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Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
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Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  2,329 ratings  ·  331 reviews
Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests—often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave. Even outside of school children today seldom play and explore without adult supervision, and are afforded few opportunities to control their own lives. The result: anxio ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published March 5th 2013 by Basic Books
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Average rating 4.29  · 
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 ·  2,329 ratings  ·  331 reviews

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Jul 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Half-way through this book I wanted to go back to teaching and use this knowledge in my classrooms, alas I am devoted to raising my children, at least for the next few years.

I am a high school teacher, a John Holt fan-girl, and a parent of two children under 5.

The major concepts of this book are not new to me, but it was full of so much research and new thoughts that I absolutely loved it. Some stories (and accompanying research) resonated.

I remember as a teenager, I was doing a task and my litt
Sep 13, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2015, education
I've only read the introduction and part of the first chapter, but I'm already wary about where this book is headed. On the cover (which I read as I grabbed it off of my library's shelf) it looks like a book advocating more free time for kids (agree 100%). The author explains how kids used to have more free time, and how less free time over the past 50+ years is correlating with an increase in mental disorders in children and teenagers. I'm on board with that.

But he moved on to talk about presen
Jun 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book fits my family like a glove. We unschool and this book was a wonderful reminder to me why we do it. I love reading books that remind me that it is so amazing for my kids to stay outside of the box...although the outside is becoming busier, which is awesome by the way!

This is a book that I would love to get hundreds of copies of and just leave them around for people to pick up. Not because the book is written amazingly well, or grabs your interest and doesn't let go, but because it is
Stephen Case
Jun 28, 2016 rated it liked it
I was homeschooled a bit growing up. It wasn't by choice, and I so suppose it wasn't actually true homeschooling. Rather, I had a "home-bound teacher" who delivered my assignments and lessons for portions of eighth, tenth, and eleventh grades when I was too sick from chemotherapy to attend classes. So this, to be fair, probably colors my perspectives on alternate schooling options: for me, going to public school was always a privilege. It was something I got to do when things were normal and hea ...more
Mar 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
“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…kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.”

I’ve been a professional educator for over twenty years, and Free to Learn is likely the most comprehensive, convincing account I’ve ever read of how children actually learn. Passionate yet scholarly, abundantly supported by re
Michael Fitzgerald
Sep 09, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: another
A lot of this felt like a warmed-over rehash of other things I have read, especially John Holt, but also Lenore Skenazy and Susan Linn. I felt that there was an unschooling agenda and that the book wasn't up-front enough about it. I disagree with the author that "fifty years from now, if not sooner, the Sudbury Valley model [basically unschooling at a school] will be featured in every standard textbook of education and will be adopted, with variation, by many if not all public school systems."

Apr 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
On Trustful parents view of children..."You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and more desire. We are with yo ...more
Apr 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
While I love Peter Gray's writing--and this book is no exception--I think this particular work may be more for those new to the idea of self-directed learning and the importance of play (or perhaps as something to be given to a hesitant partner or questioning family member who isn't sure what you do or why--if you homeschool, unschool, or your child attends a Summerhill- or Sudbury-like school). This belief did not affect my rating of the book; I just mean that if you've read a number of works o ...more
Jun 06, 2017 rated it it was ok
The first chapter was excellent, but the book went steadily downhill from there. After several chapters spent idealizing living in a primitive hunter-gatherer society and another few chapters defending the mediocre reputation of the author's favorite private "unschool", the final straw was the argument that video games are a valid substitute for child-led, unstructured outdoor play. At that point, two thirds of the way through, I gave up any hope of a return to the helpful insights of the first ...more
May 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Bottom line: Let kids play free of most adult interference. In this book, you'll read about fascinating research on play and its importance for development. I loved reading about Sudbury Valley in Mass. and their free curriculum (free as in, the children guide themselves). This is no touchy-feely book--expect data and compelling arguments in favor of less school, and more play.

[Some free advice: Next time you feel like butting in on your kids' imaginative play, stop yourself.]
Jul 26, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: parenting
The author makes some good points, but often undermines themselves by relying fairly heavily on anecdotal evidence, and using a relatively small sample size for the actual, completed research.
Sadly, most of the research in the book seems to be the author's own, and there is little reference to others who have studied play as learning in the modern, Western context. In general, there does not seem to be a lot of research on this subject, but the author presents a very narrow slice.
Feb 20, 2019 rated it did not like it
I am generally sympathetic to the conclusions of this book. However, the author makes many sweeping characterizations that I'm skeptical of. For example, he makes it sound like primitive people's lives were utopian. These kinds of characterizations made me skeptical to the entire book. ...more
Jul 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
"Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other mammals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. That, indeed, is the mechanism that natur ...more
May 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The author has a mission, which he makes very clear from the beginning: If we want our kids to grow up as sociable, self-sufficient, confident, happy people, we need to totally revamp our arbitrary education system.

Chapters 1-3 are arguably overzealous, and could use some more citations, but starting with chapter 4 he makes clear and compelling illustrations of how an alternative education system can provide results that we want.

Gray has an evolutionary viewpoint on education - kids were born t
May 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
To me, this is not so much a four-star book as a mix of five-star chapters and three-star chapters. The key points concerning the value of mixed-age play in both learning and social/emotional development were clearly made and well-demonstrated, and the author makes a convincing case for more trustful parenting. I could not agree more with Dr. Gray's arguments on those points. Furthermore, I believe him entirely children do not need "formal" schooling to grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults, ...more
Kelsey Ebling
Jan 13, 2021 rated it liked it
The author makes good points about the pitfalls of conventional schooling but assumes that all kids hate school. I agree that kids need as much freedom as we can give them to learn where their interests lie, how to be responsible, and to feel some control over their own lives, but I don't think alternative schooling is the only way to achieve this. But who knows, my kids haven't tried school yet. ...more
Nov 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
For many, especially those who believe they are supposed to control our education system, this book will be utter heresy. I found it delightful.

