In the subtitle of his book, “Free to Learn”, developmental psychologist Dr. Peter Gray tells us that “…Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life”. And in his book, Gray outlines how working with Nature, instead of against her, allows children to be happy, self-confident, and to discover and nurture their God-given genius and talents.
Children are little learning machines…
In the prologue of his book, Dr. Gray argues that “Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity.”
… and they have no OFF switch.
Dr. Gray then makes a remarkable (and a should-have-been-obvious-to-everyone) statement that “Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six.” Of course not! We just need to give children the same thing Nature gave them: Role models, opportunity, liberty, unscheduled time, a safe environment and resources – their programming will do the rest.
Personally, I’ve observed in my own children, and now my grandchildren, that they truly are “little learning machines”. Our one-year-old granddaughter is developing new skills every week or so and has been since birth. Recently, she has learned to balance standing up and can take one or two steps before falling. My son tells me that she now insists on trying to feed herself with a spoon.
That same determination and self-responsibility our granddaughter demonstrates in mastering her body and her environment does not magically disappear when kids reach Kindergarten age. The learning switch only gets turned off (in some children) by forms of schooling where the responsibility for directing their own learning is taken from them.
Free Play is Central to Natural Learning
On Dr. Gray’s website it explains that “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.”
After being forced to face his own son’s disastrous experience with traditional schooling, Gray launched his own learning adventure and discovered self-directed, natural learning. He reports, “I reviewed the entire body of psychological and anthropological research on children’s play, and my students and I conducted new research aimed at understanding how children learn through play. Such work led me to understand how children’s strong drives to play and explore serve the function of education… It led to new insights concerning the environmental conditions that optimize children’s abilities to educate themselves through their own playful means.”
Dr. Gray’s Solution: Natural Learning Centers
Gray ends his book’s epilogue by revealing the solution to which all his studies pointed: “…if we had the will, we could free children from coercive schooling and provide learning centers that would maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood.”
And that previous sentence describes exactly what “Sudbury-style schools” are doing so successfully around the world today. The Sudbury Valley School (SVS), in Sudbury, Massachusetts, was established about 50 years ago and now has dozens of schools inspired by SVS all over the world, including two Sudbury-style schools here in Utah, Alpine Valley Academy in Lehi, and Sego Lily School in Murray.
Sudbury-style schools have enormous respect for the inborn drive children have to master their environs, their bodies, and explore their talents and interests. Natural learning centers, like SVS, give children the same things Nature gave them to learn everything they naturally do before arriving at school age: a safe environment, learning resources, role models, and the time and freedom to try, fail, and try again.
“The proof is in the pudding”
What a half-century of experience at SVS tells us is that Dr. Gray is exactly right. Every child at SVS learns to read and do basic math of their own volition. They do this with no formal classes, no bells, no chalkboards, no homework assignments, and, best of all, no stress! Those graduates who choose to go to college typically get into the college of their first or second choice.
Statistically, Sudbury graduates are 14 times more likely to launch their own business than graduates of traditional schools. This is likely due to the self-confidence they develop by being responsible for their own learning. It is also because they have had time to explore their talents and decide what they really want to do with their lives.
Parents have been sending their children to SVS for around 50 years. If natural learning didn’t work, don’t you think the parents of all those children would have long since pulled their kids? Wouldn’t the school have shut its doors decades ago? But natural learning does work, and the parents keep sending their kids back to Sudbury year after year. As they say, the proof is in the pudding!
Another Natural Learning Option – Unschooling
When natural, self-directed learning is allowed to happen in a homeschool setting, it’s often called, “unschooling”. Watch our three videos on unschooling here.