Free to Learn

In this book, Peter Gray discusses the role of play in learning and include powerful observations from the Sudbury Valley School just outside Boston. It made me reflect on my own learning as a child in the context of play. It especially made a stark contrast between the depth of learning in play outside school, as compared to the curriculum-driven learning inside school.

A few quotes: In paired comparisons with specific other activities, 89 percent said they preferred outdoor play with friends to watching television, and 86 percent said they preferred it to computer play.12 Perhaps kids today play on the computer as much as they do partly because that is one place where they can play freely, without adult intervention and direction.

The Baining lived by a philosophy that seems to be deliberately the opposite of that of hunter-gatherers: the rejection of nature. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, so it is no surprise that the Baining have the reputation of being perhaps the dullest culture that anthropologists have ever turned up. The famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson tried to study them early in his career, for fourteen months in the late 1920s, but found them so uninteresting that he abandoned that study and wrote later that they lived a “drab and colorless existence.” They seemed to him, and to some observers after him, to be lacking in curiosity, imagination, and playfulness in adulthood and, unlike most cultures, they had no tradition of mart. Their conversation was almost entirely about work and the necessities of daily life.

It is possible to ruin play by focusing attention too strongly on rewards and outcomes. This happens in competitive games when the goal of winning overtakes that of simply enjoying the game. When a game becomes primarily a means of proving oneself to be better than someone else, or of supporting the team’s felt “need” to win, it becomes something other than play. All sorts of play can be ruined when rewards are made to appear to be the main reason for engaging in the activity. I suspect that many more of us would play in the realms of history, mathematics, science, and foreign languages were it not for our schools’ attempts to encourage them through rewards and punishments, turning those potentially enjoyable activities into work.

Jonathan Nylander © 2020