was how to ride a bicycle. I didn’t have one, but she did, and she let me use it. It was a girl’s bike, which meant it was easier to learn on because you didn’t have to swing your leg up over a horizontal bar to get on or off. The street we lived on ran down a small hill, and Ruby Lou showed me that if I got on the bike at the top of the hill and gave myself a little push-off with my foot, I would immediately pick up enough speed, even without pedaling, to remain upright. That way I could learn to balance independently of learning to pedal. She instructed me to start pedaling as I reached the bottom of the hill and to try to go as far as possible each time before toppling over or putting my feet to the ground to stop. I got a couple of skinned knees and dinged a neighbor’s parked car on my early trials, but Ruby Lou told me not to worry, that I was getting better and would soon be riding “forever” without falling. Within a couple of days I indeed could ride forever. When my parents saw that, they bought me a clunker of a used bike. It was too big for me (“so you won’t outgrow it too quickly”) and had a boy’s bar so high that it was hard to mount. But I could ride it. It was my first set of wheels, and it gave me a freedom, at age five, that I had never before known.

Once I had my own bike, Ruby Lou and I began going on bike rides all over the village and into the nearby countryside. They seemed like huge adventures, though I imagine we never went more than two or three miles from home. I wasn’t allowed to take such trips alone, but I could take them with Ruby Lou. My mother could see that Ruby Lou, at six, was mature and responsible and knew her way around. She would keep me out of trouble. On every adventure we learned something new about the world in which we lived and we met new people. Even today, my favorite way to get around is by bike, and I sometimes think of Ruby Lou as I pedal along to work or to wherever I’m going.

Ruby Lou also helped me climb trees. There was an amazing pine tree in my front yard. My guess is that to an adult it was an averagesized pine, but to me, then, it seemed huge, its top in heaven, built by God for climbing. I was not the boldest or most agile kid around, so I had to work hard, for weeks and months, at climbing ever higher. The tree called out to Ruby Lou as much as it did to me, and she was always a more advanced climber. Each time she made it up to a higher, never previously achieved branch, I knew that I could, too. What a thrill to climb toward heaven and then look down at earth, so far below. Maybe it was fifteen feet below, maybe twenty, but it was enough to fill my five-year-old self with the thrill of danger and the even greater thrill of confidence that I could embrace danger and, through my own efforts, come out alive, a confidence that has served me well throughout my life.

And then, one scorching summer day, Ruby Lou gave me my first lesson about death. I was playing outdoors with my blowup plastic pool, running and leaping into it, sliding on my butt through the water. Ruby Lou walked into the yard and I expected her to leap into the pool as she usually did, but she didn’t. She simply sat down on the grass a distance away and didn’t say anything. I tried to get her to laugh, by performing some silly tricks, but nothing worked. I had never seen anyone act like that before. Finally I walked over and sat down next to her. She told me then that her grandfather, who had been living with her, had died during the night. It was my first experience with death and my first attempt at consoling a person who had lost someone she loved. I failed, of course, and what I learned, eventually, is that you always fail at that. All you can do is be there, as a friend, and let time do the healing. Fortunately, time works quickly when you are six and every day has the power of two weeks. Not much of the summer slipped by before Ruby Lou and I were playing and laughing together again.

I’m not the only person who looks back at childhood and regrets that today’s children have less freedom than we did. Ask almost anyone of middle age or older about their childhood and they’ll start to reminisce about time spent in adventures with other children, well away from adults. Here’s an excerpt from an essay by former First Lady and then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about her childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois:

We had a well-organized kids’ society and we had all kinds of games, playing hard every day after school, every weekend, and from dawn until our parents made us come in at dark in the summertime. One game was called chase and run, which was a kind of complex team-based hide-and-seek and tag combination. We would make up teams and disperse throughout the entire neighborhood for maybe a two- or three-block area, designating safe places that you could get to if somebody was chasing you. There were also ways of breaking the hold of a tag so that you could get back in the game. As with all of our games, the rules were elaborate and they were hammered out in long consultations on street corners. It was how we spent countless hours. . . .

