Free to Learn by Peter Gray: Review and Infographics

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Peter Gray’s book starts with a bang – Peter’s son curses his parents and educators. Peter and his wife are crying: “This time I felt, maybe, I really would go to hell.” What would send him there? The book explores the dire consequences of forcefully educating children.

(Click the images to enlarge them.)


How can we stop being complicit? The book offers several answers to this question, including modeling one’s education after hunter-gatherers tribes. Kids can find the resources to live freer lives within modern tribes, such as techie start-ups, unschooler circles, and maker communities.


One of the benefits of open education is free age mixing, a topic large enough to warrant its own map.Value_of_free_age_mixing

Peter Gray presents a five-part definition of play strikingly similar to math. It is useful for those into game design, experience design, curriculum design, and parenting.

Definition of Play

There is a math club activity where students make “star diagrams” out of lists of what is important to them. Here is such a diagram explaining Peter Gray’s five types of play as they relate to math.

Types of Play

“Free to Learn” explores two venues of open education. First, democratic learning communities in freeschools such as Sudbury Valley or Reggio Emilia. Second, a style of trustful parenting and homeschooling called “unschooling” where individual families walk their own paths. Both provide the benefits of open education presented in the diagrams above.

Reading Peter Gray’s analysis of the two methods, the drawbacks are clear. In freeschools, resident teachers do not pursue their professions so that they can help children full-time. This leads to a situation where kids are rarely exposed to the projects of adults. Unschooling families can provide exposure to grown-up work. However, it is harder for individual families to maintain ongoing daily contact with a large multi-age group of kids.

Why not the benefits of both paths without the drawbacks? We need something beyond freeschools, and beyond unschooling. Let’s get to work!


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Posted in Grow
11 comments on “Free to Learn by Peter Gray: Review and Infographics
  1. Jeremy Vyska says:

    Interesting that this doesn’t mention Montessori methods. They embrace many, if not all, of the concepts behind the open education and free age mixing.

    • MariaD says:

      I love many aspects of Montessori, in particular, age-mixed groups, and some of the pedagogical designs. However, Montessori frowned on play, especially open play such as pretend-play. Moreover, Montessori methods are about following a curriculum – that’s not open education.

      • aidan says:

        You misunderstand Montrssori and fail to mention the developmental capabilities that the Montessori materials build. Maria Montessori engaged the imagination through encouraging observation and interaction with the real world that surrounds children. Nothing engages the imgaination of a child like for example observing ants during a walk. Also, the deep levels of concentration achieved by students in a Montessori environmnet are transformational. Materials and interactions which cause this level of concentration are actually the highest form of play. You should be more careful making factual statements about an approach to education that you have very little experience with.

        • MariaD says:

          I stand by my statement that Montessori methods do not emphasize pretend-play or open/free play. I do agree that interaction with real world is supported in Montessori methods. What you say and what I say are complementary statements.

          • Aidan says:

            Montessori has 3 hour uninterrupted work periods both in the morning and afternoon. Children choose their work in a mixed age setting. The fact is the “work” in Montessori is the highest form of play and causes deep concentration…a concentration that could never be forced. I suggest you research what Dr. Adele Diamond has to say with regards how the Montessori environment induces “Flow”, which is a core experience of “play”. In fact, Csikszenthmihaly himself, who coined the term “flow” origininated his theory by observing children in a Montessori classroom. Montessori called play “work” because as she scientifically observed over 100 years ago, children much prefer purposeful work over “make believe” and created an environment to meet their needs. You might also read the latest research that demonstrates that children prefer stories based on real life over fantasy. Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy, nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, was a devoted and astute observer of children. She created an environment that met their needs based on her scientific observations through trial and error, not assumptions of an adult. As Dr. Steve Hughes, former President of the American Board of Pediatric Neuropsychology said of Montessori, “It is the total developmental package.” All that being said, Reggio, Unschooling, etc are superior to the traditional approach but no approach that I have seen develops the engagement, love of learning, curiosity, empathy, knowledge of self within a community better than Montessori. The reality is that imagination is a crucial element in the Montessori classroom. Why create a whole separate world of fantasy when our world is fantastical enough? Consider the structure of an atom, quantum physics, etc…would you say no such fantasy can exist within these mind boggling notions? Work and play can be the same things, as can reality and “fantasy”.

            • Sid says:

              Pretend play is very important. Dr. Montessori did not speak against pretend play. She did however speak against fantasy. Her grandson who is a psychoanalyst once asked her why she spoke so vehemently against fantasy. She gives a good explanation. And it has to do with the context and perspective of childhood during her times. There was a practice that children were incapable of understanding, managing behaviour and feelings, or contributing to their immediate ecological sphere – and that adults had to use fantastical stories to coerce them, entertain and control them. This is the perspective she came from. Sadly, many do not know this, even Montessorians.

              Freedom is absolutely necessary, but so are limits. Freedom without limits is non-functional. Limits are placed with collective interest in mind, and also individual safety/well-being. One would definitely not hand a scissors to a child who has not learned the skills necessary to use scissors, nor would you permit a child to hurt another. These are the limits that Dr. Montessori spoke of, and I believe they are only logical.

              • MariaD says:

                Thank you for this context, Sid. I didn’t know how this take on fantasy – essentially, coercive ideology – was what Montessori’s movement was challenging. It makes a lot of sense for the time, and makes me appreciate Montessori’s innovation even more.

                • Sid says:

                  It made me appreciate her more too, as I am a strong proponent of pretend play and the role it plays in Personal, Social and Emotional development of young children.

