Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

My Hope for “Free to Learn”

We have made great strides in adults’ rights; now, what about children's?

I feel a bit like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, who cried out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”  I imagine that some of you readers feel the same way.

All the world seems to believe that our coercive system of schooling is essential to children’s becoming educated.  They believe it not because their own two eyes and common sense tell them it’s true, but because everyone says it’s true and therefore it must be.  Many people don’t even think much about it; they just accept it as true.  They may hate school themselves, but nevertheless assume school is necessary, like bad-tasting medicine. Never mind that bad-tasting medicine takes a second to swallow while forced schooling takes 11 to 13 years.

Nearly all political leaders espouse more forced schooling as the route to a better future.  Philanthropists are working feverishly at making kids start school at ever-younger ages and making them spend more hours per day, days per year, and years of their lifetime there.  The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child--with no acknowledgement of irony--proclaims that every child has the right to a compulsory education.  (If you don’t believe it, look at Item 7 here.)  What a tortuous distortion of the concept of a human “right;” you have the right, which you can’t refuse, to be compelled to spend years in a setting where you must do just what you are told to do. Orwellian doublespeak in spades, but few people recognize it as such.  We are so stuck on the idea that children must be forced to learn that we can’t even imagine that a child might be better off learning without being forced.  (In its defense, I note that the UN Declaration also speaks of the child's right to play.)

But like the great majority who praised the Emperor’s fine new clothes, those who proclaim their belief in the value of forced schooling are uneasy, I think, in that belief.  They “believe” it because everyone else claims to believe it, because it would seem stupid not to believe it, because there is some profit to be made for believing it, or because to stand against the crowd would be uncomfortable.  But, at the same time, they find it hard to completely deny their own two eyes and common sense, and they find it hard to rationalize their beliefs about freedom and dignity with the belief that children should be denied these as they are in school.  When I talk with advocates of coercive schooling in a way that allows them to set aside their defenses, I often find that just below the surface lies a bed of doubt.  That gives me hope.

Since the publication of my new book, Free to Learn, many people have asked me why I wrote it and what I hope it will accomplish. I have qualms about writing here about my own book.  I debated for a long time with myself about whether or not I should even mention it here, but I do so want the message to spread that I am overcoming those qualms.  Of course, I am far from the first to cry out that the Emperor is naked on the issue of schooling. Indeed, many regular readers of this blog have been saying this longer than I, and in previous posts I have referenced such pioneering thinkers as A.S. Neill, John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Sandra Dodd, and Daniel Greenberg. We need all such voices, and we need them to be heard.  So, here goes…

At a local level, I hope that Free to Learn will give to those parents who can see that forced schooling is harming their children and disrupting their family life the courage to act on what they see. I hope, too, that families who are already taking a non-standard route in education will find the book useful as a tool to help convince their skeptical friends and relatives that what they are doing is not crazy.  But my broadest hope is that the book will reach people who haven't previously given much thought to this whole question.  I hope that the book will lead many people to think deeply about childhood, education, and schooling (and about the difference between education and schooling) and that this will help promote societal change in our ways of treating children.

The book’s central thesis is that children come into the world exquisitely designed, and strongly motivated, to educate themselves. They don’t need to be forced to learn; in fact, coercion undermines their natural desire to learn.  What they do need is opportunity.  My argument to society at large is that we need to stop thinking about educating children and start thinking about how to provide the conditions that maximize each child’s ability to educate himself or herself.  That is what children are biologically designed to do, but to do it well they need conditions that are very, very different from the coercive, deprived conditions of our standard schools.

The book is not founded on abstract theory, philosophical speculation, or romantic idealism.  It is founded on large bodies of empirical evidence.  Some of the evidence comes from anthropologists’ observations of how children in pre-agricultural societies educated themselves.  Some of it comes from research in our culture showing that children who are allowed to educate themselves and are provided the resources to do so learn very well what they need to know to become happy, productive, moral adult citizens.  Some of it comes from the laboratories of research psychologists, who have studied children’s strong and effective drives to explore and understand the physical and social world around them. Some of it comes from research showing how the playful frame of mind is best for acquiring new ideas and skills and thinking creatively, and how play is the natural vehicle through which children practice the skills and values of their culture and learn how to get along with others, solve their own problems, regulate their emotions and impulses, and generally take control of their own lives. The book also documents the history of our coercive system of schooling; it shows how that system arose quite explicitly for purposes of indoctrination and obedience training, not for education as most of us think of it today.  And further, the book documents the psychological damage that we are currently inflicting on children by depriving them of the freedom and play they need for healthy development. 

The book brings all of these sources of evidence together to make the case that we can and should change our way of treating children, to a way that trusts them and takes their real needs and abilities into account. It also describes the environmental conditions that enable children to educate themselves well. These conditions include unlimited freedom to play and explore, access to the tools of the culture, access to adult experts, free age mixing among children and adolescents, and immersion in a stable, moral, caring local community.  All of these can be provided at far less expense than what we spend on our prisonlike schools, if we put our minds to it.

I have seen many wonderful improvements in human rights in my years so far on earth.  We have made great strides in recognizing the competence and rights of people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  I hope now to see, in my remaining years, real progress in recognizing the competence and rights of children, for only when children grow up free can we hope for a society in which adults know fully how to handle freedom and the responsibilities that come with it.  That’s why I wrote the book and why I will continue, as long as I am able, to promote these ideas.


As always, I invite you to share here, in the comments section, your questions, thoughts, and challenges. This blog is a forum for discussion, and your comments and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. Please post them here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).


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