Book Review: Free to Learn

As Jai grew more active, figuring out how to teach him effectively and prepare him for preschool became increasingly important as a parent. How to teach him was the trick…do I sit down with flashcards or do I let the learning happen more naturally based on his desires and interest?

First disclosure: I decided to do the unscientific thing and go with my gut over how I thought best to teach him: through play.

Parenting on instinct is important because no one knows their children better than a parent, but it can be problematic if not done responsibly. I rationalize that teaching a child through play will at best give him the tools he needs to learn complex concepts and at worst delays him for a year on milestone concepts, but nothing that can’t be made up with some rigor.

That said, if I was going to take this tactic of teaching style, I would need to find advice and experts to back it up. Second disclosure: I engaged in confirmation bias as I looked for tools to justify allowing my child to play all day without creating strict structure.

That’s how I stumbled upon Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn. In my research on the book, I found that he highlighted the importance of allowing what comes naturally to children as a means to learn a variety of important life concepts and lessons.

What follows is my review of a book I chose on my own. I did not receive any compensation for this review.

Book Information

Title: Free to Learn
Author: Peter Gray
Date Published: 2013
Publisher: Basic Books
Pages: 274
Genre: Psychology
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Official Book Website



Organized into ten chapters, Gray’s book breaks down what has happened to modern childhood; historical learning in hunter/gather societies; the current education system; using instincts as a means of learning; the playfulness of a child’s mind; the role of play in social and emotional development; play that transcends age groups, and incorporating the play in the modern world.

Within each chapter, Gray couples his personal experience both as a child and as a parent, with research and his professional work as a psychology professor at Boston College. Each chapter is also filled with history, social studies, anthropological studies, and psychological studies to support his chapter’s thesis.

In chapter 8, Gray correlates the decline of children’s free play with the “rise in anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness in young people” (174).  With this correlation comes the rise of narcissism and the decline of empathy for those around a child. While correlation does not mean causation, this information is alarming (and visible on a daily basis in the news), therefore Gray, in the second half of the book, proposes finding ways to regain that empathy and raising healthy adults via free-play for children whenever possible.

Thoughts and Recommendation

Gray’s advocation of play as a tool for learning highlights several important concepts that we forget when we send our children to traditional structured schooling: life is not structured. If we set up the dynamic of playing with children only of the same age, limit free-playing, and negate the social/emotional catharsis that comes from play, we prevent children from having a realistic grasp of adulthood. We do not interact solely with people of our own age, we rarely have a rigorously structured daily life, and by stifling coping mechanisms in childhood, we can struggle to healthfully manage our emotions when confronted with a difficult situation. Play, at its core, better prepares children to be emotionally strong, well-rounded, and rational adults (not considering biological variables).

Beyond providing a justification for focusing on play as a means to learn, one thing that I found extremely important to me is the incorporation of sources throughout each chapter. With extensive notes and bibliography of reputable sources, Gray’s book is one written out of passion and knowledge on the subject matter.

Gray does not advocate testing or grades, which I feel have its place in society as practice for work projects, so I disagree with some of his assertions. But this disagreement isn’t major, it may be my own social learning resisting commitment to a completely different way of thinking.

This book is a great tool for helping parents feel more at ease with their personal parenting styles. Allowing a child to play freely, especially independently, isn’t a form of neglect. It’s allowing a child to discover the world in a safe manner while they figure out how they fit into the world. By giving a child freedom in their play, a child will handle the freedom of adulthood more responsibly.

If you are looking to unlock your child’s play in a more natural, albeit scientifically backed, way, please check out Peter Gray’s book for yourself.

Want to Read More?

Here are some of my suggestions for other similar titles. Does not contain affiliate links:

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