Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013). If you are looking for a different approach to education backed by research that embraces play and trusts the natural instincts of young people, then there is no better place to start than Peter Gray.
Dr. Gray is a contributing writer for Psychology Today and has published numerous research papers on the benefits of embracing freedom when it comes to education. Links to his research papers can be found here. In short, free play is THE fundamental human instinct that drives learning and development.
In Free to Learn Dr. Gray traces his research back to our deep ancestral roots by surveying how free play is the foundation of social existence for the few remaining hunter gatherer cultures that survived long enough to be studied. See Gray, Peter. “Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence.” American Journal of Play 1.4 (2009): 476-522.
It is interesting and critical to note that Dr. Gray was drawn into this field of study for deeply personal reasons. Free to Learn begins with an emotional story of how Dr. Gray’s son ended up at Sudbury Valley School and how this experience changed Dr. Gray’s professional trajectory. Dr. Gray is one of the only researchers who has closely studied Sudbury Valley School students and graduates.
Here is Dr. Gray writing in a study that followed Sudbury students after graduation: “Graduates reported that for higher education and careers, the school benefited them by allowing them to develop their own interests and by fostering such traits as personal responsibility, initiative, curiosity, ability to communicate well with people regardless of status, and continued appreciation and practice of democratic values.” See Gray, Peter, and David Chanoff. “Democratic schooling: What happens to young people who have charge of their own education?.” American Journal of Education 94.2 (1986): 182-213.
Dr. Gray also writes about his extensive research into the benefits that accrue to young people who are allowed to play across ages. The benefits are too numerous to list and the evidence so overwhelming everyone should be asking why our children are arbitrarily segregated by age. See generally Gray, Peter. “The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play.” American Journal of Play 3.4 (2011): 500-522; Gray, Peter, and Jay Feldman. “Playing in the zone of proximal development: Qualities of self-directed age mixing between adolescents and young children at a democratic school.” American Journal of Education 110.2 (2004): 108-146; Gray, Peter, and Jay Feldman. “Patterns of age mixing and gender mixing among children and adolescents at an ungraded democratic school.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (1982-) (1997): 67-86.
Free to Learn is both life-affirming and joyful. Dr. Gray gives the reader a new framework for understanding that free play is the genesis of learning and development and not just something that needs to be squeezed in if there is time. And what is more life-affirming and joyful than young people at play?
Click here to learn more about claiming this book for free.