Are we nearing a tipping point for a new model of education? A talk with Peter Gray

Peter Gray is a true pioneer in exploring alternative education models, a serious researcher in the field of education and play, and an inspiring parent and activist. He speaks and writes eloquently without academic jargon about the needs of children. He’s currently on the faculty of Boston College in the Psychology Department, with dozens of books, articles, and blog posts to his name. His most recent book is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. And that title says it all! We also recommend a recent article that clearly explains the differences between progressive education models—which we know a lot about here at Alt Ed Austin—and self-directed learning. You’ll also find a whole universe of helpful resources on the Alliance for Self-Directed Education website.

Peter will be speaking at several locations in Austin at the end of April (listed at the end of this post), so we decided to take this opportunity to let the Alt Ed Austin community know a little bit more about his philosophy and predictions for the future. Peter is a passionate advocate for play as the most natural and powerful way children learn. And he is leading a national movement for self-directed education through the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, as he discusses in the interview below.

Tell our readers who might not be familiar with your work how you got started in the field of education research and alternative schooling in particular.

As a researcher, I was originally doing brain research, looking at hormones in the brain and how hormones affect behavior. But when my own son was nine years old, he reached a crisis point in school, in the fourth grade. He hated school, and they didn’t know what to do with him. We decided we needed to find something very different from traditional schools for him as he had always been rebelling against it. And so we found the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts.

Since then, Sudbury has become a model for self-directed education. The Clearview Sudbury School in Austin follows this model. Sudbury and schools like it are places where children are free to play and explore and do what they want to do. There are children of all ages, and the rules are all made by children themselves—the opposite of typical schools.

When we enrolled my son, he was immediately happy and thought this was just what school should be. But I was concerned that he might be living in my basement for the rest of his life. Fathers tend to need more convincing than mothers about this type of education. I see that all the time. I needed some evidence that it worked. I tried to convince some graduate students in the field of education to do a research study, but no one was interested, so I decided to do the study myself. The results impressed me. Graduates of Sudbury who wanted to go to college did go to college. Others went on to various careers and they were all happy. None of them regretted going to Sudbury, which comforted me as a father and intrigued me as an academician.

All of this launched my interest in play, and I began to study why children all over the world have this drive to play and play in certain predictable ways, which we now believe are part of natural selection and designed to make them ready for adulthood.

I’ve been pursuing these ideas for many years, and I’m now concerned about what our coercive schooling system is doing to our children in terms of time taken away from play and creating anxiety. Now I’m not just a researcher; I’m also an advocate for what we call self-directed education. We have an organization called the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, and we educate people and promote these ideas, whether through schools or through homeschooling and what is sometimes called “unschooling.”


Are you hopeful about the future direction of self-directed education in the United States? Where do you see our education moving in the next few decades?

The biggest barrier to self-directed education that has to be overcome—and I’m hopeful about it—is that the great majority of people just don’t know anything about it, don’t understand it, and don’t see how it will work! Most Americans are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation traditionally schooled. School has a certain meaning for us, and there’s a lot of social propaganda about how important it is, so it’s not surprising that most people in our culture believe that school as traditionally defined is essential in order to be successful or not become homeless. We hear that all the time. But I think that the barriers can be overcome.

In the most recent statistics available from a few years ago, we saw that about 3.4 percent of American children were homeschooled, and the trend is increasing. In the past homeschooling was done primarily for religious reasons, not to add freedom to children’s lives. But now the reasons for homeschooling tend to be more about improving the learning environment, making children happier and less constrained. I think that as homeschooling becomes more common and not so weird, we’ll see the numbers increase rapidly.

We also think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of homeschoolers are pursuing “unschooling,” but I prefer the more positive term of “self-directed education.” Both homeschooling and self-directed education allow children much more time in the day to find hobbies, discover their own interests, make friends, get involved in community activities, and all the things that are important to learning. And now there are more centers being opened to create communities and support for families who are doing this.

I see it all as a grassroots movement, and we’re heading toward a tipping point. The next stage is that there will be enough people doing this that they have some political clout. I’m not sure, but that will come when somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of families are embracing self-directed education. So what leads me to be optimistic is that we always see social change occurring slowly, gradually, as courageous people do non-normative things, but over time we reach a tipping point at which everyone knows someone who is doing it, and it no longer seems weird. It no longer seems like it’s something you’re going to be blamed for doing. That’s when real change happens. The most recent analogy is the acceptance of gay Americans and same-sex marriage. For education, I don’t know if it will take 10 years or 40 years, but we’re on a trend, and I think it will happen.

