Today, Connor and Brittany talk about Peter Gray, the author of “Free to Play,” a book that talks about the importance of letting kids learn through play.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Brittany: Hi, Connor.

Connor: Hey, Brittany.

Brittany: So, I think you and I both are fans of homeschooling. Yeah. I think in fact, what did your kids, or what are your kids doing? I know it’s some kind of homeschooling, but I wasn’t sure if it was unschooling or not.

Connor: Well, this may be a good topic of its own later for the past decade or whatever, we’ve always been homeschooling our kids. We’ve done a little bit of homeschool co-op, a little bit of unschooling, and a little bit of structured curriculum, so kind of a mishmash. But as of this past fall, we have put them in a private school and Acton Academy.

Brittany: I love Acton Academy. I didn’t realize they had it in Utah now.

Connor: Yeah, they’ve got a few in Utah. So, it’d be fun to talk a little bit more about Acton Academy, what I like about it, and what our experience is, but that’s what they’re doing right now.

Brittany: And Sandifer is his last name.

Connor: Jeff Sandifer. Laura, yes. They started it in Austin, Texas, and now they’re all over the country.

Brittany: Yes, I was obsessed. They do great work. That’s really cool. I didn’t know that. Okay, so I knew that you did some kind of homeschooling unschooling, and the reason I bring this up is because I want to talk about someone who I’m sure you’re familiar with. His name is Peter Gray. Peter Gray wrote a book called Free to Learn. It talks a lot about what’s called play-based learning. A lot of people actually, even homeschooling a lot of homeschool curriculums, curriculums are like lesson plans. They’re very strict on, okay, we’re going to learn this kind of math today. We’re going to learn this thing in science. We’re going to learn this in English. And kids don’t get a lot of time to play. And it’s weird to think this because I think we think, especially if you go to public school, you’re taught to think recesses are not a time for learning. It’s just a time to go play and relax before you have to sit back at your desk for six more hours and listen to whatever the teacher has to say. But there’s so much you can learn while you’re playing. In fact, there’s probably, and not probably there is more you can learn while playing than you can when you’re stuck at a desk all day. And that’s become a really popular idea that, I don’t know what you think about this Connor, but when I was a kid, that was not something my parents would’ve ever even looked into. If somebody was like, oh yeah, let your kids play. That would’ve been an absurd concept to them.

Connor: Well, it is interesting how much things have really changed. We talked before about helicopter parenting and free-range parenting and all this kind of stuff, and how just parenting styles have changed over time. But yeah, when I was growing up, schooling or education and play were complete opposites. And it was, I think often perceived or most parents thought that playtime is totally separate. What are you learning when you’re playing? It’s not learning, it’s playing.

Brittany: Exactly. But that then comes along Peter Gray, and I think I’ve noticed this with our generation as they become parents, I feel like more people are open to what is something that works better than what we got. We didn’t have the best time in school. People shouldn’t be dreading going to school. And I know that sometimes a lot of kids, I think I felt that way too, just kind of dread it. So, Peter Gray, he’s a psychologist, so that means that he studies the mind and human behavior and how it all works. And like I said, he wrote this book called Free to Play, but this all happened because he got really interested in children’s education after his son was a little bit rebellious and he was acting out in class. And we had teachers calling him all the time, and they were frustrated because he wouldn’t sit still and learn. And Conor, I know you and I understand this, but asking a young kid to sit at a desk all day for eight hours and stare at the whiteboard, it’s torture. It’s prison is essentially what it is. That’s just so hard. And some kids, they just aren’t going to do that. They don’t want to do that. Their brains have a really hard time focusing on that. So, Gray ended up pulling his son out of the school instead of yelling at him or disciplining him and saying, you need to sit at the desk and be quiet. He said, there’s got to be a different way. So, he pulled his son out of school and he sent him to what they call an alternative school, meaning it was different. It was an alternative to the traditional schools that were out there. And what he learned was crazy. His son went from disrupting the class to just thriving. And he was so interested in this gray that he shifted his focus to childhood education because he wanted to know how one school, the school, his son was going to, could have so much success while the other schools were just failing. And we’ve said this before, they’re like conveyor belts, just kind of pumping out machines, people that are looking the same. What is the production line? Is that the word I’m looking for? Convey belt?

Connor: Yeah, that’s accurate. The assembly line.

