Free to Learn: Anxiety, Bullying, and More

Dear Reader,

In my previous post on Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn, I was somewhat critical so now I wanted to give you some of the more positive parts of the book.

While I was not overly pleased with his review of the history of education, I liked a lot of what Gray had to say about the state of public education here and now. He believes that not only  do our schools not educate children but that they also do a lot of harm. His basic thesis is that by depriving children of the way they would naturally learn, through self-directed play, we are producing a bunch on anxiety-ridden kids with a host of problems. He refers to a lot of studies and statistics when he talks about these things and his arguments are convincing. He would even attribute the rise in bullying to the school atmosphere itself which allows children no possibility for escape.

One of Gray’s main points seems to be that it is the lack of control over their own lives and time which is producing so much anxiety in our kids. He says,

“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.” (p. 16)

He goes on to talk about how children’s lives are now very much externally controlled. They have no say over what activities they engage in when, what they read, what they study, when they eat, even when they can go to the bathroom.

I get Gray’s point, and I think it is a good one to a certain extent. I know I would go a little crazy if my schedule were dictated by others. But, at the same time, when it comes to the bigger issues, me being in control is not a calming thought. Of course, it is also not calming to think that I am at the mercy of an impersonal fate or at the mercy of other, fallible people. The real comfort comes from knowing that Someone eminently trustworthy who is always working for my good is in charge. And it helps that He is omnipotent and knows the future.

Despite this difference of opinion, I like a lot of what of Gray has to say about how our current educational system fails. I can’t really evaluate most of his evidence but it seems logical and he does cite many external studies which seem to back up what he says.

On the flip side, Gray also spends some time talking about how self-directed play helps children. This is also very interesting and is almost enough to make me become an unschooler. It has at least made me think that I should find ways to give my children more say in what they learn and also to try to preserve their free time as they approach the high school years and the pressure to do more and more schoolwork mounts.

I particularly liked what Gray had to say about fantasy play. I have always been a big fan of imaginative play but Gray shows how this kind of play actually benefits kids:

“In doing so they develop and exercise the imaginative capabilities that allow people to consider things that are not immediately present, which is what we all do when we plan for the future and what scientists do when they develop theories to explain or predict events in the real world.” (p. 124)

In other words, fantasy play is one of the first steps to thinking scientifically. It helps is learn to see possibilities that are not right in front of us.

Gray also talks about how children play with the things that are at their culture’s cutting edge. For us this mainly means technology. And playing with it is often the way to go. If we show them how to do something, they know one way to do it. If they explore on their own, they are more likely to find multiple ways, perhaps even new ways. Honestly, this book has also made me think I need to allow my kids more unfettered access to our computers (now they get 30 minutes each per day). I am pleased, though, to say that my kids have managed to learn how to make movies on our computer (which I don’t know how to do) and have taught each other the skills needed.

A key component of all this is that children’s play needs to be self-directed. When adults step in, even fun-loving, well-meaning ones, the whole dynamic changes. Kids need to be able to quit too. Without the ability to just walk away, a lot of the social dynamic that allows children to learn to negotiate their own games is lost. Team sports, then, are no replacement for free play time.

Gray also addresses the issue of violent play which has come up a number of times for me personally as I have disagreements with other parents on how much violent play to allow (see this post and this one). I am pleased to find that Gray is not bothered by a high degree of violent play, saying that it does not make children violent. He describes a scene in which children played a whipping game that was much more violent than the situations I have encountered and yet Gray sees benefit even in  this. Of course, a key component again here is that children must be able to quit the game. If the play has crossed the line into bullying and the “weak” child is unable to walk away, that is, I think, a different story. Interestingly, Gray points out that most people like to be in the vulnerable position in such games. It is more fun to be chased than to be “it.”

Gray concludes the book with some practical suggestions on how to be a more trustful parent. While I am already a homeschooler, I am inspired to try and back off some and let my kids do their own thing. I am not, however, brave enough to, as Gray himself did, let my child with Type 1 Diabetes, travel to Europe on  her own!! (Gray’s son did this at age 13; my daughter with type 1 is only 11 but I can’t see allowing this in 2 years either.)

Overall, though I have some disagreements with Gray and I think we are coming from fundamentally different places, I found his book very worthwhile and there are a lot of people whom I know personally that I really think could benefit from reading it.

Nebby

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5 responses to this post.

  1. […] There is also the need to feel in control of one’s own life which was discussed in Free to Learn as well. In that book, Peter Gray posited that the lack of control children feel in school […]

    Reply

  2. […] article by Peter Gray was recently brought to my attention. I read his book Free to Learn a while back and for the most part really enjoyed it. I like a lot of what he has to say though I […]

    Reply

  3. […] schools. For a more positive approach that shows what our kids need to be imaginative and excel, I would recommend Peter Gray’s Free to Learn over this […]

    Reply

  4. […] I think is sorely missing in today’s schools (Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn, reviewed here, is an excellent resource on […]

    Reply

  5. […] Free to Learn by Peter Gray (and my reactions to it here and here) […]

    Reply

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