Free to Learn

date Apr 12, 2021
authors Peter Gray
reading time 20 mins

Table of Contents

Children learners

Children are natural learners without any instruction

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction.

False notion of learning is ingraised with coercive schooling / tuition system

Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

Lessons are not from school, but from life

the important lessons anyone learns in life are not learned in kindergarten or anywhere else in school. They are learned from life itself.

Trend on how and why free play has decreased

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.

Free play

What is Free play?

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.

Free play is a learning machine from life itself

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.

Freedom and learning

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.

Unstructured play

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.

Learning to make decisions and solve their own problems

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

Mixed-aged group

Research in our culture shows that age-mixed play is qualitatively different from same-age play. It is less competitive and more nurturing. In age-mixed play, each child tries to do his or her best, but has little or no concern for beating others. When playmates differ greatly in age, size, and strength, there is little point in trying to prove oneself better than another.

Naturally learning the rules and compromise

Play is not something one has to do; players are always free to quit. In social play, each player knows that anyone who feels unhappy will quit, and if too many quit, the game ends. To keep the game going, players must satisfy not only their own desires but also those of the other players.

Control their emotions and impulses

free play with other children is the primary means by which children learn to control their impulses and emotions. Children’s drive to play leads them to ignore discomforts and suppress impulses so they can continue abiding by the rules of the game, and such abilities gradually transfer to their lives outside of play.

Play in young animals

Play in animals, according to Groos, is essentially an instinct to practice other instincts. He wrote, “Animals cannot be said to play because they are young and frolic some, but rather they have a period of youth in order to play; for only by doing so can they supplement the insufficient hereditary endowment with individual experience, in view of the coming tasks of life.”

Types of play:

  1. Physical play
  2. Language play
  3. Exploratory play
  4. Constructive play
  5. Fantasy play
  6. Social play


  1. play is self-chosen and self-directed
  2. play is activity in which means are more valued than ends
  3. play has structure or rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players
  4. play is imaginative, nonliteral, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life
  5. play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind

Play in adulthood

Research studies have shown repeatedly that adults who have a great deal of freedom as to how and when to do their work commonly experience that work as play, even—in fact, especially—when the work is difficult. In contrast, people who must follow others’ directions, with little creative input of their own, rarely experience their work as play.

Schooling today

More homework with parents helping

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.

Only when directed by adults can children learn?

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.

Superficial 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.

Drills, tests, exams and assignments do not increase actual understanding

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.

Pressure and achievement

those children who felt most pressured by their parents to achieve in school and were most frequently shuttled from one extracurricular activity to another were the most likely to feel anxious or depressed.

Prison vs school today

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.

Best students today cheat and are most pressured

In times past, the most frequent cheaters were the “poor students,” who cheated out of desperation. Today, however, the highest incidences of reported cheating are among the “best students,” the ones aiming for the top colleges and graduate schools, the ones who experience the greatest pressures to excel.

Only one way to solve

There is reason to believe that this kind of inhibitory effect of teaching on curiosity occurs in schools all the time. A teacher shows students one way to solve an arithmetic problem, for example, and the students conclude that it must be the only way. They don’t explore alternative ways to solve the problem

Effects of being observed and evaluated

When research subjects believe their performance is being observed and evaluated, those who are already skilled become better and those who are not so skilled become worse. The debilitating effects of being observed and evaluated have been found to be even greater for mental tasks, such as solving difficult math problems

Age segregation

From a historical perspective, and certainly from an evolutionary perspective, the segregation of children by age is an oddity—I would say a tragic oddity—of modern times.


Why outdoor play has reduced?

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.

Do kids really prefer indoors?

89 percent said they preferred outdoor play with friends to watching television, and 86 percent said they preferred it to computer play. 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.

Anxiety and control

Root causes of anxiety and depression

ONE THING WE KNOW for sure about anxiety and depression is that they correlate strongly with people’s sense of control or lack of control over their own lives. Those who believe they are in charge of their own fate are much less likely to become anxious or depressed than are those who believe they are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Internal locus of control vs external locus of control

The standard measure of sense of control is a questionnaire called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale, developed by psychologist Julien Rotter in the late 1950s. The questionnaire consists of twenty-three pairs of statements. One statement in each pair represents belief in an internal locus of control (control by the person) and the other represents belief in an external locus of control (control by circumstances outside of the person).