We were so independent, we were given so much freedom. But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today. It’s one of the great losses as a society.1

Regardless of which side of the political fence you are on, you will agree that Hillary grew up to be an extraordinarily competent, confident, and socially adept adult. When I think of Secretary Clinton hammering out agreements among world leaders, I imagine next to her a little girl hammering out agreements with neighborhood kids about the rules for chase and run.

“WE WERE SO INDEPENDENT, we were given so much freedom. But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today. It’s one of the great losses as a society.” It’s not just a great loss; it’s a tragic and cruel loss. 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 may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. 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.

We are pushing the limits of children’s adaptability. We have pushed children into an abnormal environment, where they are expected to spend ever greater portions of their day under adult direction, sitting at desks, listening to and reading about things that don’t interest them, and answering questions that are not their own and are not, to them, real questions. We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.

I’m an evolutionary developmental psychologist. That means that I study child development from a Darwinian perspective. I’m particularly interested in those aspects of children’s nature that equip them to learn, on their own initiatives, what they must in order to survive and do well in the culture into which they are born. Stated differently, I am interested in the biological foundations of education. To this end, I have studied education as it occurred in the original kinds of human societies, hunter-gatherer societies, where there was nothing like schools, and children always took charge of their own learning. I have also studied education as it currently occurs at a remarkable alternative school near my home in Massachusetts, where hundreds of children and adolescents have educated themselves successfully through self-directed activities, with no adult-imposed curriculum or testing. In addition, I have looked at education in families that practice a version of homeschooling called “unschooling,” and I have looked deeply into and contributed to the biological and psychological research on the functions of play.

All of this work tells a remarkably consistent and surprising story, a story that defies modern, mainstream beliefs about education. Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.

This is a book about children’s natural instincts to educate themselves, about the environmental conditions required for those instincts to operate optimally, and about how we, as a society, can provide those conditions at far less expense than what we currently spend on schools. The drive to play is a huge part of children’s natural means for self-education, so a portion of this book is about the power of play. In this first chapter, however, I assess the damage we are causing through our present treatment of children. Over the past half century or more we have seen a continuous erosion of children’s freedom to play and, corresponding with that, a continuous decline in young people’s mental and physical health. If this trend continues, we are in serious danger of producing generations of future adults who cannot find their own way in life.

A Half Century of Decline2

It used to be that you could walk through almost any neighborhood in America—after school, or on weekends, or during the summer—and see children playing outside, without adult supervision. Now if you see them outside at all they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of adult coaches, while their parents look on and dutifully cheer their every move.

In an authoritative book on the history of children’s play in America, Howard Chudacoff refers to the early to mid-twentieth century as “the golden age of children’s unstructured play.”3 By “unstructured play,” Chudacoff does not mean play that lacks structure. He recognizes that play is never random activity; it always has structure. By “unstructured” he really means structured by the players themselves rather than by an outside authority. I refer to this as free play, defined as play in which the players themselves decide what and how to play and are free to modify the goals and rules as they go along. Pickup baseball is free play; a Little League game is not. Free play is how children learn to structure their own behavior.

It is reasonable, if somewhat oversimplified, to say that over time in postcolonial America children’s opportunities to play freely have been determined by two trends. One is the gradual decline in need for child labor, which allowed children more time for play. This explains the general rise in play up to the early to mid-twentieth century. The other trend is the gradual increase in adult control of children’s lives outside the world of labor, which has reduced children’s opportunities for free play. This trend began to accelerate around the middle of the twentieth century and explains the continuous decline in play since then.

