Children Need Free Play, but Are ‘Unschoolers’ Giving Them Too Much?

unschooling

With the school day and school year increasing, homework loads growing and ballet, soccer and Mandarin taking over the rest of their time, children today have very little opportunity to simply … play.

“We’ve created an abnormal environment,” Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College and the author of the book “Free to Learn,” told Op-Talk.

According to experts, free play, unconstrained by time and not structured by adults, is crucial to a child’s development. “It’s where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health,” writes Jessica Lahey at The Atlantic. Ms. Lahey cites a new study on children’s executive functions, a set of mental processes responsible for reasoning and problem solving, among others.

After studying the daily activities of a group of 6- to 7-year-olds, researchers at the University of Colorado concluded, “The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning.” Play physically changes the connections between neurons in the pre-frontal cortex. It prepares the brain for “life, love and even schoolwork,” Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, told NPR.

And some would say there is no such thing as too much free play.

A growing movement of parents think that children should be allowed to play, or “explore,” every waking hour. Instead of sending their kids to a formal school with classes, teachers and schedules, they leave them to their own devices to learn about the world. It’s a controversial yet increasingly popular method of education called “unschooling.”

“A yellow school bus will rumble past the end of the driveway that connects the farm to the town road,” writes Ben Hewitt in a story in Outside magazine. The boys will pay the bus no heed, and “it might be because they are already deep in the woods below the house, where a prolific brook trout stream sluices through a stand of balsam fir; there is an old stone bridge abutment at the stream’s edge, and the boys enjoy standing atop it, dangling fresh-dug worms into the water.”

Mr. Hewitt, the father of two unschooled boys, is the author of a new book on the method. His boys spend their days in true Huckleberry Finn fashion, exploring in the woods and helping out on the family farm. They both learned how to read and write “essentially with zero instruction” around age 8. They can add, subtract, multiply and divide. They can also catch a trout, start a fire and cook the fish on a hot stone until the flesh turns “milky white and flaky.”

Unlike in traditional home-schooling, where children follow a curriculum under a parent’s supervision, unschooled children have the freedom to decide what and when to learn, be it reading, art, math or distinguishing between insect species.

“What you see a child doing until the age of 4 — that is unschooling! Look at what that child has learned. There is no reason to believe that this ability to make mental connections, to ask questions, would disappear by the age of 5 and 6,” Mr. Gray told Op-Talk. He added that we, adults, drive that natural curiosity out through formal education.

Unschooling is not a new phenomenon. The movement started in the 1970s, popularized by the educator John Holt, and became an alternative to the largely religiously motivated home-schooling. The United States Department of Education does not distinguish between home-schooled and unschooled children, so there are no official statistics on the movement, but according to Mr. Hewitt, “it is generally accepted” that the number of unschoolers hovers around 10 percent of all home-schooled children, which now make up 3 percent of all students.

“It’s partly because parents are becoming more aware of it,” Mr. Gray says. “Partly because there are more grown unschoolers. It’s not a risky or strange thing to do anymore.”

Critics still worry, however, about both the children’s socialization and their academic performance.

“Here’s the great thing about attending racially and socioeconomically integrated schools: It helps children become better grown-ups,” Dana Goldstein writes in a 2012 critique of liberal home-schooling in Slate.

“There is no empirical evidence to suggest that unschooling is beneficial to learners … especially when it comes to reading,” Sandra Martin-Chang, a researcher at Concordia University, told The Montreal Gazette. “We have lots of research on guided learning, scaffolding, expert vs. non-expert teaching and all of it points to the fact that learning by doing is great, but learning by doing with an expert is better.”

Curious about how these children have fared in the structured world, Peter Gray conducted a survey of grown unschoolers. Many of them enter into higher education — always on their own accord — and succeed, being highly motivated and self-directed from the very beginning of their education.

They may have a hard time adjusting to schedules, but because it was their decision to attend college, they are often more diligent than their peers, Mr. Gray told Op-Talk. He added that because during childhood they interacted with children of all ages, they report a better social life, though they are discouraged by the others’ lax attitude, the partying and the drinking.

Of the grown unschoolers surveyed, median age 24, 78 percent said were “financially self-sufficient,” Mr. Gray writes, choosing careers that are “extensions of their childhood interests,” and are “enjoyable and meaningful,” rather than lucrative. Many of them pursue careers in the arts, and a high percentage are entrepreneurs or enter science and technology careers. Few go into “middle management,” Mr. Gray told Op-Talk.

But while unschooling seems to produce successful adults, it’s not exactly a method that facilitates equal opportunity. Though Mr. Gray says unschooling is the right solution for any child, unless they suffer from a severe developmental disorder such as autism, many families simply would not be able to afford it. The parents tend to come from educated backgrounds, but “if you homeschool or unschool, you’re cutting out some of your income,” the homeschooling advocate Patrick Farenga told NBC.

“Everyone we know who unschools, in fact, has chosen autonomy over affluence,” Mr. Hewitt says. “Some years we’re barely above the poverty line. But the truth is, unschooling isn’t merely an educational choice. It’s a lifestyle choice.”

By Hanna Kozlowska. Image by Edgar Su/Reuters. New York Times.