Children Are Beautifully Designed, by Nature, to Control Their Own Education.
If you have ever watched a child grow from birth up to “school age,” you know the statement above is true. Children come into the world with powerful educative instincts, which include their natural curiosity, playfulness, sociability, attentiveness to the activities around them, desire to grow up, and desire to do what older children and adults can do.
They do all this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything! This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of this schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.In this section, you can learn more about, and find evidence concerning, young people’s natural ways of learning and how adults can help them by providing appropriate conditions. Just click on the tabs that interest you most.
- How Children Educated Themselves Before Schools Existed This examines the foundations of children’s educative instincts, the adaptability of those instincts, and the conditions under which they might operate best in our culture.
- Evidence that Children Today Can Educate Themselves Wonderfully, Given Appropriate Conditions Children’s educative instincts can work beautifully in our culture today. We don’t need to force children to learn; all we need to do is provide the conditions that allow children to educate themselves. This section presents the research evidence behind these claims and describes the conditions that optimize children’s abilities to educate themselves in and for the modern world. These are conditions that are almost diametrically opposite to the conditions in our schools.
- Why Free Play Is Essential to Children’s Healthy Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Development Over the past 50 or 60 years in the United States, as schooling and other adult-directed activities have usurped ever more of children’s free time, children’s opportunities to play freely with other children have continuously declined. This decline in play has been accompanied by a well-documented rise in childhood anxiety, depression, and suicide; a decline in children’s sense of control over their own lives; a decline in empathy and rise in narcissism, and a decline in creativity. This section explains why play deprivation would be expected to have such negative effects.
For a full, documented account of children’s instincts for self-education and how they work, see Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
How Children Educated Themselves Before Schools Existed
From a broad, biological perspective, education is cultural transmission. It is the process by which each new generation of human beings acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, lore, beliefs, and values of the previous generation. Education has been key to our survival for as long as we have been human beings. The drives and instincts for it are built into our DNA.
Before the development of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago or so (a speck of time from a biological perspective), we were all hunter-gatherers. Our basic human instincts, including our educative instincts, evolved in the context of the hunter-gatherer way of life. Some hunter-gatherer cultures, in various isolated parts of the world, have survived with their traditional ways into modern times and have been studied by anthropologists. In all of these cultures, children and even adolescents are afforded essentially unlimited time to play, explore, and in other ways pursue their own interests, as the adults understand that this is how young people learn what they must to become effective adults. These three articles, published in academic journals, document and elaborate on this finding.
- The value of a play-filled childhood in development of the hunter-gatherer individual
- The evolutionary biology of education: How our hunter-gatherer educative instincts could form the basis for education today
- Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence
Peter Gray: Mother Nature’s Pedagogy: Insights from Evolutionary Psychology.
Evidence that Children Today Can Educate Themselves Wonderfully, Given Appropriate Conditions
When young people in our culture are granted the freedom and opportunity to educate themselves, outside of the boundaries of traditional school, they generally do so fully and joyfully. Through their everyday engagement with life, and especially through their free play and exploration, they acquire the skills, knowledge and values needed for success in our culture. The following books, articles and essays document and describe children’s and adolescents’ capacities for self-education in today’s world.
Books About Children’s Natural Learning [The books by Neill and Holt are classics.]
- Peter Gray. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
- A.S. Neill. Summerhill
- John Holt. How Children Learn
- John Holt. How Children Fail
Follow-up Studies of People Who Took Self-Educational Paths
- P. Gray and D. Chanoff. Democratic schooling: What happens to young people who have charge of their own education?
- D. Greenberg, M. Sadofsky, and J. Lempka. The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni.
- P. Gray. A Survey of Grown Unschoolers I: Overview of Findings.
- Idzie Desmarais. Blogs, Interviews, & Other Writing by Grown Unschoolers.
Some Academic Articles about Children’s Abilities to Educate Themselves
- Sugata Mitra. Minimally invasive education: A progress report on the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ experiments.
- P. Gray. The special value of age-mixed play.
- P. Gray. Playing in the Zone of Proximal Development: Qualities of Self-Directed Age Mixing Between Adolescents and Young Children at a Democratic School.
Sample of essays from the “Freedom to Learn” Blog on PsychologyToday.com
- Children Educate Themselves I: Outline of Some of the Evidence
- Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids
- Children Educate Themselves III: The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers
- Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley
- The Natural Environment for Children’s Self-Education: How The Sudbury Valley School is Like a Hunter-Gatherer Band
- Children Teach Themselves to Read
- Kids Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning
- Minimally Invasive Education: Lessons from India
- Can You Measure an Education? Can You Define Life’s Meaning?
- Experiences of ADHD-Labeled Kids Who Switch from Conventional Schooling to Homeschooling or Unschooling
- The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Provides Clues to Its Purposes
- The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning in Children and Adults
- The Varieties of Play Match the Requirements of Human Existence
Video discussing natural learning in children:
Why Free Play Is Essential to Children’s Healthy Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Development
The young of all mammals play, especially in ways that promote the skills they must develop to survive. Research has shown that when young animals are deliberately deprived of play during their development, they grow up emotionally and socially crippled.
Human children have much more to learn than do the young of other mammals. It is not surprising, therefore, that, when free to do so, our children play much more—and over many more years—than do the young of other mammals. Children play not just at skills that are valuable for all people everywhere (such as two-legged walking and running), but also at skills that are uniquely valuable in the culture in which they are developing (such as reading, writing and computing, in our culture). Children’s play also involves continuous exercise in imagination, which underlies all higher-order human thought. Play is especially valuable educationally when it is age-mixed. Young children acquire advanced skills and knowledge through observing and interacting with older ones, and older children acquire nurturing skills and a sense of their own maturity through interacting with younger ones.
The articles and essays listed below describe the many things that children learn in free play, undirected by adults, and the harm that can occur when children are deprived of such play, as happens altogether too often in our culture today.
Articles from the “Freedom to Learn” Blog at PsychologyToday.com
- The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders
- Free Play Is Essential for Normal Emotional Development
- How Children Learn Bravery in an Age of Overprotection
- As Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their Creativity
- Unsolicited Evaluation Is the Enemy of Creativity
- The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games
- Some Lessons Taught by Informal Sports, Not by Formal Sports
- The Morally Questionable Lessons of Formal Sports
- Play Makes Us Human I: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature
- Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy
- The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights into Its Functions
- The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning
- Value of Play III: How Children Confront Life’s Challenges
- The Value of Play IV: Nature’s Way of Teaching Us New Skills
- The Varieties of Play Match Requirements of Human Existence
- How to Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Intervene
- Chasing Games and Sports: Why Do We Like to Be Chased?
- The Value of Play in the Zone of Proximal Development
- The Unique Educative Qualities of Age-Mixed Play
- Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It
The Decline of Play - TEDx talk by Peter Gray