How Children Learn

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.

Through their own efforts, with essentially no instruction, children learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, ”Knowledge that is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” — Platocharm, and ask questions. Through watching, listening, questioning, and in other ways exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. And in their play, they continuously practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development.

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.

  • 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.

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.]

Follow-up Studies of People Who Took Self-Educational Paths

Some Academic Articles about Children’s Abilities to Educate Themselves

Sample of essays from the “Freedom to Learn” Blog on

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.

Academic articles

P. Gray. The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in childhood and adolescence.

Articles from the “Freedom to Learn” Blog at


The Decline of Play - TEDx talk by Peter Gray