One significant reason for this increase in adult control over children’s lives is the ever-increasing weight of compulsory schooling. Children start school at ever younger ages. We now have not only kindergarten, but prekindergarten in some districts. And preschools, which precede kindergarten or prekindergarten, are structured more and more like elementary schools—with adult-assigned tasks replacing play. The school year has grown longer, as has the school day, and opportunities for free play within the school day have largely been eliminated. When I was an elementary school student in the 1950s we had half-hour recesses each morning and afternoon, and at noon we had an hour for lunch. During these periods (which occupied a third of the six-hour school day) we were free to do whatever we wished, even leave the school grounds. In third grade my friends and I would spend nearly the entire lunch hour wrestling on the grass, or in the snow, on a hill not far from the school. We also played games with jackknives and had major snowball wars in winter. I don’t remember any teacher or other adult observing us in such play. If they did, they certainly didn’t interfere. Such behavior would not be allowed today at any of the elementary schools I’ve observed. We were trusted then, in ways that children are not trusted today.

Not only has the school day grown longer and less playful, but school has intruded ever more into home and family life. Assigned homework has increased, eating into time that would otherwise be available for play. Parents are now expected to be teachers’ aides. They’re supposed to keep track of all the homework and special projects assigned to their kids and to coax, nag, or bribe them to complete those assignments. When kids blow off their homework or perform poorly on it, parents are often made to feel guilty, as if they had failed. Parents no longer dare to schedule family vacations that will keep their child out of school for even a day or two, or allow their child to miss school for activities at home that might, in truth, produce more useful learning than what would have occurred during that time in school.

But school has taken over children’s lives in an even more insidious way. The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time. This attitude is seldom explicitly articulated, although when the superintendent of schools in Atlanta, Georgia, decided to end the tradition of free play at recesses, he declared, “Rather than give children 30 minutes to while away the time as they please, it makes more sense to teach them a skill, like dancing or gymnastics.”4 The same superintendent also said that children don’t need free play to get exercise, because they get that in physical education classes. Few educators would voice such an anti-play attitude so baldly. Most at least give lip service to the value of free play. Yet, at a level that controls adults’ actual behavior toward children, the anti-play attitude grows more pervasive with every passing decade and has seeped through the school walls to infect society everywhere. Children are increasingly encouraged or required to take adult-directed lessons and engage in adult-directed sports even out of school, rather than to play freely.

Related to this anti-play attitude is an ever-increasing focus on children’s performance, which can be measured, and decreasing concern for true learning, which is difficult or impossible to measure. What matters in today’s educational world is performance that can be scored and compared across students, across schools, and even across nations to see who is better and who is worse. Knowledge that is not part of the school curriculum, even deep knowledge, doesn’t count. By “true learning” and “deep knowledge,” I mean children’s incorporation of ideas and information into lasting ways of understanding and responding to the world around them (more on this in later chapters). This is very different from superficial knowledge that is acquired solely for the purpose of passing a test and is forgotten shortly after the test is over.

Parents, teachers, schools, and whole school districts—not just the children themselves—are evaluated these days on the basis of the children’s test performance. Children are pawns in a competitive game in which the adults around them are trying to squeeze the highest possible scores out of them on standardized tests. Anything that increases performance short of outright cheating is considered “education” in this high-stakes game. Thus, drills that enhance short-term memory of information they will be tested on are considered legitimate education, even though such drills produce no increase at all in understanding.

This focus on performance has moved beyond the classroom to all sorts of extracurricular and out-of-school activities. In the eyes of many parents and educators today, childhood is not so much a time for learning as a time for résumé building. School grades and standardized-test performance “count,” as do formal, adult-directed activities outside of school, especially those that produce trophies, honors, or other forms of positive evaluation by adults. In this way, children and adolescents are coaxed and guided, if not pushed, into adult-organized sports, out-of-school lessons, and adult-directed volunteer activities. Even young children, whose activities won’t realistically go on paper, are directed onto stepping-stones toward later, more explicit résumé building. Free play doesn’t count because it’s just play; there’s no place for it on a college application.

