In this Q&A, NaturalPath publisher Razi Berry interviews developmental psychologist Peter Gray to discuss his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students For Life.

In your book Free to Learn, you call play an instinct. If school children play an average of only 30-60 minutes per day, what are the repercussions of thwarting this instinct?

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I think we are seeing some of the repercussions right now. In Free to Learn, I present the evidence that opportunities for play have been continuously declining over the past 50 to 60 years in the United States. Over that same period, we have seen dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide in young people; dramatic decreases in young people’s sense of control over their own lives; and—at least for the past 30 years—decreases in creativity (as assessed by Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking). As I explain in the book, these are exactly the effects we would expect from play deprivation.

There seems to be a pattern in our culture of suppressing other inherent psychological instincts and physiological processes that are part of our humanness. Some examples are expecting children to sit quietly and still, not to touch, talk or react to their environment.  We train then to eat, drink and use the bathroom on a schedule. We induce labor, birth our babies surgically, feed them formula, and put them to sleep alone in a room by themselves.  In schools, we expect children to practice adulthood. It seems almost a rebellion against natural parenting instincts. What do you attribute this to?

Peter A 2 copy-2In one aspect of my work, I have compared our “child raising” practices with those of hunter-gatherers. I put “child raising” in quotes because hunter-gatherer’s would never use such a term—it’s a term we borrow from agriculture (we “raise” children like we “raise” tomatoes and chickens), and hunter-gatherers don’t have agriculture. Hunter-gatherer cultures see children as growing and developing naturally, shaped by forces from within. They provide what the children want and need to grow in their own ways, but they don’t attempt to direct that growth. With agriculture and industry, we developed ways of working against nature, of shaping nature to meet our needs, and we have extended that to our parenting. We don’t trust nature, we don’t trust the nature of the child, so we try to shape children’s behavior in ways that often run counter to their instincts.

As in many other sectors, there is a trend toward more government and less local and parental jurisdiction over education. What are the cause and effect?

Schools initially were largely controlled by the local school boards, who knew the community and the families in the schools. With increased state funding of schools came increased state control of schools. Similarly, with increased federal funding came increased federal control. The state and federal funding were for a good reason—to try to reduce the differences in funding that had existed between rich and poor communities. But, unfortunately, funding always comes with strings attached. With funding came the involvement of politicians, who wanted to standardize and measure education (something that I would argue cannot be measured), and with the desire to measure came the increased testing and the increased pressure to raise test scores. Decisions about school requirements, testing, and criteria for evaluating teachers are now made by politicians who have little direct knowledge of children and children’s true needs.

Parents are under a lot of societal pressure to get their children into the “right” preschool–>Grade school–>High School–> College in order for them to “make it” in the “real world”.  From where did this pressure originate? How should childhood be valued in and of itself? 

This pressure originates from a number of sources. Some of it comes from colleges themselves, which profit from the perception that a college education is essential for a job in our society, and especially from elite colleges, which profit from the perception that education at an elite college will lead to higher income and prestige in life than education at a less elite college. Moreover, “education” has long been a term that has a halo around it, and “education” has come to be defined in increasingly narrow terms as academic schooling. Not going to college, or not going to an elite college, has become equated in people’s minds as “lower class,” and parents, of course, want their children always to rise up, not sink down, from the parents’ own class status. So, with every generation, as the number of college-educated parents increases, the pressure becomes greater for their children to be college educated. A sad result is that childhood has come to be viewed, implicitly if not explicitly, as a time of résumé building—to get into a “good” college—rather than a time of free play and exploration. Children are being deprived of what has always been normal childhood. We forget that children are not just adults-in-the-making, but are already fully formed human beings. Childhood occupies a good chunk of every person’s life, and it should be valued for its own sake, not just as a stage one must go through to reach adulthood.

In your book and blog, you cite research that indicates that too much academic pressure too soon as counterproductive and harmful, even.  At what ages are academics and testing inappropriate and why?  

I have difficulty with the distinction between “academic” and “nonacademic” ventures. In my research with unschoolers and with students at the Sudbury Valley School, who have charge of their own learning, I regularly see children learn to read, write (or type), calculate with numbers, and learn an enormous amount about nature and society around them without any formal instruction or tests. If we define “academics” as formal, school-like training, I think the only time it is useful is when a person asks for it. If a child or adult of any age wants to learn something in a formal way, organized by a teacher, and be tested on it, that should be the child’s or adult’s choice. I also think tests are appropriate as part of the process of licensing people to do things that could cause damage to others if not done correctly. It makes sense to use tests to make sure that potential doctors, lawyers, electricians, and the like know what they are doing before they are allowed to do it and charge for their services. There is no evidence at all that formal courses and tests are essential to learn the general sorts of things that people must learn to grow up to do well in our society.