  2. Linda Higginbotham says:

    I have 8 grown children and 15, so far, grands. We have long felt schools were a waste of time and used homeschool, but felt stuck in the school minded regimen, which we hated. We were just discussing the foolishness of testing and instead letting kids learn in a self directed way. Providing opportunities, but letting them choose their interests. It was a breath of fresh air to read the article in the Readers Digest on you and your book. We want to help promote this in our local schools. Please give ideas of how to work with (or around) the crazy system and help these kids to really enjoy learning. Thanks

    • MariaD says:

      Linda, thank you for your question – on behalf of so many kids in your family! In his book, Peter Gray makes the point that you do not really have tools to change “the crazy system” from within. It’s not about individual choices of teachers or schools, so parents can’t influence them about tests and such. Public schools simply don’t have the power to change such things.

      Individual parents can and do refuse tests, but as all such civil disobedience measures, this often leads to repercussions for the families and the kids.

      For my part, two methods seem to make most sense. Both are popular enough that they may already exist where your grandchildren live, or there may be enough people to start. First way: freeschools as described in Peter Gray’s book. Second way: family learning cooperatives. I have an article explaining them:

      If kids are getting hurt, it is the responsibility of the family to protect them, NOW.

  3. Aidan says:

    “In our increasingly competitive world, the key to professional success is said to lie in our ability to be creative. Even more importantly, we know that in the future our children will be faced with huge technological, social, and ecological challenges; providing them with an education that supports their creative problem-solving skills is therefore essential!

    We are all aware that creativity stems from a well-developed imagination. You have to imagine something before you can create it, right? We also rightly assume that the capacity to imagine is formed in early childhood (a time when children are read fantasy stories and are encouraged to participate in pretend-play). And yet, you won’t find a single fairy tale, doll, or talking animal in a Montessori Children’s House classroom!

    While this approach might seem counter-intuitive at first glance, Montessori’s focus on reality actually has a proven positive impact on creative development: Current research shows that children who received a Montessori education solve problems more creatively than do their public school peers, even beyond elementary school.

    It turns out that fantasy – ideas that have no basis in reality (such as fairies, talking animals or talking trains), has no place in education and is not what strengthens imagination and creativity. Children develop their imaginative and creative powers through hands-on experiences in the real world.

    Following the Child

    When Dr.Montessori started her first school in 1907, she believed the same thing most adults do – that children love fairy tales and pretend-play. She was amazed to discover that, when given freedom of choice and the opportunity to have real-life experiences, the children under her care became passionately attracted to reality. Her little pre-schoolers walked away from a teacher who was telling a fairy tale in order to examine worms and insects in the garden; they shunned a group of pretty dolls for the privilege of serving real tea to adult visitors; they ignored an expensive dollhouse and instead chose to sweep and tidy the classroom.

    Dr. Montessori observed the children’s natural drives and developed an approach that satisfied their desire to interact with the world around them. She realized what scientific research now confirms: A child develops knowledge based on impressions fixed in his mind by his experiences in reality. (These perceptions are absorbed into the child’s mind without a filter during the first six years of life; a phenomenon Dr. Montessori termed the absorbent mind.)

    The impressions that form the child’s new knowledge can then help him understand new and more complex concepts, which is how intelligence develops. Here’s a simple example: Through hands-on work with precise learning tools (materials), a child understands the quantity represented by each number from 0-9. When he is introduced to addition, he will be able to focus on the process of putting numbers together (and not worry about the concept of the numbers themselves). He will have an easy time mastering the operations because the initial concepts were clear in his mind. If precision is maintained throughout this learning process, the child will easily understand more and more complex mathematical concepts (the same process holds true for all areas of knowledge).

    The child will be said to be “intelligent”. But intelligence unfolds seamlessly only if the initial impressions were clear and precise. A precise impression is one that does not contain any concepts that might confuse the child and create an incorrect image in his mind, and this is precisely where fantasy becomes an impairment.


    Credulity is NOT imagination

    One of the main reasons why fantasy is not a part of the Montessori curriculum is because it disorients young children. This might be difficult for us as adults to understand, but research has shown that most children before the age of five are unable to differentiate between real and fictitious characters and situations.

    I once heard about a mom who wanted to follow the Montessori approach with her young daughter, Jenny, but also wanted to share with her several lovely fairy tale books. She thought she would solve the problem by letting the three-year old child know when a character was not real.

    When mom read about fairies, she gave Jenny a knowing look and said: “Jenny, we know that fairies don’t exist, right?” Jenny replied with a smile: “Noooo, they don’t exist.”

    When she read about a dragon, she gave Jenny a wink and said: “Jenny, we know dragons don’t exist, right?” Jenny replied with a smile: “Noooo, they don’t exist.”

    This went on for a few days. Then one day, they read a nature book about giraffes. Halfway through, Jenny gave her mom a wise and knowing look, and said: “Mom, we know giraffes don’t exist, right?”

    Credulity is NOT imagination. Children will believe what we tell them (or show them on TV) and it will form part of their foundational knowledge; this huge responsibility cannot be taken lightly.

    “How is it possible for the child’s imagination to be developed by that which is in truth the fruit of the adult’s imagination? We alone imagine, not they; they merely believe.” -Maria Montessori

    Author’s note: In Part II of this article we will discuss:

    The difference between pretend-play and creative imagination
    How Montessori encourages the child to develop a strong and useful imagination
    How Montessori uses imagination as a POWERFUL TOOL FOR EDUCATION and for the continued development of intelligence”

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