The other thing that makes me optimistic is that self-directed education is easier than ever before. The Internet has made it easy. When schools were started, there were only certain people who had knowledge and you had to go to institutions where knowledge was sequestered in order to learn. Really and truly, the Internet has now made schools obsolete. We haven’t as a society come to terms with that, but all children know that any information they need is available to them at home or anywhere by Googling it.

But what we still need is community. So i have hope that libraries will become the replacements for schools. I’d like to see libraries become community centers for activities—places for learning, recreation, and friendship. We are suffering from being isolated from each other, and there’s real value in connecting with others, especially for kids. Schools aren’t solving this problem right now.

What we’re trying to do at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is to change from individual people trying to solve a problem to an organized movement tackling the problem. We want people to see themselves as part of the same movement, whether they’re doing unschooling at home or sending their children to a Sudbury-style school. We’re trying to create local groups to support each other.

Are there places in the country that are pushing forward faster than others in this movement?

I’m not sure we know exactly—we don’t have all the information. But it’s interesting that in Austin you have a Sudbury model school and Abrome and many unschoolers. Austin may be one of the places where there’s a real concentration of people who are interested in self-directed learning.

What new projects are you working on right now besides the Alliance?

I have a new book in mind but am not far enough along on it to talk about it. It will be about the obsolescence of schools and how their functions have been taken over by other, more efficient means.

I’d also like to mention another organization I’m involved in, which is called the Let Grow Foundation. This is run by Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids. She is concerned that we’ve really excluded kids from public spaces, and we’ve developed irrational fears about letting children be free to play and explore the world. Utah just recently passed the a “free range children” law, so the idea is gaining momentum. Lenore is the main force behind this, but I’m conducting some research and supporting it.

Thank you to Peter for taking time to talk with us! He will be speaking at four events in Austin at the end of April, so if you’re interested in his thoughts about where education is heading, you have some terrific opportunities to listen and ask questions:

What Is Self-Directed Education, and How Do We Know It Works?
Wednesday, April 25, 7pm at Abrome

Smart Schooling Book Group Discussion with Author Peter Gray
(on his book Free to Learn)
Thursday, April 26, 6pm, at Laura Bush Community Library in Westlake

Play Deficit Disorder: A National Crisis and How to Solve It Locally
Thursday, April 26, 7pm, at Laura Bush Community Library

The Biology of Education: How Children's Natural Curiosity, Playfulness, and Sociability Serve Their Education
Friday, April 27, 7pm, Clearview Sudbury School

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Crazy in the name of education

We, as a modern adult society, are quite literally “driving our children crazy in the name of education,” according to author and Boston College research professor Peter Gray. Speaking yesterday at the SXSWedu conference, where I’ll be reporting for Alt Ed Austin throughout the week, Gray cited numerous studies showing a marked increase since the mid-1950s in childhood psychopathology. This change is closely correlated, he said, with the expansion of in-school and homework hours and the attendant decline in children’s free play time over the same half-century. Careful to note that he could not definitively prove a causal relationship, he said that after more than thirty years of professional research and personal observation, he considers the “continual usurpation of children’s free time” to be the most likely reason for the rise in anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide among children and teenagers.

Gray, author of a widely used introductory psychology text now in its sixth edition, explained that the higher numbers are not, as some might suggest, the results of today’s better diagnostic tools or broader recognition of these disorders; rather, they reflect data from standardized assessment tools that have not changed over the decades as they have been used to measure anxiety levels and depression in normalized samples of children and adolescents. Interestingly, the psychopathology numbers do not correspond at all with economically difficult periods or wartime, Gray said; children seem to have weathered the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War—all shown to have been seriously stressful times for adults—with no significant increase in mental or emotional distress. What is stressful for children, Gray posited, is the lack of freedom to play and a shortage of friends to play with.

Play by definition is self-directed, Gray said. “It is nature’s means of teaching children to take control of their own lives.” We are naturally selected, he explained, to practice solving problems on our own from a very young age. Independent play, especially the kind that pushes safety boundaries—like young chimpanzees swinging just a bit too high or far—is necessary for healthy development. Animal behavior researchers believe this is about learning to regulate fear and other emotions, he said. Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and members of the few such societies that survive today), children in the United States and most other developed economies largely miss out on these crucial developmental experiences.

