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What I’m Reading: Free to Learn

Everywhere we go, my five year old son strikes up conversations with strangers. Unvariably, they ask him if he’s in school yet, to which my kid usually replies, “No, I don’t want to go to school. You don’t get to play there.”

The topic of school also comes up a lot among my group of mom friends. Most of us have children who have recently turned five, and we’re beginning to think about how we want our children’s career with education to begin. Public, homeschool, or charter school? Half day or full day? Our choices are beginning to diverge based on our children’s temperaments and our families’ needs. Yet there’s one thing we all agree on: we want our children to begin their experience with education in an environment that will foster curiosity, not quell it. We want our children to be free to be children, not expected to be tiny adults. We hope for our children to love learning, not resent it.

This process has challenged me to consider my own values and what I think my son most needs from an educational experience at the tender age of five. I felt like I needed more information, so naturally I turned to a good book.

What I’m Reading

After hearing rave reviews for months, I finally read Free to Learn written by research psychologist Dr. Peter Gray. Dr. Gray explores the history of how children have learned, stretching all the way back to the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. He discusses how children in hunter-gatherer societies manage to learn everything they need to know to become contributing members of their group without a single day in a classroom. He also explains how organized education came to be what it is today as a way for countries to dictate what children could learn in an effort to sculpt ideal citizens. He describes how agriculture and the industrial revolution fundamentally changed how we perceived children and their roles in society.

From this basis of understand, Dr. Gray creates a compelling argument for reclaiming the true purpose of childhood for the good of our children. He discusses alternatives to what we now consider traditional education in favor of what we once knew about children: they learn through play and by being given the freedom to direct their own learning.

Key Quotes

“One of the tragedies of our system of schooling is that it teaches students that life is a series of hoops that one must get through, by one means or another, and that success lies in others’ judgments rather than in real, self-satisfying accomplishments” (Page 75).

“It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children’s play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit” (Page 169).

“Trustful parents enjoy their kids; they don’t think of them as their ‘project’” (Page 222).

Top Takeaways

  1. How we view education in childhood has changed drastically with shifts in culture, and the advent of organized schooling had more to do with the goals of a given country than the needs of its children.
  2. Parents should feel empowered to choose the educational route that is best for their families and trust that their children will indeed learn what they need to know.
  3. The importance of play in childhood simply cannot be overstated.

I do wish Dr. Gray would have more thoroughly addressed the constraints to choosing educational alternatives that many families face, but that may not have been within the scope of this book.

Also, I have to say I was taken aback by Dr. Gray’s description of his son’s entirely independent trip to Europe at age 13. While I’m inspired by this book, my kid isn’t traveling internationally by himself before his voice has changed.

Target Audience

If you’re interested in the history of compulsory education or want to know more about the vital role of play in childhood, you will love this book. It may challenge your beliefs about education, but you will likely be grateful for the knowledge it will impart.

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