FREE TO LEARN: Recommended reading for raising free kids

1360162607Gray-Free_To_rev1An evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray argues that human children, like all mammals, learn best through play – and by play, Gray means without adult involvement. If adults are directing, coaching, even observing, it isn’t real play.

Gray shows how our current educational system interferes with that learning process by denying play and free time, dictating almost all activities, and separating kids by age and expecting them all to learn the same thing at the same time. Instead, Gray advocates for a learning process completely driven by the kids themselves and with plenty of play.

He uses the Sudbury Valley as model which gives kids plenty of learning resources but puts the power in their hands to choose what they want to do every day – and yet somehow they still end up learning to read, write and do math—and yes they do graduate and many go on to college.

It’s a fascinating exploration of what democratic learning really means. While it may be hard for everyone to replicate the Sudbury Valley experience, there are many ideas and practices in Free to Learn that parents and educators can adopt themselves.


Want more practical help giving your kids freedom? Both Peter Gray along with Free Range Mom Lenore Skenazy and others have started an organization Let Grow. It helps like-minded parents and educators connect with each other to build a community around raising self-reliant, independent kids. There is power in numbers.

I’ll be recommending some of the many books that influenced my own book Achtung Baby. See previous recommendation The Wave by Todd Strasser. More to come, so check back here.

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THE WAVE: recommended reading for raising free kids

Nearly all German teenagers read this book about how easy authoritarianism can take hold. Americans might want to read it too — because it happened here.

The book is based on an experiment at a high school in Palo Alto, California. Students in Ron Jones’ high school history class couldn’t understand how the German people could let the Holocaust happen. So Jones started an experiment, he created a group—in the book it’s called “The Wave” —and instituted some simple discipline routines. The group caught on quickly with hundreds of students participating, initiating new members and reporting on each other over infractions. Jones ended the experiment by telling the students they were students they were part of national movement and promised to reveal their leader at an assembly. With hundreds of students attending, he played footage of Hitler speaking to Nazi Youth.

Today, generations of German students read Strasser’s fictionalized account of this story in high school to bring home the point that authoritarianism isn’t just some relic of the past. Something that can happen again if we are not careful.

It would be interesting to see this book read and discussed on a wide level in American society. I highly recommend it for kids and adults, especially parents and educators to read and discuss. There’s also a German movie made in 2008 called Die Welle with subtitles and Netflix is planning a series.


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be recommending some of the many books that influenced Achtung Baby. Check back here for more.



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Happy New Year! The ACHTUNG BABY paperback is out today!



The first New Year’s Eve in Berlin, I thought the Germans were crazy. Everyone was shooting off fireworks. Not just tourists but shopkeepers and retirees, whole families with little kids setting off some pretty serious explosives for the pure joy of it. Our little American family huddled inside our fifth floor apartment where every bang and boom felt really close.


Now that we live in the supposedly “safe” United States, I am starting to think it’s we Americans who are really the crazy ones. In the name of safety, we do some strange things. Most parents don’t allow their kids much freedom: they don’t walk anywhere by themselves, climb trees or buy things in stores. We’re asked to monitor every nuance of their grades and expected to curate their extracurricular activities. American kids rarely get to take any risks at all. This intensive style of parenting is the gold standard, as the New York Times recently noted. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that anxiety rates among young people are rising.

There are other ways to raise kids. I found many good ideas in Germany to help kids become independent, self-reliant. Modern Germany isn’t perfect – no culture is. (For the record, I still think the explosive New Year’s Eve is a bit over the top.) However, most Germans have rejected authoritarianism and embraced freedom in ways that are reflected in their parenting. They have many good ideas we could apply here in America.

You can read about some of them in my book ACHTUNG BABY — it’s is out in paperback today 12/31/18!  I learned a lot from living nearly seven years in Berlin — and I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can raise adventurous, resilient children in this “home of the brave.”

While I don’t miss the firework frenzy of Berlin’s “Sylvester” celebration, I hope your New Year’s Eve has some thrill. As the Germans say “guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr!” —  I wish you “a good slide into the New Year”!

