Children are designed, by natural selection, to educate themselves. Their curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and natural drive to emulate their elders were shaped, biologically, to serve the function of education. From a biological or anthropological vantage point, education can be defined as cultural transmission. We are the cultural animal. Our survival depends on the ability of each new generation of individuals to acquire and build upon the skills, knowledge, beliefs, and mores—in short, the culture—of the previous generation. Over all of human history, children who failed to acquire a sufficient amount of the culture would have been at a great survival and reproduction disadvantage. The selection pressure for self-educative instincts was strong.

We see the power of these self-educative instincts when we observe how much children lean before they are old enough for school. Through their own efforts, they learn from scratch their native language and, through language as well as direct observation and exploration, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge of their physical and social worlds. By the time they start school, they already know a large portion of what they will ever know. Anthropologists who have observed hunter-gather cultures have described how these natural drives continue, in older children without school.1 Children and young teens are free, in such cultures, to play and explore essentially all day long, every day. They play at hunting, gathering, tool making, and all of the other skills that are essential for success in their culture, not because anyone forces or encourages them to, but because they look around and see that these are skills that their culture values, and their instincts lead them to play at what is valued.

Schooling, in contrast to education, is a cultural development. We think of schools as the places where “education” occurs, but, in fact, schools arose to serve a very narrow educational purpose. The first widespread systems of compulsory schools were church-run Protestant schools, beginning in the 17th century.2 Their clearly stated purposes were indoctrination (in Biblical doctrine) and obedience training. This was a time when people believed that obedience to lords and masters and acceptance of Biblical doctrine were essential to earthly survival and heavenly salvation. Over time, as the power of religion declined and that of states increased, these schools were taken over by states. The lessons to be memorized became more secular and the methods of obedience training became more psychological, less corporal, but the basic purposes and structures of schools did not change. Even today, students who do as the teacher directs and memorize what the teacher tells them to memorize will pass, and those who try to create their own path will fail.

The basic structure of standard schooling requires that children’s natural self-educative instincts be suppressed. Curiosity is suppressed, because it would lead all students to go off in different directions and fail to learn the prescribed curriculum, and would create chaos. Play, if it is allowed at all, becomes recess—a break from learning rather than a means of learning. Socializing (sharing of knowledge) becomes cheating, and it, too, would cause chaos. The opportunity to learn by observing those who are farther along is suppressed by segregating children by age. It is no wonder that children have always been unhappy in school and come to see learning as tedious rather than joyful.

My research and that of others has shown how we could resolve this mismatch between children’s educative instincts and schools.3 I have studied education in settings designed for self-directed education. For legal purposes, these settings (such as the Sudbury Valley School) are called schools, but they are almost the opposite of what we usually think of as schools. Children and teens there are not segregated by age and are allowed to play, explore, and pursue their own interests in any way they choose, all day, just as young hunter-gatherers are. The research shows that children in such settings acquire knowledge and skills essential to our culture, including literary and numerical skills, in the same basic ways by which hunter-gatherer children acquired knowledge and skills essential to their culture. The research also reveals that children in such settings develop passionate interests, through their self-directed play and exploration, that often lead directly to successful, enjoyable adult careers. Such schools operate on a per-student budget well below that of our compulsory public schools. The only forces preventing us from resolving this tragic mismatch between education and schooling are ignorance and cultural inertia.


1 Gray, P. (2012). The value of a play-filled childhood in development of the hunter-gatherer individual. In Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.), Evolution, early experience and human development: from research to practice and policy, pp 252-370. New York: Oxford University Press. Also: Hewlett. B. S., Fouts, H. N., Boyette, A., & Hewlett, B. L. (2011). Social learning among Congo Basin hunter-gatherers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 1168-1178.

2 Mulhern, J. (1959). A history of education: A social interpretation, 2nd ed. New York: Ronald Press. Also: Melton, J. V. H. (1988). Absolutism and the eighteenth-century origins of compulsory schooling in Prussia and Austria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3 Gray, P. (2017). Self-directed education—unschooling and democratic schooling. In G. Noblit (Ed.), Oxford research encyclopedia of education. New York: Oxford University Press. Available online at  Also: Gray, P. (2016). Children’s natural ways of learning still work—even for the three Rs. In D. C. Geary & D. B. Berch (eds), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (pp 63-93). Springer. Also: Gray, P. (2013), Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.

Published On: May 2, 2019

Peter Gray

Peter Gray

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College who has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of an internationally acclaimed introductory psychology textbook, which views all of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. Much of his research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves, through play and exploration. He has expanded on these ideas in his book, Free to Learn. He also authors a regular blog called Freedom to Learn, for Psychology Today magazine and is president of the nonprofit Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.