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Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant

In touch with your inner ape? According to Peter Gray, connecting with our playful primal side may be exactly what we need to do when parenting or teaching. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, Gray writes, focused on play, which can help kids develop social skills, practice self-control, and build mastery. In Free to Learn, he lays out a compelling case for why play has declined in our culture, how common academic institutions crush the desire to learn, and what we can do to resurrect imaginative learning.

In the overcrowded field of books on youth, Gray’s is a standout. But he does share something in common with Ben Chavis, author of Crazy Like A Fox: One Principal’s Triumph In The Inner City, and Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, both of whom, like Gray, question conventional teaching methods. While Chavis advocates what has often been criticized as an extreme approach, his many unorthodox techniques have also produced a class that consistently outperforms even kids from private schools. Twenge, on the other hand, cites a vast body of research, carried out by herself as well as others, demonstrating that social media and screen time consistently produce a class of grade-A narcissists.

In comparison, Gray calls out the “indoctrination and obedience training” that schools today have become — but uses a developmental and evolutionary approach.

Gray begins with an engaging story from his own life that ripples throughout the entire text: His seven-year-old son tells him, his wife, and a table full of teachers, counselors, and the school principal to go to hell. Recoiling as any parent would, Gray embarks on an exploration of his own early academic experiences. His main question is this: What have we done to childhood?

Comparing his own upbringing to today, Gray concludes that kids are now “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.”

What’s missing, Gray realizes, is play. In arguing why it matters, he refers to his training as an evolutionary psychologist. Play suits our hunter-gatherer nature, he writes, by providing a pressure-free environment in which we can attempt new things, try out social roles, and master needed skills. In addition, for children, play is the basis of “autonomy, sharing, and equality.” And groups of people simply operate better when they are based on fairness.

Having laid out what children need, and why they need it, Gray hits us with reality: Schools today are more like prisons. They are fueled by societal, religious, and industrial needs, and they force obedience down our kids’ throats. He cites the records of one school master in Germany: “911,527 blows with a rod, 124,010 blows with a cane, 20,989 taps with a ruler, 136,715 blows with the hand, 10,235 blows to the mouth, 7,905 boxes on the ear, and 1,118,800 blows on the head.” Astounding violence — but even if we mostly avoid corporal punishment today, Gray believes that our forced education system still denies children liberty, interferes with the development of personal responsibility and freedom, undermines intrinsic motivation, shames students, and inhibits critical thinking and skill development.

His conclusion: that schools may do more harm than good.

And so Gray offers a refreshing alternative. Sudbury Valley School, he tells us, has no set schedule, no standardized tests, and lots of free time. Children there design their own learning, have free access to television, video games, and outdoor play, and engage in a democratic environment. Seventy-five percent of graduates pursue higher education, eighty-two percent feel that their education at Sudbury benefited them in future careers, and “almost all” report being glad they attended school.

The data are not as surprising, Gray writes, when we consider the work of Sugata Mitra, former science director of an educational technology firm in India. Mitra placed computers among groups of the poorest children in New Delhi to find out if those who had never seen a computer before could learn without instruction. Within three months, with absolutely no instruction, the children became computer literate on their own.

Here, Gray writes, we see how play dovetails with children’s natural educative instincts, such as the desire to explore, create, practice, and share ideas. When we remove traditional school pressure, he posits, learning, creativity, mood, and problem-solving skills all begin to skyrocket.

Here again, Gray cites several examples — and research from places like Brandeis and Cornell — to strengthen his point. And, using an evolutionary lens, he demonstrates the benefits of letting kids design their own games and use their imagination.

Moreover, he tells us something that may be hard to hear: that we should “let go of the desire to determine your child’s future.”

We may have a hard time letting go. But Gray’s research and examples have convinced me, anyhow, that we must.

Free To Learn: Why Unleashing The Instinct To Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Student for Life

Basic Books, February 2015

Paperback, 288 pages


Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant

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Claire Nana

Claire Nana is a regular contributor and book reviewer for Psych Central.

APA Reference
Nana, C. (2016). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
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