Education & Play Grow Kids

What is Natural Learning? An Interview with Dr. Peter Gray

Written by Kerry McDonald

As childhood becomes increasingly scripted and play-deprived, it can be helpful to understand alternatives to conventional schooling that tap into the innate, self-educative capacity of humans. Below is an interview with Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free To Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Learners for Life. Dr. Gray shares his perspectives on natural learning and offers advice to parents who are navigating the often stifling, structured, scheduled maze of modern childhood.

In your book, Free To Learn, you introduce the idea of natural learning, particularly through play. What do you mean by natural learning?

Natural learning refers to children’s natural, inborn ways of acquiring knowledge and skills. It is motivated by children’s natural curiosity, playfulness, and sociability. Curiosity is the drive to explore and try to understand one’s physical and social environment. Playfulness, of course, is the drive to play; and play is how children practice all sorts of skills. Children naturally play in ways that exercise essentially all of the basic skills that one must develop for a satisfying life. These include physical skills, linguistic skills, social skills, emotional skills, intellectual skills, and skills in creating and building things. Sociability is the drive to connect with other people, and this leads children to want to know what others know, and to want to share with others what they know. Throughout human history, these drives have motivated every generation of young people to acquire the knowledge and skills that they need to survive and thrive in the culture in which they are developing. Natural learning can be contrasted with forced learning, in which children are motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments to practice specific skills and acquire bits of information that do not truly interest them.

What can parents do to help their children learn naturally?

We adults can help by allowing children the freedom and opportunity to follow their own interests, in their own chosen ways, with minimal interference from us. My research suggests that children educate themselves best when (a) it is clear to them that they are responsible for their own education; (b) they have essentially unlimited time to pursue their own interests; (c) they are immersed in a social world that includes friends of a wide range of ages who are engaged in a wide variety of activities; (d) they are free to go to any of a number of caring adults for help when they need or want help; and (e)  they are treated with respect, not condescension or domination, by the adults in their lives.

How do you think our conventional system of schooling impedes natural learning?

Conventional schools squelch rather than foster children’s curiosity, playfulness, and sociability. In school, the child’s own interests and questions don’t count; what counts are the questions and topics of the curriculum. So children learn to suppress their curiosity. In school, play, if it occurs at all, is “recess,” a break from learning, rather than a major vehicle of learning. In school, children are generally not allowed to learn from one another or even talk with one another except during specific breaks.

You recently launched the Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) as a way to connect families who embrace natural learning. What are your hopes for this organization?

I’m one of a group of people launching the Alliance (self-directed.org). One of our goals is to make it easier for families who are engaged in, or interested in, self-directed education for their children to find and support one another.We also hope to normalize the concept of self-directed education, so it will seem less frightening to people.

Already many thousands of school-aged children who are officially registered as homeschoolers are taking charge of their own education, a practice often called “unschooling,” and many other children are attending democratic schools where they are in charge of their own activities and learning in a setting where there are many other children and a number of adults. We want to make the public more aware of the existence and success of these educational routes. We also want to amplify the voices of the many people who are already leaders in the movement toward self-directed education. These include people who are creating schools or learning centers for self-directed education; organizing conferences for unschooling families; or writing books, newsletters, or blogs about self-directed education. We call ourselves the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, because we hope that everyone involved in enabling and promoting self-directed education will join, to be allies of one another, and thereby create a more visible and effective international movement.

There are many families who care deeply about natural, self-directed learning but may feel that providing this type of learning setting for their children is out of reach for a variety of personal or financial reasons. What is your advice to these families who seek natural learning opportunities for their children but feel stuck?

My advice would depend on the particular situation. In general, however, the obstacles to self-directed education are not as great as many assume. One need not be wealthy to pursue this route. Indeed, in the only two studies I know of that asked about family income of unchooling families, their median income was considerably less than the median for the nation as a whole. Children, given freedom, are incredibly resourceful at finding interesting things to do and learn from in almost any community.

In many communities, unschooling and homeschooling families band together to form learning communities. One of the goals of the Alliance is to create conditions that will enable communities to create free learning centers to facilitate self-directed ed- ucation for everyone, regardless of age or family income. Keep in mind, too, that essentially the whole world of information is available to anyone who has access to a computer with an internet connection. Self-directed education has never been easier.

About the author

Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University, where she studied education administration, planning, and social policy. Kerry lives and learns together with her husband and four, never-been-schooled children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can email Kerry at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu, and visit her blog at Whole Family Learning.