The increased weight of schooling and the perceived need to build résumés are not the only reasons free play has declined over the past half century. Equally influential is the continuous rise in adults’ belief that unsupervised play is dangerous. Today, if a playing child is abducted, molested, or murdered by a stranger anywhere in the developed world, the media swarm to cover it, so the fears are exaggerated beyond reason. The actual rate of such cases is low and has declined in recent years.5 In a recent large-scale multinational survey, the most often cited fear that led parents to restrict their children’s outdoor play was, “They may be in danger of child predators” (cited by 49 percent of parents).6 Other prominent fears expressed in the survey that may be more realistic are fears of road traffic and of bullies. In another, smaller survey conducted in the UK, 78 percent of parents cited fear of molestation by strangers as a reason they restricted their children’s outdoor play, while 52 percent cited dangers from traffic.7

In yet another survey—of 830 mothers from a representative sample of geographical areas in the United States—85 percent agreed that their child or children played outdoors less often than they themselves did when they were children.8 When asked about the obstacles to their own children’s outdoor play, 82 percent of the mothers cited safety concerns and crime. Surprisingly, the rates of these fears were little affected by geographic region; they were as prominent in rural areas and small villages as they were in cities. If we want to increase children’s opportunities for free outdoor play, we must strengthen neighborhoods in ways that allow parents to perceive them as safe. What kind of a society do we live in if our children cannot play safely and freely outdoors?

Statistical evidence for the decline in play comes also from diary studies in which parents were asked to keep records of their children’s activities on randomly chosen days. In a long-term study of this sort, sociologist Sandra Hofferth and her colleagues compared the amount of time that representative samples of children spent daily on various activities in 1997 with the time that similar samples spent at the same activities in 1981.9 Among other things, the study revealed that children age six to eight spent 18 percent more time in school, 145 percent more time doing schoolwork at home, 168 percent more time shopping with parents, 55 percent less time conversing with others at home, 19 percent less time watching television, and 25 percent less time playing in 1997 than they did in 1981. All this in a sixteen-year period, roughly half a generation. In this study the “play” category included indoor play, such as board games and computer games, as well as outdoor play. We can only assume that the amount of outdoor play decreased even more than 25 percent, as the amount of indoor computer play must have increased during this period (it would have been essentially zero in 1981). The total amount of time that the average child in this age group spent at play (including computer play) in 1997 was slightly over eleven hours per week. In a follow-up study, using the same methods, Hofferth and her colleagues found a continued increase (of 32 percent) in time spent at homework and a slight further decrease (of 7 percent) in time spent playing for this age group over the six-year period from 1997 to 2003.10

When parents are asked why their children don’t play outside more, they often cite their children’s own preferences as well as safety concerns. In particular, they often refer to the seductive qualities of television and computer games.11 However, in a large-scale study in which children themselves were asked about their play preferences, outdoor play with friends came out on top. In paired comparisons with specific other activities, 89 percent said they preferred outdoor play with friends to watching television, and 86 percent said they preferred it to computer play.12 Perhaps kids today play on the computer as much as they do partly because that is one place where they can play freely, without adult intervention and direction. Many are not allowed to play freely outdoors, and even if they are, they are unlikely to find others to play with, so they play indoors instead. Of course that’s not the only reason for the popularity of computer play. Such play is great fun, and kids do learn a lot from it. But for physical fitness and learning about the real world and how to get along with peers, outdoor play with friends has no equal.

The Rise of Psychological Disorders in Young People

The decline of free play and the careerist approach to childhood have exacted a heavy toll. A not-atypical kid you might find in any middle-class neighborhood today is someone I’ll call Evan. He’s eleven years old. On weekdays his mom drags him from bed at 6:30 A.M. so he can dress and grab something to eat in time for the school bus. He’s not allowed to walk to school, even though walking would take less time, be more fun, and give him some exercise; it’s too dangerous. At school he spends most of the day sitting still, listening to teachers, taking tests, reading what he’s told to read, writing what he’s told to write, all the while daydreaming about what he would really like to be doing. The school has even done away with the half-hour recess it used to have, to prevent injuries and lawsuits and to create more time to prepare children for the statewide exams. After school, Evan’s life is scheduled in a way designed (primarily by his parents) to give him a balanced set of skills and keep him out of trouble. He’s got soccer on Monday, piano on Tuesday, Karate on Wednesday, Spanish on Thursday. In the evening, after watching TV or playing a video game, he spends a couple of hours on homework. His mother has to sign his homework sheets each night as evidence that she has monitored his doing them. On weekends he’s got a league game, Sunday school, and maybe a little free time to hang out with friends in the safety of one of their homes. His parents like to boast about his many activities, always explaining that it’s “his own choice” and that “he likes to keep busy.” They see him as preparing himself for admission to the prestigious college that they hope he’ll get into seven years hence. Evan has a strong constitution, but at times he admits to feeling a bit “burned out.”