External locus of control related to anxiety

There is good reason to believe that the rise of external locus of control is causally linked to the rise in anxiety and depression. Clinical researchers have shown repeatedly, with children and adolescents as well as with adults, that the helpless feelings associated with an external locus of control predispose people to anxiety and depression.

Best education for kids?

How did we come to the conclusion that the best way to educate students is to force them into a setting where they are bored, unhappy, and anxious?

Natural instincts vs mindlessly follow paths laid by adults

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.

Hunter-gatherers vs Agriculture

How farming changed familites

farm families had to stake claims to and defend their land. Having gone to the trouble of plowing, planting, and cultivating, farmers could not afford to have others walk in and collect the harvest. Because of their sedentary lifestyle, they could store food and accumulate other material goods. All that provided a basis for status differences to emerge.

Disadvantages of agriculture

Thus, agriculture fostered values that were negatives among hunter-gatherers: toil, child labor, private ownership, greed, status, and competition.

When obedience from children became a demand

The more a culture depended on agriculture and the less it depended on hunting and gathering, the more likely it was to value obedience, devalue self-assertion, and use harsh means to discipline children.

Beating the children

The beating of children correlated positively with frequencies of wife beating, harsh punishment of criminals, wars, and other indices of societal violence. But independently of that, it also correlated strongly with the degree of social stratification in the society. The greater the differentiation in power among people in a society, the more frequent the use of corporal punishment by parents.

History of schooling

How school became all about memorization and indocotrination instead of curiosity

The primary method of instruction in the early Protestant schools was rote memorization. The goal was indoctrination, not inquisitiveness. The schools were also designed to enforce the Protestant work ethic.

How current schooling system came to be

The dominant Protestant sect in Prussia was Pietism, a reformed version of Lutheranism, and the leader of the Pietist schooling movement was August Hermann Francke, who established a system of schooling that would look familiar to us today. He developed a standardized curriculum (mostly of religious catechisms) and a method of training and certifying teachers to teach that curriculum. He arranged to have hourglasses installed in every classroom, so that everyone would follow a schedule dictated by time—a lesson that was part and parcel of the Protestant work ethic.

Even secular education

Secular leaders in education promoted the idea that if the state controlled the schools, and if children were required by law to attend those schools, then the state could shape each new generation of citizens into ideal patriots and workers… by the late 1830s, roughly 80 percent of Prussian children were being educated in state-run elementary schools. Other German states followed Prussia’s lead. The principal theme of the German curriculum was nationalism.

Schooling in the industrial age

For the sake of efficiency, children were divided into separate classrooms by age and passed along, from grade to grade, like products on an assembly line. The task of each teacher was to add bits of officially approved knowledge to the product, in accordance with a preplanned schedule, and then to test that product before passing it on to the next station.

Decline of mixed age playing

The decline in the size of nuclear families, the weakening of extended family ties, fears about negative influences that older children might have on younger ones, the decline in free neighborhood play, the increased amounts of time spent at school, and the proliferation of after-school programs and other adult-directed, age-segregated activities for children have conspired to reduce greatly children’s opportunities to get to know others who are several years older.

Impression of children today

12=year-old is not responsible enough

Today the typical twelve-year-old in a middle-class suburb is not trusted to babysit or even walk home from school unaccompanied by an adult. We have become a society that assumes that children are, merely because of their age, irresponsible and incompetent.

Teenagers are not able to make decisions by themselves

The belief that children and even teenagers are incapable of rational decision-making and self-direction is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Solution and alternatives

Human curiosity

What is most desirable is that people have the freedom to develop their own models, their own concepts to explain what they need or wish to explain, using whatever resources they find useful—including, but not limited to, others’ teachings and writings. People naturally want to make sense of their world. That, to Greenberg, is the essence of human curiosity.


They pointed out that our democracy rests on three root ideas: (1) human beings have certain fundamental rights; (2) the people affected by a decision should have a voice in making that decision; and (3) all people should have equal opportunities to succeed in life. These ideas get lip service in schools but are not practiced there.

Sudbury Valley system

Today roughly three dozen schools throughout the world are modeled explicitly after Sudbury Valley. I predict that fifty years from now, if not sooner, the Sudbury Valley model will be featured in every standard textbook of education and will be adopted, with variation, by many if not all public school systems.