Particularly tragic is our tendency today to try to teach little children—three, four, and five-year-olds academic skills through such means as drill and worksheets. Many studies have shown that such early training produces no long-term benefits, and some studies suggest that it produces long-term harm. The attempt to teach academic skills to young children who haven’t, through their own experiences, acquired the intellectual and motivational foundations needed to really learn these skills, results in superficial learning that undermines the children’s subsequent interests in these endeavors.

You note a rise in narcissism and lack of empathy among young people is directly related to pressure to achieve. Please elucidate.

Our school system is based on competition. Each child is striving to do better than others—to get the highest grade, get into the best college, and so on. This puts the focus on the self rather than on relationships or the community, and focus on the self is part and parcel of narcissism. When children play with other children on their own, they must learn to get along with others, which means that they must learn to value others’ needs as well as their own. So the increased time in schoolwork and competitive activities outside of school, and the decreased time in social play, promotes narcissism.

As a parent who chooses alternative education methods, I am often asked about the impacts of socialization.  As a psychologist, can you explain the healthiest ways for socialization to occur?

Socialization occurs when children play and explore together, or when they engage cooperatively in chores. In play children learn how to negotiate and cooperate in order to make whatever game they are playing work. There is very little opportunity for this to occur in traditional schools. Moreover, the real world is filled with all sorts of people, some older and some younger, but in school the social world consists, artificially, all of people the same age (with the exception of the teacher). Research suggests that age segregation promotes competition and bullying, whereas age mixing promotes nurturance and cooperation. Moreover, people generally have more to learn from others who are older or younger than themselves than from those who are all the same age.

Which educational models are most effective? Why are alternative forms of education such as democratic and free schools, homeschooling and unschooling not more widely accessible and accepted?

If, by “most effective,” we mean most prone to induce happiness, eager learning, continued interest in learning, social competence, critical thinking, creativity, emotional resilience, self-responsibility, and long-term satisfaction with life, then the most effective models are those in which students are in charge of their own education and adults are helpers, who respond to the students’ requests for help, but who do not attempt to direct. Children are natural learners, but for their learning instincts to operate their curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and willfulness must be allowed to blossom, not be quashed. Self-directed education is not widely accessible and accepted because of our culture’s general distrust of nature, especially children’s nature—which takes us back to the second question in this series.

For parents who choose traditional schooling, what can they do to help their child to thrive?

Parents who choose traditional schooling can (a) try to provide their child with ample time and opportunity to play and explore outside of school; (b) lobby, along with other parents, to reduce the oppressiveness of school—reduce homework, increase recess, reduce testing, allow creative activities to make their way back into school; and (c) avoid adding to the pressure by avoiding the all-to-common tendency to see high grades in school as a measure of the child’s worth.


raziRazi Berry, Founder and Publisher of Naturopathic Doctor News & Review (ndnr.com) and NaturalPath (thenatpath.com), has spent the last decade as a natural medicine advocate and marketing whiz. She has galvanized and supported the naturopathic community, bringing a higher quality of healthcare to millions of North Americans through her publications. A self proclaimed health-food junkie and mother of two; she loves all things nature, is obsessed with organic gardening, growing fruit trees (not easy in Phoenix), laughing until she snorts, and homeschooling. She is a little bit crunchy and yes, that is her real name.


NaturalPath Giveaway!

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

By Peter Gray, PhD

Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests—often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave. Even outside of school children today seldom play and explore without adult supervision, and are afforded few opportunities to control their own lives. The result: anxious, unfocused children who see schooling—and life—as a series of hoops to struggle through.

In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that our children, if free to pursue their own interests through play, will not only learn all they need to know, but will do so with energy and passion. Children come into this world burning to learn, equipped with the curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to direct their own education. Yet we have squelched such instincts in a school model originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth.

To foster children who will thrive in today’s constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development. Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, and history, Gray demonstrates that free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient. This capacity to learn through play evolved long ago, in hunter-gatherer bands where children acquired the skills of the culture through their own initiatives. And these instincts still operate remarkably well today, as studies at alternative, democratically administered schools show. When children are in charge of their own education, they learn better—and at lower cost than the traditional model of coercive schooling.

A brave, counterintuitive proposal for freeing our children from the shackles of the curiosity-killing institution we call school, Free to Learn suggests that it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with our children, and start asking what’s wrong with the system. It shows how we can act—both as parents and as members of society—to improve children’s lives and promote their happiness and learning.


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