According to Gray, the closest modern students can come to the kind of freedom young humans experienced in the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies that were the norm from 1.8 million years ago until only ten thousand years ago (the latter characterized as “an evolutionarily insignificant amount of time”) is in schools that follow the Sudbury model of democratic education. As a longtime observer of and sometime systematic researcher at the original Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, Gray has concluded that it closely resembles the hunter-gatherer mode of education, although its founders did not set out with this goal in mind. These schools, Gray said, share the following conditions that make them work:

  • unlimited freedom to play and explore—“because that's how children educate themselves”
  • free age mixing
  • access to a variety of knowledgeable and caring adults
  • access to the culture’s tools and freedom to use them, especially the cutting-edge ones that help them prepare for the future
  • immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community (in contrast to what Gray characterizes as the “tyranny” of traditional schools, where kids have virtually no legal rights)

Gray’s new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, was officially released today. It documents the evidence for his theories in detail, drawing on research in anthropology, behavioral and evolutionary psychology, and historical sources. You can also find more of Gray’s writings on play and education at his Psychology Today blog, Freedom to Learn. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on his provocative work; please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Peter Gray will give a talk and Q&A tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Clearview Sudbury School. It is free and open to the public. More details about the event are on Clearview’s blog and Facebook event page.

Open houses and open doors

On the heels of last weekend’s wildly successful Education Transformation School Fair, many participating schools and other alt ed programs are following up with open houses, tours, and special events for this week. In fact, the entire month of March is positively bursting with opportunities to get to know the people and places of Austin’s alt ed community—and find the right fit for your kid. Check our calendar for all the details. Here’s a preview:

On Saturday, March 2, visit The Natural Child Learning Community, a Montessori-inspired, nature-oriented preschool in the heart of Georgetown. The program provides a part-time, holistic learning environment for children between the ages of 2-1/2 and 5.

The next day, Sunday, March 3, head over to the 9th Street Schoolhouse in near East Austin to meet Caitlin and Laura, who place radical faith in children and, following the Free School model, offer guidance and experiences to develop lifelong learners. They have one immediate opening for a girl and are enrolling boys and girls age 5–12 for the fall.

Monday, March 4, is a great day to check out two South Austin alternative schools. The Whole Life Learning Center, part of the Self-Design network, is a two-acre school where kids age 5 and up work with mentors to develop holistic, individualized learning plans, honoring each learner’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. The Austin EcoSchool is offering a family tour of its "Edible Campus," where you’ll see students’ work, meet the staff, and learn about the school’s unique programs, including Game of Village. It is currently enrolling for ages 5–14.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 5, the Clearview Sudbury School will host a free talk and Q&A with scholar and author Peter Gray (who is also speaking in town this week at the SXSWedu conference). Dr. Gray, a research professor at Boston College who blogs regularly at Psychology Today, is a leading authority on the role of free play in children’s development; his new book, Free to Learn, will be officially released the same day. Clearview staff, students, and parents will be on hand to answer questions about this democratic K–12 school in Central Austin.

Friday, March 8, is your next chance to visit the Inside Outside School. Let them know to expect you, and you'll get the full tour of this community-based, intentionally small learning community situated on more than seven wooded acres in Pflugerville. “Teaching for Human Greatness” is their creed, and they’re now enrolling kindergarten through 5th grade.

And now for something completely different: On Wednesday, March 13, the Growin' Together Hands-on Afterschool Program will host a SXSW Youth Showcase, featuring some of the hottest bands in the 18-and-below universe. It’s free for all ages (donations accepted) and will rock the Austin EcoSchool campus.

After spring break, on Wednesday, March 20, join the parent tour of AHB Community School, a creative and collaborative educational alternative that seeks to cultivate authentic, balanced critical thinkers who are prepared for a life of learning and community engagement. AHB serves ages 5–12 in Central Austin. Be sure to give them a heads-up that you’re coming so they can prepare the best tour possible for you. Can’t make it that day? You’ll have another chance on March 27 and on other Wednesdays in April and May.

To stay up-to-date on alt ed events, make a habit of visiting our calendar and clicking on any listing for details. Much more is coming up this spring, with many doors opening to you and your children.