Brittany: An assembly line. That was the word I was looking for. So grade aside, I want to learn more. Why is this happening? So, he started conducting studies at his son’s new school, and he wanted to study where the school’s graduates were afterward. And he was blown away because they were all pretty successful in life after they went to this school. So, what made this school so much different than all the others? And the key there is they were allowed to play while they learned. So, instead of being stuck in the class, like I said before, and learning math and science in one rigid thing where they had to sit still and then every 20 minutes have to switch subjects or whoever it is, the kids were allowed to play. And through play, they learned all the skills they needed to learn. And they did it without being forced to sit at a desk and all that. They were allowed to play and explore all day. So Connor, you and I went to traditional schools and we had to sit at desks all day. And that doesn’t mean we were actually learning. In fact, I am shocked at how much I didn’t learn in the subjects I didn’t want to learn. And people will say like, well, you should have just been more focused or teachers could have been more interesting. Have you ever used the, what was it called? Pythagorean theorem come on the path. Yeah, I don’t even remember what it’s called. Pythagorean theorem. I have never once in my adult life used that ever. I don’t even remember what it’s for. But these were things that if you didn’t memorize and say on a test that you would’ve failed out and your teachers would tell you things like, you’re never going to get a good job, instead of letting you focus on what you wanted to learn and to get really good at that. So, Connor, I don’t know about your experience. Did you learn well, being stuck at a desk all day?

Connor: In a word no, and wasn’t for me, it wasn’t so much sitting at a desk. I know a lot of kids struggle with focus ADHD and all that kind of stuff. That wasn’t really my issue. My issue was I hated having to do what I call pump and dump. Like pump your mind full of stuff, take the test, dump it all out, because it’s what we all did. We all dumped it. It’s not like we, oh gee, my brain is so much bigger. I shall retain and apply all of this information that I’ve had to remember. No, that’s not how it works. Because for me, my struggle, even though I couldn’t really understand it at the time as a kid, but looking back now, I see what I was struggling with. It was that what I was being forced to learn did not have context or relevance. And so what I mean by that is context means I didn’t really understand why it mattered. Why do I need to know this stuff? Why does someone like me at this age need to know this stuff? How’s this going to help me? Pythagorean theorem, right? It’s like, how does learning this help me in any way? So there was no context and then there was no relevance. It’s a similar word, but there was no relevance because it wasn’t relevant to me. I didn’t understand why. First, I didn’t understand why it mattered. That’s context. Then I didn’t understand why it mattered to me, which is relevance. Why should 11-year-old Connor or whatever have to memorize all this stuff? I was the kid who would occasionally raise my hand and say, why do we need to know this? The teacher, would they put your hand down? It’ll be on the test, right? It was all about the test. It was about this is what every 11-year-old needs to know. This is what our school board or our curriculum committee has decreed that every 11-year-old should learn at the same time in the same way. Just because you happen to be birthed by your mom around the same time as all these other people, you now have to learn the same way. It’s ridiculous. And so I struggled not with sitting at my desk, I struggled with my head being crammed full of meaningless stuff that didn’t really make sense. And this is why I resonated with Peter Gray and his book Free to Learn is because, and I’ll throw it back to you to maybe add some thoughts here. When you learn through play these kids throughout history, they learn things that the adults are actually doing, like it’s useful information. And that to me is what I never really had.

