Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is highly praised; many others whom I respect like this book. It sounded right up my alley as well. But maybe my expectations were just too high and so I was inevitably let down. The book was very engaging; the information it provides is very interesting and important. Overall, I think many of Gray’s points about play and learning and development are correct. But I was expecting something different and more from this book.
I didn't expect it to be so much on the Sudbury Valley School. This material was interesting, but hard for me to see its wider application and relevance. First, it’s not clear the students at SVS are engaged in play as such and second, I am not sure the context and culture of that school – as excellent as it sounds – generalizes as wide as Gray obviously thinks it does.
Gray does very little consideration of alternative explanations or arguments against the view he is putting forward. For example: he discusses a lot about Sudbury Valley School’s success but dismisses all too quickly that it really has anything to do with the students; that is, he ignores the selection effect of the population choosing SVS.
While I am sympathetic to his view; and his criticism of schooling, I got occasionally annoyed at his blanket rejection of all schooling. Someone one more skeptical of Gray’s view would see him as painting the entire complex education system with one brush.
Gray’s tracing back to the hunter-gather societies was in itself interesting, but it was hard to connect the relevance of this. First, it struck me as somewhat of an overly romantic vision of what life in those societies was lie. Second, whatever might have worked or applied in that context; the context today is too different for a direct analogy. Human culture evolution has changed so much that whatever we might have been adapted for has already changed. At the very least, that’s a counter that Gray never really addresses.
There was just not much argument for what I took to be the central thesis: that play is centrally important to development and learning. There are references to the relevant literature, but the conclusions were presented as fait accompli, not as a conclusion to which he is trying to convince us and provide reasoning and justification for. This might be too harsh, because there is some of that, but the overall tone is more of assertion rather than argument. I was hoping to see much more development of these connections between play and learning and emotional development. Critics sometimes are critical of authors for not writing the book they wanted the author to write; but in this case, the book’s subtitle “Why unleashing the instinct to play will make out children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life” suggests to me that the book will primarily be about providing the argument for the connections between play and learning and emotional development. On that front, the book fell short.
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