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Peter B. Gray Ph.D.
Peter B. Gray Ph.D.
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Free to Learn

Peter Gray’s new book on child development and school

No, I did not write “Free to Learn.” A different Peter Gray wrote it (it turns out we Peter Grays are as common as pennies on the ground). But if this has already confused you, don’t worry. I have received over the past decade the occasional inquiry meant for this other Peter Gray, meaning others have confounded us before. Perhaps that is not surprising: we have both conducted endocrine research, we both embrace an evolutionary perspective to help us understand human social behavior, and we both have blogs on Psychology Today (see http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn). We once even gave back-to-back talks as part of an evolutionary-based speaker series at Binghamton. Anyway…

In Peter Gray’s new book on evolution, child development, and school, we have one of the most stimulating discussions of the issues a father (or mother or other) could desire. How do children learn best? In what kinds of social environments do hunter-gatherer children play? In what ways is it possible to construe today’s educational system as a jail in which our children are the inmates? How do kids fare in alternative education systems in the U.S.? It is these sorts of provocative questions that “Free to Learn” addresses. To forecast some of the answers, “Children are pawns in a competitive game in which the adults around them are trying to squeeze the highest possible scores out of them on standardized tests.” (p. 9) Children are less happy at school than at home, and a rise in boys diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be traced, in part, to expecting them to sit long periods of time at school.

Gray’s primary contention is that children learn best by playing in mixed age groups of children. Children have a passion to learn, a passion that can be pursued if adults give them the opportunity. In support of this view, he touches on nonhuman primate social development, including the small set of play partners available to apes in the wild. He more extensively discusses evidence of mixed age and sex groups among hunter-gatherer children. These are the products of living in camps with quite small populations and with births spaced out 3-4 years. Even if a forager kid wanted to play in the equivalent of a U.S. kindergarten (with lots of same-sex peers of comparable ages) that would be demographically impossible. Furthermore, in hunter-gatherer child development, there is very little formal teaching; much is learned by observational learning of older kids and adults. “Although adults in hunter-gatherer cultures do not attempt to control, direct, or motivate children’s education, they assist children’s self-education by responding to their wishes. They allow children to play with adult tools, even potentially dangerous ones, such as knives and axes…” (p. 29)

If children learn through play, the amount of time available for kids’ play has declined since the 1950s, and for a variety of reasons. Parents fear the rare but emotionally powerful image of “stranger danger” or other risks, thus constraining their children’s movements. When neighborhoods are populated by fewer kids, community support and vigilance wane, and the kids are less enticed to go visit the neighbors (who have fewer kids). Children have exciting video games to play anyway, and they spend more hours in school, other reasons for less outdoor play outside of school. Kids are being shuffled to various activities under some form of adult supervision (e.g., organized sports or music lessons). But if those patterns seem sad to a parent lamenting the current constraints on kids’ play—especially in relation to those days of our own childhood—Gray reminds us of some of the wider cultural variation in play. Many kids in pastoralist, farming and industrializing societies have had their day hours filled with labor rather than free play, and formal education is a relatively recent phenomenon historically for much of the world. As an example, “By 1832, two-thirds of all employees in New England factories were children ages seven to seventeen, and the typical working day lasted from daybreak to 8 P.M., six days a week.” (p. 53)

One of the questions a parent faces is how to best raise children for success in the adult world. Even if research suggests ways that children learn best, can those insights be channeled in ways compatible with wider realities? Gray discusses some of the educational experiments—from homeschooling to an innovative school in Massachusetts that a son of his attended—that offer more child-driven learning opportunities. He touches on possible outcomes, such as children developing more empathy when caring for younger children, and having a greater sense of control in their lives. He advises, “Try to be a good substrate by providing what your child needs, but don’t assume that it is your responsibility to direct your child’s development.” (p. 222) In this calling, however, some might feel too much political latitude is granted to children, and too little to adult considerations. There is an inherent potential conflict between parents’ and children’s agendas over how education systems might be best designed. After all, adults may want a school system with primary aims to indoctrinate a sense of nationality and citizenship and reduce socioeconomic inequalities; white collar parents may want their kids to see a world of freedom and flexibility, but blue collar parents may value talents to work hard without rocking a boss' boat; and families may see the importance of studying and exam performance to move up the career ladder (even as their kids bemoan preparing for a vocabulary quiz). That means that parents will continue to sweat the best ways to educate children. There is no easy answer, but this book will make you think carefully about the issues from an evolutionary developmental perspective.

Reference

Gray P. 2013. Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.

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About the Author
Peter B. Gray Ph.D.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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