Brittany: No, I think that’s exactly right. And I think it helps us with the independence problem we have with a lot of kids. And you and I have talked about that a lot, that a lot of Gen Z and even millennials had to learn how to be, they never learned in school. They had to rely on somebody else with helicopter parenting. And when it’s self-directed play, as they call it, self-directed, meaning the kids design their own experience. They don’t have a teacher telling them what to play. If you think about soccer practice and things like that, that’s still adults kind of telling you what to do. But in this play-based learning, it’s whatever you want to do and you learn to work together. You learn how to play with other people, which is one of the most important things you’ll have to learn in life because you’re going to have to get along with people that you may not want to get along with and work with them. Even if you’re an entrepreneur and you don’t have to go to a nine-to-five job every day, you’re still going to have to deal with people. But also, and I like to think of it this way, there’s so much you can learn about the world without having to take a science class. For example, if you wanted to learn both science and math, you could learn that while baking a cake that in fact, I have probably learned more from baking. I love baking about fractions because I don’t like fractions. I don’t think a lot of people like fractions. But when you do measuring cups, you have to learn those fractions. But it’s something I wanted to learn because I really want to eat the cake or whatever it’s making. So it’s really cool to me that this kind of learning gives kids the opportunity to learn by doing something they love. And one way that Peter Gray learned that this must be something that’s ingrained in us just from even before our parents were alive, is they used to have hunter-gatherer societies where the men would go hunt during the day and the women would stay with the kids and they’d collect plants and herbs and vegetables and things they needed to eat. But what would the kids do? The kids would just be free to play with each other. And that’s where they learned their skills and also the values and morals of the community and knowledge. They were able to do that through play. And so he believed Gray thought that this is how we teach kids to be organized and successful adults. And it makes me really sad. I believe in this, I think I’ve said this before. I loved the school where I taught, we did a lot of good things and it was very academically challenging, and I loved that. But the kids only got 30 minutes of recess a day, and these were eight-year-olds. And that made me really, really sad because I’m thinking, I feel like I’m a prison warden. I have to keep them chained to these desks, and then they only get 30 minutes and then they’re so bummed to come back in and I have to force them to do a science lesson right after they’re coming back from play. And so I really think it showed me personally just how much sitting in desks and taking away that play kind of kills a kid’s spirit, kills their imagination. So, I don’t know about you, Connor, you have kids. So I think you probably noticed this, but how do you think a lack of play has impacted kids? How do you think it’s affected them?

Connor: Well, going back to what we said at the beginning, I feel like a lot of adults see or have long seen play as not learning. It’s like a break from learning. You were just saying it’s like, okay, you sat through these two periods, now you can go have a break with your friends. Okay, 15 minutes or 30 minutes time to come back for more learning. And what Dr. Gray’s research shows is that there is a ton of learning happening through play. It’s a very effective way to learn. You’re learning about social structures, how to build teams, and how to resolve conflict. So, your conflict resolution, you’re learning about group dynamics, you’re learning about communication, you’re learning about body language, all of these many, many, many, many things. And even the subjects themselves. So, if you’re what he talks about in an agricultural society, maybe the kids would play gardener and they would have their seeds, oh, we need water. Let’s get water. And they go through the motions of play and they’re literally imitating the adults. And so they’re learning what the adults are doing. Or in a nomadic society where they’re always killing animals for food, then they play hunter. And the kids will go out and they’ll, oh, we need to spear. Oh, it’s not sharp enough. Okay, let’s pretend to sharpen it. And so they’re reinforcing in their minds the very things that the adults do. And so there’s actually a lot of learning that happens in play, even in modern societies where it’s like, okay, dad runs a think tanker. He is an author. But my kid, Keaton, my oldest, when he was young, he would imitate writing books. And then he actually started writing little 16-page books. And now he’s working on this really big book all about Pokemon. And it started through play. It was just imitating Dad. And so we shouldn’t discount the fact that in our modern society, there’s also opportunities for kids to learn through play. And if we see playtime to just be the break, and oh, we can’t give them too many breaks. We have to make sure they excel. We got to make sure they are sitting there and we’re cramming their head full of information. Think of it. I mean for you, Brittany, for me, for the parents listening, perhaps how much of what we were forced to memorize, do we actually remember? And beyond that, how much have we actually applied in our life? You’d laughed Brittany about the Pythagorean Theorem for a reason because when’s the last time one of us needed to use that? Never. Yeah. So, whereas with play, you really learn these behavioral skills and maturity and all these things that maybe it’s hard to measure. Maybe it’s hard to pinpoint and be like, oh yeah, that one recess I had 15 years ago really has set me up for success in life. But it’s like meals. How many meals do you remember from your life? But they’re all important. They all helped you continue to grow and thrive. And so if we don’t have playtime, if we don’t give our brains the opportunity to experience that, we’re depriving kids of some of the most important learning that they need. So, for mom and dad listening out there, Brittany and I highly recommend Dr. Gray’s book. It’s free to learn. We’ll have it on the show notes page, You can go look it up. But the book is free to learn and highly recommended because especially if you’ve got younger kids, just to kind of reframe how you perceive playtime. Super powerful book, Brittany. Thanks as always. And until next time, we’ll talk to you later.

Brittany: Talk to you later.