The current government-mandated system has always favored individuals with certain abilities: sit still and focus for long periods of time, learn in an environment completely detached from the real world, work fast, move from subject to subject at given time intervals, regurgitate correct answers to an endless procession of tests, do only what is set ou
Sep 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Wow- what a game changer of a book. I cannot recommend this book more highly to anyone with children (or thinking about children) who feels that the current structure of education just feels somehow 'off'. I'm not talking about "not enough budget for a PE teacher" kind of stuff- but the more holistic "is this really what education is supposed to be about?" kind of questions.
I have always seen myself as a person who fully supports the plan of "child goes to school, college, maybe grad school and
Sue Lyle
Dec 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is a marvellous book that all teachers and all parents should read. I am inspired and fired up to change the world of school for my grandchildren. I met and worked with Peter Gray for a few days last summer and found him a quiet, unassuming, compassionate man and am now amazed he didn't try and influence our deliberations with his passion for unschooling that he discusses in this book. I guess he trusted me to find unschooling for myself as I am a self-directed learner. Peter wants to give ...more
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An intellectual account of children's play and its effect on humanity. Every paren't must read and must understand book.

In short, let your children play and get out of the way, unless asked to join in, and even then, control yourself, don't take over.

Stop with the little league, competitive preschool/afterschool lessons and minimize all types of formal training. Don't knock the curiosity out of them by forcing learning. Let kids be kids. They don't need adults to teach them about life. They are
Jan 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book gave me so much to think about and I'll be mulling these ideas in my head for a long time. I began reading with only a vague notion of what unschooling was and ended with a greater understanding of the vital importance of free play. I'm not completely converted though. My main concerns with unschooling is that it sounds like a romanticized notion that children can completely educate themselves and learn everything they should know. Would I have been responsible enough for my own educat ...more
Matthew Stillman
Aug 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book makes me weep for the struggle I had in school to find a place there.
This book makes me weep for the kids I know today who find themselves at war with a compulsory education system that hems in all of their instincts.

Free to Learn is an inspiring read to help people look at the value of play as a valid educational method and it shows how formal schools actually encourage the sort of behavior in children that we don't want in society .

It is a very disruptive book to standard mental mode
Feb 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to me by a friend... Much of it was hard to get through without a lump in my throat, very moving, Gray states what we all need to hear, especially in education at the moment, filled with its measures, turning children into product and an unhealthy focus on results and pressure. Free to learn has an optimistic slant, something my colleagues and I are all searching for!
Eileen Holt
Jul 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
In my opinion, this is MUST read for parents. It really changed the way I look at how my kids play and spend their time. This book discusses the value of play/free time in relation to children developing important life skills and the ability to learn valuable skills.
Feb 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is the book that has just recently convinced Nik and I to throw ourselves unreservedly into the "unschooling" or "self-directed learning" deep end of homeschooling. More blogging to come about this topic! ...more
Jun 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book really made me think and made me glad of the decision we made to homeschool. Kinda makes me want a Sudbury-type school in Phoenix. They sound so cool!
Mar 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: home-education
The chapters on Sudbury School were interesting, but they were sandwiched between things that weren't worthwhile. The first half dripped with assumption of the motives of groups and religions in the past, which I found particularly jarring considering that I was simultaneously reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, Postman details the extensive wealth of knowledge within the historically typographical generations; the hours-long debates, the capability of the populace to actua ...more
Jan 18, 2021 rated it liked it
This book does wonders for my confirmation bias. The premise is great; learning through play is an evolutionary mechanism; it is an innate, biological drive and our schools and parenting practices quash this.

To support this claim the author summaries the origin of schools (disappointing), comparisons are drawn from ethological research (extrapolating nonhuman with human = oversimplified), comparisons are also made with hunter gatherer cultures (cross-cultural research = complicated. Again, over
Jul 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
While I don’t hold with everything about this book (it has a strong streak of Rousseau-ishness) it is fascinating and absolutely valuable reading, running counter to much of our culture’s conventional wisdom. So many connections with Charlotte Mason philosophy— the book itself is more focused on what are typically considered “unschooling” ideals but to me it speaks to the wise balance in CM education between structured learning and the freedom of “masterly inactivity.” You could say this is a wh ...more
Jan 12, 2021 rated it really liked it
Not a lot new from all the other reading I've done on this topic, and I didn't love everything about it, but there's enough there that was interesting and informative. I liked the quick historical rundown of play and education. ...more
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Dr. Peter Gray is a research professor at Boston College. He is now retired but continues to publish research and give guest lectures.

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“Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is prison, but almost nobody beyond school age says it is. It's not polite. We all tiptoe around the truth because admitting it would make us seem cruel and would point a finger at well-intentioned people doing what they believe to be essential. . . . A prison, according to the common, general definition, is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty. In school, as in adult prisons, the inmates are told exactly what they must do and are punished for failure to comply. Actually, students in school must spend more time doing exactly what they are told than is true of adults in penal institutions. Another difference, of course, is that we put adults in prison because they have committed a crime, while we put children in school because of their age.” 23 likes
“The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.” 9 likes
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