Thursday, March 28, 2013

Peter Gray's Free to Learn: Book Review

Jamie is a rummager. He's not quite two but he likes to nose about in our drawers. He pulls everything out; examines what is of interest, shakes his head at what isn't exciting to him (not the blue bottle of nail polish, nor the silver! Yes! That's right. The red!).
He can't speak much yet, but he knows how to show me what it is he wants. He pulls my hand to bring me over to where his uncle's bike stands so that we can closely examine the lights, the bell, the wheels and the brakes. He wants to know how it works; does it move? What happens when I touch this? What if I shake it, bang it, prod and push it? Let me look at it. Let me press the switch!
Sitting at the piano, he lifts my hand so that I can play along with him on the piano keys. James watches me closely to see what I'm doing and he wants to do it too (it's fun of course—no point in doing it if it is not!). Outside, there is still snow but he remembers that flowers grow out here, so we need to go look for them in the garden. You will see him stop to pick up stones or leaves; whatever is on the path—until another intriguing path draws him away. Back inside, you can watch him experiment with his own balance as he bounces up and down on the bed or runs after a moving object.

We say he is playing. And in his play, he is learning about the world around him.
He's also learning other skills: how to judge weight, distance, how to speak, sing. He learns how to assess danger. He learns how to be self assertiveness and self-knowledgeable.
James is learning all this at an unbelievably rapid rate and he is learning this, not seated at a desk—which would be ridiculous—but by playing.

This brings me to Peter Gray's exciting new book Free to LearnWhy Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
Gray is an evolutionary psychologist and popular blogger at Psychology Today. He has spent many decades studying how children learn and has come to conclude as have many before him- that children come into this world, "burning to learn and are genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning."(x).
Free to Learn

Gray research is backed by a fresh perspective to the discourse: his work has focused on studying hunter-gather societies (old and new) and how the children in these groups learn. Not surprisingly, those children are allowed to continue to teach themselves in the same way very young children like my nephew James does—before we interrupt their self-education with our vision of what they need to know; what curriculum they need to cover; what tests they must pass in order to prove they know what we say they must know. They learn by playing freely.

Gray is not by any means, the first person to ask "What have we done to Childhood?" Nor is he the first to state that we have imprisoned children on all fronts—so that they can no longer play (and learn) the way even we were still able to do, just a few generations back. Today, we go out on the street and wonder where all the kids are? The answer? Safe inside away from predators, strangers and drug-pushers.Gray documents the rise in anxiety and depression in kids as free play declines.
No wonder, later, that when they are older so many of them have never known self-autonomy or developing 'an external or internal locus of control.'(17). They are helpless—where they should feel strong and powerful, because they have not had the opportunity to develop these latter traits through Nature's way of 'free play'(not the overly supervised, adult directed kind).

"Play," Gray says,"is Nature's way of helping children discover what they love." From love comes true learning.  Children, Gray continues, "have an intense drive to play with other children." And the best play, as observed within hunter gather societies is where the child learns cooperation with other kids of differing ages.

In Free to Learn, Gray takes us through the history of education, beginning with that original democratic society—the hunter-gathers—whose existence depended on co-operative and good will and sharing. The advent of agriculture was the game changer that impacted from there on, how we raise children. Even the word 'raise' comes from the metaphor of farming, Gray notes.
Once we settled down to till the land, we had to work hard. While before, as documented in modern hunter-gather societies, people worked very little and had more time to play, relax, make art and music etc, a farming family needed to work long hours on the farm and had less time for other pursuits. They needed more children to help do the menial repetitive tasks and thus, the roots of child labour. Now there is less time for play.

And where before a hunter-gather society meant individuals had to be more creative, more adaptive and in tune with Nature in order to develop the high skills of hunting, foraging etc individuals in farming societies tend towards being more conservative and obedient. "Agriculture is a continuous lesson in controlling Nature," quips Gray and this of course extends to controlling children.
Feudalism, monarchism, then the industrial revolution followed, where business ownership became more powerful than landownership, and children where needed to work the factories. With the 'Protestant work ethic' hot on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, schools were set up to develop God-fearing, obedient workers (J.T. Gatto writes extensively on the purpose of schooling). Gray explains the origins of compulsory schooling (Prussia) when the state took over the educating the young (beginning of the 19th century) and that remains the cornerstone of our education system up until the present day: the belief that children are incapable of making their own decisions.

Democratic Schools, Unschooling and more.
With Joesph Pearce, Jerome Bruner, Maria Montessori, John Holt or any other regular adult with eyes in their head, Gray remarks that "children come into this world with an instinctive drive to educate themselves." 113.  What is more, "the enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality." (154). And when it comes to the social and emotional development of children the role of free play in  can not be rivaled.
Gray devotes entire chapters to explaining what exactly play is and how the playful state of mind is the ideal state for learning new skills, solving new problems, and engaging in all sorts of creative activities. We (both children and adults alike) are at our best frame of mind to be creative when we play.

There are still those opportunities to allow kids to be responsible for their own education. Gray gives us a famous example in the Sudbury Valley School, Massachusetts that has been around for 40 years (Gray's own son attended the school years ago). Here, each and every child is responsible for his or her own education. "Sudbury is the functional equivalent for our time and place of a hunter-gather band," Gray writes (p.100). As a parent of kids that were unschooled (now in high school), I would say that unschooling (self-directed, interest-led, playful learning), is an equal model of this type of hunter-gather scenario: kids are exposed to the world and learning opportunities that are the direct result of this exposure-the exposure being facilitated by the adults.
Free to Learn is a book written in clear, accessible language that uses an engaging writing style so that I think you will find it both informative as well as entertaining. A very insightful and helpful read!


Anonymous said...

I love this review! I am going to order the book right away. Wow! I now really understand why it is absolutely necessary to fight for more play time in schools. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

RFS-the trouble is, we do not live in a hunter-gather society so how can what children need in order to grow up well in that society, apply to what our kids need in order to grow up in our society? Apples and oranges IMO.

Anonymous said...

The concept Gray has expressed before is that children naturally strive to become competent in whatever culture they are presented with. I see a negative example of this in urban settings where kids are often presented with a culture of violence and addiction, which they then strive to become good at, unless they get captivated by a different way to live.

Growing testimony from business is that they need more self-starters that can cooperate with a team to accomplish innovation. Freedom to learn is an excellent means of fostering the kind of creativity and cooperation that we have a growing need for. No longer can we rely on lists of things competent adults need to know and do because that list has gotten too long. And history shows us that attempting to force kids to learn that list has great cost.

I also see how freedom to learn fosters creativity and cooperation in my own unschooled children. I do not neglect them though in order to give them freedom. My job, as the parent, is to present them the kind of culture I would want them to grown up competent in.

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