An interview with psychology professor Peter Gray


An interview with psychology professor Peter Gray

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. His thought-provoking blog for Psychology Today, called “Freedom to Learn,” deals with children and the importance of play, especially as it relates to self-directed learning. We recently talked to him about his views.

For those who haven’t read your blogs, can you summarize the point of view behind “Freedom to Learn”?
The basic idea that underlies the blog is that children come into the world biologically prepared to educate themselves. Their instincts to observe, explore, and play are exquisitely designed, by natural selection, to serve their educative needs.   The evidence I present comes primarily from (a) studies of children in hunter-gatherer cultures; (b) studies of children at the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham (which is a setting for self-directed learning); and (c) psychological research on children’s natural ways of playing, exploring, and learning. To enable children to use their self-education instincts optimally, however, we need to provide them with certain conditions. Those conditions are amply present in hunter-gatherer bands and at the Sudbury Valley School.

Do you have any children?
Yes. I have an adult son. His mother is now deceased and, through remarriage, I also have a stepson and a stepdaughter, who are now young adults.

What kind of schooling did they have?
My son was a student in a public school in Framingham through fourth-grade; then completed his primary and secondary education at the Sudbury Valley School; and then graduated from Boston College. My stepson and stepdaughter both went through the public school system and graduated from Shrewsbury High School. The former went on to culinary school, and the latter is now a first-year student at Emerson College.

How did you get the idea to start writing a blog about how children learn?
I had been conducting and publishing research on these topics and giving talks on them in academic settings. The editor of Psychology Today magazine was aware of my work and asked me if I would write a regular blog for the magazine. I was glad to do so, as I wanted these ideas to reach a broader audience, beyond academia. In addition, I had been thinking for some time of writing a book on these topics for the general public, and the blog seemed like a good way to work through some of the ideas that would go into the book and to get people’s reactions to them. I am now writing that book (to be published by Basic Books).

About ADHD, you’ve said, “Because of the increased competitive and standardized nature of schooling, behaviors that in the past would have been regarded as within the range of normal are now considered to be abnormal.” Can you elaborate?
School, as we generally know it today, is really an abnormal environment for children. Children, and even teenagers, are not designed to spend hours sitting still and following others’ directions. They are designed by nature to learn through playing, exploring, observing and taking part in real-world activities.  The fact that children are able to sit and learn at all in standard schools is testament to their adaptability; but there are limits to that adaptability.  Research has shown that children and teenagers are, overall, much less happy in school than in any other regular setting in their daily lives.  Human personalities vary in ways that, under natural conditions, are useful.  It is useful to any human society to have some people who are more restrained and others who are more impulsive.  However, those who are more impulsive have greater difficulty adapting to school than do those who are more restrained. Instead of considering this to represent unfair treatment by the school system, we, as a society, have chosen to brand impulsiveness as a mental disorder (ADHD) and to treat it with drugs, as a way of getting kids to adapt to school.  On average, for good evolutionary reasons, boys are more active and impulsive than girls, which is why boys are much more likely than are girls to get the ADHD diagnosis.

I might add that there is also research evidence indicating that vigorous rough and tumble play promotes growth of neural connections, from the prefrontal cortex to other parts of the brain, that are involved in reducing impulsiveness. Today children are often deprived of such play, and that may be part of the reason for the high rate of diagnosis of ADHD.

You talk about play as being very important to learning. Do you see a change in how and what children are playing these days?
Over the past five or six decades, there has been a steady, large decline in children’s opportunities for free play. By free play, I mean play that is structured by the children themselves, rather than by adults.  This change has been well documented by historians of play, and I have recently written an academic article linking this decline in play to the dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, helplessness and narcissism in children and adolescents that have been documented by psychologists over this same time period.