Evan is one of the successes. Down the street is Hank, diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, who takes Adderall because without it he can’t sit still all day at school. With it, he manages to do well enough to pass, but the drug takes away his appetite, keeps him awake at night, and generally makes him feel “weird.” He says he doesn’t feel like himself when he takes it, and his parents admit that he’s not as playful, funny, or happy when he’s on the drug as when he’s off it. But they don’t see a choice; he has to make passing grades at school or they fear he will fall hopelessly behind.

Of course, not all kids today suffer to such a degree as Evan or Hank. But the reality is that altogether too many kids do suffer from problems like theirs, and many feel burned out by the time they graduate from high school, if not before. Here’s a quotation, clipped from an article in my local newspaper, from an eighteen-year-old high school graduate, who could be Evan seven years older: “I was consumed with doing well and didn’t sleep a lot the last two years. I would have five or six hours of homework almost every night. The last thing I wanted to do was more school.” In the same article, another eighteen-year-old, who had been accepted to Harvard, described his stressful last year of high school. Among other things, he had juggled six Advanced Placement courses while wrestling competitively, playing the viola, and taking classes in Chinese black-and-white portraiture. He, too, felt burned out, in need of at least a year off before going on to college.

Representing the other end of the school-age spectrum, here’s a comment that was posted on a blog I write for Psychology Today


  • David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, and author of Evolution for Everyone
    “The modern educational system is like a wish made in a folk tale gone horribly wrong. Peter Gray's Free to Learn leads us out of the maze of unforeseen consequences to a more natural way of letting children educate themselves. Gray's message might seem too good to be true, but it rests upon a strong scientific foundation. Free to Learn can have an immediate impact on the children in your life.”

    Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool
    “A compelling and most enjoyable read. Gray illustrates how removing play from childhood, in combination with increasing the pressures of modern-day schooling, paradoxically reduces the very skills we want our children to learn. The decline of play is serious business.”
  • Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works
    “Peter Gray is one of the world's experts on the evolution of childhood play, and applies his encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, and his humane voice, to the pressing issue of educational reform. Though I am not sure I agree with all of his recommendations, he forces us all to rethink our convictions on how schools should be designed to accommodate the ways that children learn.”

    Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids
    “All kids love learning. Most don't love school. That's a disconnect we've avoided discussing—until this lightning bolt of a book. If you've ever wondered why your curious kid is turning into a sullen slug at school, Peter Gray's Free to Learn has the answer. He also has the antidote.”
  • Laurette Lynn, Unplugged
    “[A] well written, well organized and beautifully stated piece of work….I emphatically recommend this book for any parent as well as any educator or anyone interested in improving education for our society.”
    “[Free to Learn is] a powerful agent of transformation. I'd like to put a copy in the hands of every parent, teacher, and policy maker.”

    Publishers Weekly
    “[E]nergetic…Gray powerfully argues that schools inhibit learning…. [Gray's] vivid illustrations of the ‘power of play' to shape an individual are bound to provoke a renewed conversation about turning the tide in an educational system that fosters conformity and inhibits creative thinking.”

    Frank Forencich, author of Exuberant Animal and Change Your Body, Change the World
    Free to Learn is a courageous and profoundly important book. Peter Gray joins the likes of Richard Louv and Alfie Kohn in speaking out for a more humane, compassionate and effective approach to education.”

On Sale
Mar 5, 2013
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Peter Gray

About the Author

Peter Gray is a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College. The author of Psychology, a highly regarded college textbook, he writes a popular blog called Freedom to Learn for Psychology Today. He lives in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

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