* Berlin fireworks photo by Hyun Lee  (cropped for this format)

You can order your paperback of Achtung Baby from these booksellers:

Apple / Itunes

Barnes and Noble

Books a Million

Indie Bound

Powell’s Books

 In Canada: Indigo and Kobo



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Sky playground

Talk about loft-living. On our recent trip, we spent some time in Copenhagen and discovered this playground on the top of a building.

five flights of stairs on side of the building that go to the top

This playground is meant to get both adults and kids moving. To start, you can get to the playground by going up these stairs:





Once on the top of the building, overlooking the Baltic Sea, kids can hop around on in-ground trampolines, try several different swings, climb ropes, and dangle on monkey bars. Adults can do many of the same things, and there’s an exercise circuit with stops for chin-ups and climbing.



And of course if the playground is not high enough for you, you can go even higher on this amazing climbing pyramid…





Do you live in a big city? Do you have anything like this on top of your building or nearby? I’d love to see more examples…

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Play Everywhere

We stumbled upon some interesting places to play on our recent trip to Berlin and Copenhagen. Play everywhere is a good value — these two cities don’t just limit play to little parks.

The German embassy in Copenhagen had these interesting bumps in front of it. At first, I didn’t know what they were — but the kids knew exactly what to do with them.

German embassy play bumps

Next I give you the German “Hof” or yard. Almost all apartment buildings have them in Berlin. Something American cities could use: a little shared green space — of course with a bit of playground. Some friends of ours had a pretty great one, including what our family calls a “spider swing” because it looks like a web. Even older kids like this swing because they can stand up and really make it go!



Last but not least are the playful fountains I found in both countries. Not sure what the story is here — but it’s a hippo shooting water out its nose and if you look close there are some tourist mice on its back… not sure what the story is there.

Hippo fountain

For more, check back here or check out my “seen in Berlin”  photos, I’ve been posting on Instagram and Facebook. More to come… and some from Copenhagen too.




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Children’s right to be with their parents

I write a lot about children’s rights. My book, Achtung Baby, is an attempt to convince American parents that kids have a right to play, to walk places on their own and to follow their own interests.

Children’s right to be with their parents is such a fundamental right, I didn’t think we had to fight for it. But apparently, we do.

A minority, a powerful minority, of Americans support of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant kids from their parents indefinitely–for the parent’s misdemeanor crime of crossing a border. Thankfully, the majority of Americans, 66% according to a Quinnipiac University poll, object to this practice. Many were so horrified they took action, calling legislators, protesting, and donating to legal aid groups–all of which led to a partial reversal by the administration.

What of the minority–the 27% who support separating kids from their parents? I worry about them. I suspect they think it’s OK to separate families because they are immigrants. They would feel very differently if it were their own kids.  Recently “Fox and Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade confirmed my suspicion:

“Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” he said. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country and now people are saying that they’re more important than people in our country who are paying taxes and who have needs as well.”

Here’s the thing about basic human rights: they are supposed to be universal. They don’t apply just to one group of people and not another. 

Some people believe human rights are handed down from a higher power, whether that’s your belief or not, rights are usually something we all agree upon. Children’s right to their parents is not usually contentious. In fact, it’s one all countries of the world, from Albania to Zimbabwe, have agreed upon it when they ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. All countries, that is, except one: the U.S.

I was in Berlin earlier this month. I am excited to share my photos of all the fun and positive things I saw. I will still do that, but first, I feel compelled to share a few photos taken in the midst of the Holocaust Memorial.

I do not compare our current situation to the Holocaust lightly. The whole point of the Holocaust Memorial is to remind us of what can happen when we decide that one group of people do not have the same rights we hold for ourselves.

It’s well worth remembering that the Holocaust started with separating families and sending them to camps too.




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More evidence that kids are capable

Another great video from German fire educator Kain Karawahn that might shock American parents: pre-school kids making bonfires.

What I love about this video is that the kids are not only lighting fires — they are cutting wood, preparing food, and cooking it on the fires they made and tend together. These kids are ages four to six. It really challenges our notions of what children can do:


Read more about this different approach to teaching fire in this Psychology Today  post or this New York Times article. And of course, you can read more about how Germans raise self-reliant kids check out my book Achtung Baby!

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