The biggest decline in play over this period has been in free outdoor play.  Some people blame this decline on the seductive qualities of television and, more recently, video games; but a good deal of research suggests that the blame lies more appropriately with other social changes that have occurred. Parents — for various reasons — no longer allow their children the freedom to play on their own, outdoors, away from home, with other kids, that they once did.  Also, school and various schoollike activities (including adult-directed sports) take up more and more of children’s time, reducing opportunities for free play and exploration. Moreover, communities no longer provide safe places for children to play on their own, to the degree that they did in years past. As school budgets have skyrocketed over the years, budgets for parks and public playgrounds have dwindled.

What do you think of video games? Does it matter if they are so-called “active games,” such as the Wii?
I have to admit that I’m not a video game player myself, but, based on my observations of kids playing such games and on research studies that others have conducted on the consequences of playing them, I’m a great fan of such games. They are fun, engrossing and mentally challenging.  I don’t think it really matters whether the game involves physical activity (like the Wii) or not; the main thing is that the games involve incredible amounts of mental activity. There is actually research showing that certain measures on standard IQ tests go up in game-players. In one study, for example, college women who were given the assignment to play action-oriented video games a certain number of hours each week showed significant increases in their spatial intelligence.

However, neither video games nor other indoor games (such as traditional board games) can take the place of outdoor play. My observations suggest that, when children have the opportunity for all kinds of play, most choose a balance between indoor and outdoor play, though some, just by disposition, naturally choose more of one while others choose more of the other.

Parents, especially home-schoolers, sometimes ask, “Should I sign my child up for organized sports?” They worry that the kids might miss out on something essential if they don’t. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s a good idea to push kids into organized sports. The most important kind of play is free play, where kids learn how to create the rules, negotiate with others over rules, get along with one another and solve their own problems. These are among the most the most important lessons to learn in life, and they are best learned in free play. In organized sports, kids are deprived of these learning opportunities, because adults run the show.  However, if a child wants to join an organized sports team, that is fine.  Some children really develop a passion for a particular sport and want to play it at a  higher level and in a more standardized way than is possible in a pickup game.  Under normal conditions, however, this desire to play the organized sport will come only after lots of free-play pickup games.

Some parents mistakenly believe that adult-directed organized sports are safer for their kids than is outdoor, kid-directed free play. In fact, there is a good deal of evidence that the opposite is true. The competitive nature of the organized sports leads many children to play in ways that create injuries. A good book on this subject is “Until it Hurts,” by Mark Hyman.

With so many children to educate, and the pressures of standardized testing, what can schools do to improve the learning environment?
The first step, of course, would be to get rid of the standardized testing and the competitive grading system.  But I see little evidence that this is going to happen any time soon.  I personally think that public schools and most private schools are so entrenched in their ways that change now must come from outside of the standard school system.  More and more people are leaving standard schools and developing educational environments for children that are consistent with children’s natures.  At some point a tipping point will be reached, and then people involved with public schooling will realize that schools must change in fundamental ways or become irrelevant. The only way to change schools, I think, is to stop sending children to them until they change.

What’s your advice for parents who would prefer to home-school, but who feel they have to put their children in school for one reason or another?
There are a number of schools in this country, and throughout the world, modeled after the Sudbury Valley School.  I would strongly recommend such a school for any normal child.  I also see an encouraging trend for homeschoolers to band together and create centers where children can play and learn together, away from their parents, in age-mixed groups.

The biggest problem with home schooling is that children need to spend lots of time away from their parents. They need to learn from a larger community of people of all ages and backgrounds, and they need to get away from the sort of special treatment that parents are likely to provide. I see home schooling as a social transition, not the ultimate solution to the education problem. At its worst, home schooling can isolate the child from the real world and thereby prevent learning about that world.  Children by nature want to expand beyond their parents and siblings, beginning at about 4 years of age. In hunter-gatherer bands, for example, children remain close to their mothers until about age 4, but after that they explore widely and spend much time with all of the other members of the band, but especially with other kids.

It really does “take a village.” The growing child needs access to the village, not just to his or her nuclear family. Places like the Sudbury Valley School and centers designed for play and self-directed learning can provide, in our culture, the equivalent of the village.

VIDEO – Unschooling and interview with Peter Gray (2010) //

Sudbury School for ages 4-19


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