Book Review. Playborhood: Turn your neighborhood into a place for play

I was delighted a few months ago to receive a review copy of Mike Lanza’s recent book, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play. Now that I’ve read, reread, and fully digested it, I am even more delighted to recommend it to parents and others who care about the happiness and health of children and the vitality of neighborhoods. It’s a great read, certainly, but why review it here, on this blog? What do play-filled neighborhoods have to do with authentic education? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Because we believe in the importance of free play here at Alt Ed Austin, and because place-based approaches to education are some of the most promising and necessary for a sustainable future, I found Playborhood to be highly relevant to the conversations that take place among parents and other educators with whom I work in the alt ed community. In fact, to make sure more of you have the opportunity to read and share this book, I’m giving away three copies! Read on to the end of this review to find out how you can win one.

Lanza begins by outlining what he calls the “free play problem.” In contrast to his own experiences growing up in the 1960s and ’70s surrounded by kids ready and willing to do stuff together—running, biking, climbing, exploring, tinkering, building things, making art, and playing games of their own invention, largely under their own direction—U.S. children today spend the majority of their “free” time isolated in their own homes, enduring ever-increasing homework loads, becoming overly dependent on electronic forms of entertainment and communication, and being driven to and from highly structured activities outside of their own immediate neighborhoods. In his view, they are missing out on opportunities to develop valuable relationships with neighbors of all ages, interact with local businesses and institutions, understand and feel part of the natural world, learn self-reliance, hone specific social skills, exercise their creativity in multiple ways, and simply have fun.

But Playborhood is not a work of nostalgia, nor is it a diatribe on what’s wrong with kids these days. It is primarily a practical, solutions-oriented book. Lanza outlines a complex web of causes and effects of the changes in children’s lives over the last several generations. He cites research and analysis by Peter Gray, Madeline Levine, Richard Louv, and other social scientists and journalists on the critical importance of free play—not just for healthy childhoods, but for fulfilling adulthoods as well. He writes that free play helps children discover their intrinsic motivation, which is “the most likely path toward a successful, happy life.” Most importantly, he shows and tells what steps we can take to encourage free play to happen in our own neighborhoods.

Making time and space for free play is not about simply limiting screen time or cutting back on structured activities and test tutoring in favor of making your kids go out and play. What if there are no playmates to be found? Lanza explains that “the neighborhood play problem is more a social problem than an aggregation of individual problems.” It thus requires that parents take bold, collective action to change neighborhood culture and priorities.

Lanza himself, the father of three young boys, has taken a fairly radical approach, converting his conventional suburban front yard into an irresistible neighborhood playground and opening his family’s back yard (which features an in-ground trampoline much safer than the more common kind) to any neighbor kid who wants to come and play (by the rules, of course, for safety and consideration of others). One of the most popular and visible play spaces he has created on his property is a giant map of his neighborhood painted on the driveway (as shown on the book cover), where kids play with toy vehicles and legos and create all sorts of games related to their own immediate surroundings.

While Lanza acknowledges that he is more fortunate than most of us to have been able to spend a considerable sum of money on his front and back yards for the benefit of his own kids and their entire (affluent) neighborhood, he devotes several chapters to showcasing other kinds of communities that have successfully created playborhoods, some of them on little to no budget. One impressive case study is that of Lyman Place in the Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, where the irrepressible Hetty Fox presides over the Play Street she and other neighborhood activists have created every summer for more than thirty years.

Another inspiring example for me is Share-It Square in Portland, Oregon, where neighbors gradually “occupied” a neighborhood intersection in creative ways, establishing intriguing spaces and structures for kids and adults on each corner, a beautiful work of art on the pavement to mark the intersection as a special place, and regular community gatherings right in the street. One of the corners includes an informal book exchange, an early example of the “little free library” concept that has been taking hold in communities around the country, including Austin.

Lanza posts regularly on the blog that shares his book’s title (and where you can buy the book as well as Playborhood signs). Not every post is entirely in line with my own views, but it’s always thought-provoking, and I wholeheartedly endorse the book. Mike Lanza is an original and persuasive voice for the fundamental values of neighborhood, “real life,” and childhood. The playfully subversive cultural movement he has instigated is right in step with the work of Austin’s most transformative educators.

If you would like a free copy of Playborhood, you can do one or more of the following (for up to three chances to win) by 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20:

  • Leave a comment below about your own neighborhood. Do you consider it a Playborhood? Why or why not?
  • “Like” Alt Ed Austin on Facebook if you haven’t already—and while you’re at it, add us to your interests list to make sure you get all our updates.
  • Share this blog post on your Facebook timeline (there's a handy little link below).

Check back here after Wednesday night, when winners of the random drawing will be announced as an update to this post. In the meantime, go out and play!