Administrative body includes the students too

The primary administrative body is the School Meeting, which includes all students and staff members and operates on a one-person-one-vote basis, regardless of the person’s age.

Self-directed activities

Visitors, arriving at any given time of the school day and knowing only that Sudbury Valley is a school, would assume that they must have arrived at recess time. They would observe students playing, talking, hanging out, and enjoying a wide variety of self-directed activities.

One way vs many ways never thought before

The result was that the children in the control condition and in the experimenter play condition subsequently spent much more time exploring the toy, and discovered how to produce more of its effects than did children in the teaching condition. Apparently children in the teaching condition tended to conclude that the only thing the toy could do was squeak, because that was all the experimenter showed them.

Creativity thrives in an environment without punishment or rewards

In experiment after experiment, the most creative products were made by those who were in the non-incentive condition — the ones who worked under the impression that their products would not be evaluated or entered into contests and who were not offered any prizes. They thought they were just creating the product for fun. In the terminology of this chapter, they were playing.

Success does not seek external validation

Many highly successful novelists, playwrights, artists, musicians, and poets have written, or stated in interviews, that to think and produce creatively, they must forget about pleasing an audience, or pleasing critics, or winning prizes, or earning royalties.

Rules of Play

Shortest path

When we are not playing, we typically opt for the shortest, least effortful means of achieving our goal. The nonplayful student, for example, does the least studying that she can to get the “A” that she desires, and her studying is focused directly on the goal of doing well on the tests.

Enjoy the process, not the outcome

The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares little about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends.

Intrinsic motivation

Another way of saying all this is to say that play is intrinsically motivated (motivated by the activity itself), not extrinsically motivated (motivated by some reward that is separate from the activity itself).

Rewards or punishment do not work for creativity

Researchers have shown that rewards in some cases actually reduce the likelihood that a person will engage in an activity, by instilling the idea that the activity is work rather than play.

Taking charge, not responding passively

The fictional situation dictates the rules of the game; the actual physical world within which the game is played is secondary. Through play the child learns to take charge of the world and not simply respond passively to it.

Fantasy exists for adults too

Yet, I would argue, fantasy occupies a big role in much if not most of what adults do and is a major element in our intuitive sense of the degree to which adult activities are play. An architect designing a house is designing a real house. Yet, the architect brings a good deal of imagination.

Prey is more fun to play than being the predator in catching games

Notice that the preferred position is the position of greatest vulnerability. The one who is running away has less control over what is happening, has less opportunity to stop and take a break, and is more vulnerable to falling and injury than is the one who is running after. The vulnerability itself seems part and parcel of the sense of thrill.

Too much protection and no play is not good

In some experiments, for example, rhesus monkeys have been raised with just their mothers and then compared to other rhesus monkeys who were raised more normally, with access to peers as well as mothers… Not surprisingly, when tested as young adults, they were found to be abnormal in many ways. They showed excessive fear and excessive aggression.

Zone of proximal development

In the 1930s, Lev Vygotsky—the Russian psychologist introduced in Chapter 7—coined the term zone of proximal development to refer to the set of activities a child cannot do alone or with others of the same ability but can do in collaboration with others who are more skilled.

Types of parenting

Trustful parenting

Trustful parents are not negligent parents. They provide not just freedom, but also the sustenance, love, respect, moral examples, and environmental conditions required for healthy development… Trustful parenting is the style that most clearly allows the self-educative instincts to blossom. Trustful parents trust their children to play and explore on their own, to make their own decisions, to take risks, and to learn from their own mistakes.

Directive-domineering parenting

The directive-domineering style of parenting arose gradually with the rise of agriculture and reached its zenith during feudal and early industrial times… In recent times, at least in some homes, psychological beatings have replaced physical beatings as the primary means of directive-domineering parenting. Regular inductions of guilt or shame, or threats of abandonment or withdrawal of love, can be even more powerful than the rod or whip in beating children into submission.

Directive-protective parenting

Directive-protective parents don’t beat their children, but use all of the other powers they have as providers to control their children’s lives. While trustful parents view children as resilient and competent, directive-protective parents view them as fragile and incompetent.