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May 12, 2021

Dr. Peter Gray

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College who has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of an internationally acclaimed introductory psychology textbook (Psychology, Worth Publishers, now in its 8th edition), which views all of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. His recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves, through play and exploration, when they are free to do so. He has expanded on these ideas in his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books). He also authors a regular blog called Freedom to Learn, for Psychology Today magazine. He is a founding member and former president of the nonprofit Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE), which is aimed at creating a world in which children’s natural ways of learning are facilitated rather than suppressed. He is also a founder of the nonprofit Let Grow, the mission of which is to renew children’s freedom to play and explore outdoors, independently of adults. He earned his undergraduate degree at Columbia College and Ph.D. in biological sciences at the Rockefeller University many years ago. His own current play includes kayaking, bicycling, cross-country skiing, vegetable gardening, chopping wood for his home’s wood-burning stove, and writing occasional sonnets.



Show Notes

  • Dr. Peter Gray has spent years researching how children naturally learn. He focused on play and what children are doing when they play and the function of play. He’s interested in play from an evolutionary perspective, children’s nature that comes about by natural selection to serve the function of education. 
  • As Jenna was researching self directed learning, she came upon the six optimizing conditions for self directed education and found it extremely helpful in guiding her toward an environment at home that was ideal for learning. 
  • Dr. Gray developed the six optimizing conditions for self directed learning based on what he studied at The Sudbury Valley School and through surveying ten anthropologists who had studied and lived among 7 different hunter-gatherer communities. He found many similarities between the hunter-gatherer communities and the students at Sudbury Valley School. 
  • The first condition is the social expectation and reality that education is children’s responsibility. Dr. Gray observed that children come into the world biologically designed to educate themselves. Right from the beginning, children are curious and figuring things out on their own initiative. If adults believe that children need to be forced to learn, we can talk them out of the idea that they’re responsibility. We essentially send them the message that their curiosity doesn’t count. The adults in the child’s environment are not conveying the view that the adult is responsible for their education. 
  • Jenna asks where does that that idea come from that adults have to educate children?
  • Dr. Gray explains that the original purpose for education was to teach obedience. Autonomy was valued in hunter-gatherer bands, but agriculture changed all of this. An hierarchy arose by way of land ownership. This led to feudalism, whereby everyone was dependent on the land owners. It became imperative that Serf parents teach their children to obey for their own survival in this hierarchical world. The original schools were developed by Protestants in Prussia. There were three purposes for schools at that time; reading (as it was very common at that time for average day families to be literate), indoctrination (save children’s souls), teach obedience. Willfulness was sinfulness. Children were meant to memorize content, otherwise they’d be punished. Nobody questioned it. Most teachers don’t have this goal in today’s modern world, however they are entering into a school system which was never designed for that and is incapable of promoting creativity, critical thinking and a love for learning. The only way you can pass in school  is to do what you’re told to do and the only way to fail is to not do what you’re told to do. So even today, the goal is still obedience.
  • The second optimized condition for SDE is unlimited freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests. Kids need lots of time to do this, essentially all day. Kids from the age of about four on through late teenage years in hunter-gatherer communities had all day to play and explore. This is the same way Sudbury Valley School models their school. It allows children to exercise their nature-given gifts that are for the purpose of education. Dr. Gray recalls in his own education back in the 50’s, there were far fewer hours spent in school and on homework and therefore he had time to spend playing and exploring outside the confines of a school setting, unlike how it is today. School was never a great place for learning, but it didn’t occupy so much of a child’s day. 
  • Adult-directed sports, clubs, and extracurriculars are no replacement for play. It’s yet another place where obedience is the primary issue. If it’s self selected it’s fine, but when that type of activity is occupying so much of a child’s time, they are deprived of the opportunity to figure things out on their own. 
  • In highschool, Jenna’s day started at 6am, she went to school, came home in time for dinner, did homework and then went to bed. There was no time for play or creative pursuits. 
  • Dr. Gray says we are raising a generation of sleep-deprived kids, and studies conducted during the pandemic have revealed that due to school closures, children are getting more sleep and parents and children are reporting improved moods because of it. 
  • Jenna shares how her son is now getting 3 hours of extra sleep because he’s at home learning. 
  • The third optimizing condition for SDE is opportunity to play with tools of the culture. By play, it’s meant that children get to use the tool in whichever way they choose. Children want to use tools in meaningful ways, build something, cook something, etc. In any culture, children are naturally drawn to the most important tools of their culture. Playing with those tools is how you develop mastery of the tools. In hunter-gatherer bands, parents and older kids might help facilitate this learning by making small versions of these tools. Computers are the most important tools of our culture, which is why children are drawn to them. Other tools that are important in our culture are kitchen appliances, wood tools, sports equipment, books, etc. One advantage to a self-directed learning center or school is that they might have a more diverse collection of tools in which the children can discover and use. 
  • Jenna shares her experience as a teacher, in which she handed out scientific equipment to students and they were compelled to play with it before the actual lesson began. It was evident to her that her students weren’t interested in being directed through the activity using the tools, instead they would have rather discovered its uses on their own.  
  • Dr. Peter Gray points out that kids want to figure out how to use a tool, rather than being shown how to use it. Of course, safety and proper use of tools is important before use of dangerous or delicate tools.
  • Jenna remembers reading in Peter Gray’s book, Free To Learn about a study done on babies where researchers observed how two independent groups of babies responded to toys given to them without being shown all the ways in which you can play with it, and toys given to them where the researcher spent a great deal of time showing the baby what you can do with the toy. The babies who weren’t given instruction about how the toy worked learned more about the toy and found more ways of playing with the toy. The most interesting toys are ones that have infinite ways of playing with it. Dr. Gray points out how this is akin to math instruction in school because kids are being given the way to do the math problem, which takes away the discovery and curiosity in math problems. 
  • The fourth optimizing condition for SDE is access to a variety of caring adults who are helpers, not judges. Caring adults could be family members, friends, or mentors to the child. They are glad to help but are not evaluating or judging the child in any way. It’s important because we can’t be fully honest when we are being judged by others. You’re not likely to present your problems to someone who is judging you. You’re going to be orientated toward, what does this person want me to say and what does this person want me to do? There’s an artificiality in your interaction with someone who is judging you. Adults are there to help when children ask for it. It’s tough in our society since everything is measured and competitive. In a school setting, it's impossible not to evaluate or judge. Being judged is stressful, which inhibits your performance on anything you’re not good at and your creativity. The ideal situation would be where the individual is the only judge of their work or performance. Children need a variety of adults to observe, so they can get a sense of what it’s like to be an adult and get a broader sense of what adults are like. Children can also learn from adults with various skills and professions. 
  • Jenna is reminded of the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.” She jokingly tells her husband they should go live on a commune because the way our culture lives, in our individual houses sometimes isolated from family, is not conducive to how children learn.


Helpful Resources Mentioned in Today's Show

Alliance for Self Directed Education

Free To Learn  by Peter Gray

Psychology Today


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