By Luba Vangelova

Fed up with the restrictions at his conventional school, 10-year-old Scott Gray convinced his parents to transfer him to one where children control their own education.

His father, Peter Gray, who’s a developmental psychologist, watched his son thrive and began seeking to understand how children learned in such a setting, and what lessons could be drawn from it. Years after his son graduated, Gray discusses his conclusions in his recent book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

The Sudbury Valley School  — a “democratic school” where children are involved in setting and enforcing the rules of behavior, and are free to decide what to do with their time — had been around since the 1960s. So Gray, based at nearby Boston College, began his exploration by surveying its graduates to assess what happens to kids after they leave such a low-pressure learning environment.

“The school totally violates our cultural beliefs about what children need to do to become educated,” he says. “They’re free to play and explore. Yet kids from a variety of backgrounds and personalities seemed to do well there.” The survey revealed that its graduates had had no difficulty pursuing higher education and careers that interested them, and almost all reported feeling better prepared for adult life than if they had attended a conventional school. Says Gray: “That first study convinced me that the school works.”

To understand how the kids were learning, he and a graduate student observed them closely. Analyzing data collected over hundreds of days, they concluded that free play and exploration hold “incredible learning opportunities, especially in mixed-age groups,” Gray says.

To better understand why, he looked at it from an evolutionary perspective. For the vast majority of human history, people led a hunter-gatherer existence and evolved to thrive in that milieu. He surveyed anthropologists who had studied surviving human-gatherer societies and was struck by the similarities between how children learned in those groups and at Sudbury Valley. The school’s results now made sense to him.

“What became clear is that children are naturally motivated to acquire culture,” he says. “They do this largely by playing with other children, thereby rehearsing the necessary skills, consolidating them, and trying out the values of the culture. All this led me to conclude that children can educate themselves and are good at doing so if the conditions are right.”

That meant a community of age-mixed children and caring and knowledgeable adults; an expectation that children can be trusted and put in charge of their educations; and opportunities to play freely with the tools of the culture (today, this would include things like books, computers, and cooking and woodworking materials).

Kids learn social skills best by interacting with other kids, and a wide age range (age four and up) allows older kids to “create ‘scaffolds’ for the younger ones, bringing them up to higher skill levels,” Gray notes. “In turn, the older kids gain a sense of maturity and learn to be nurturing. Explaining things also helps them consolidate and understand the information better.”

Adults serve as resources and administrators for the learning community. Gray says a certain minimum number of adults are needed to represent different skills and personalities, but that no formal training is necessary. The adults just need to be “very responsible and aware of the broader picture, and be seen by kids as honest and reliable individuals who talk to them as real people,” he says.


Learning unfolds organically at Sudbury Valley, where classes — when they occur at all — are organized upon request and are optional. “But for the most part,” Gray says, “their learning is just through life, which for a child means exploring and doing interesting things. Self-directed learning really just means self-directed life, a consequence of which is learning what you need to know to live life.”

9780465025992_p0_v3_s260x420One student, who went on to become a successful machinist and inventor, had spent much of his time tinkering with things to see how they worked. Another, who became the captain of a cruise ship, had played a lot with toy boats and then real ones. Yet another, now a high-fashion pattern maker, had made clothes for her dolls and her friends.

The same principles apply to both abstract and concrete learning. “We live in a numerate and literate culture,” Gray says. “You can’t avoid learning arithmetic — you learn it in order to measure things, make change, tell time. Many games involve adding, subtracting and dividing. So the kinds of numerical skills that are important for life, you learn through life.” Kids who have a deeper interest in the subject readily apply themselves to learn higher math, as did one Sudbury Valley graduate who went on to earn a PhD in the subject.

“Complex material can be learned by reading manuals, books or web sites,” Gray says. “Kids who want to know about rocket science can learn 95 percent of what they need to learn that way. They need a teacher only when they come to some problem they can’t solve and have a very pointed and specific question to ask. Then they can ask an adult, perhaps an expert they find online, who can give advice. People feel good about sharing their knowledge if someone really wants to know. And self-directed learners tend to feel confident going to adults they don’t know and asking for help.”

Gray says two things led him to conclude that self-directed learning comes naturally to all children (barring exceptionally rare and serious brain disorders): They all start out as self-directed learners when they’re infants and toddlers, and a wide variety of kids have gone on to thrive at Sudbury Valley.

“Kids who like structure schedule their days more, or take classes; other kids may spontaneously move from one thing to another and see where it takes them,” he says.

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Salon.

Harnessing Children’s Natural Ways of Learning 25 February,2014Luba Vangelova

  • MikeSadofsky

    Nice treatment, thanks.

  • Wendy Priesnitz

    I fully support Peter Gray’s work because he’s helped popularize the notion that kids can be self-directed learners. However, many homeschoolers – aka unschoolers or life learners – have been helping their kids learn this way for a long time, and have taken it a step further. What differs between the two approaches is, as told to me by Mimsi Sadofsky in an interview in 2004, Sudbury Valley Schools require compulsory attendance and don’t particularly appreciate parental involvement. I think that’s unfortunate. http://www.lifelearningmagazine.com/0408/freedom_or_control.htm

  • MikeSadofsky

    There are many differences between the unschooling concept espoused by Wendy Priesnitz (and others) and Sudbury Valley School. Among them:
    The democratic governance at Sudbury Valley School where students plus the staff they hire, each with one vote per individual, create and enforce the rules of the community and manage and maintain the resources of the community, ie buildings, grounds, institution.
    The mixed community of kids from 4 to 19 bringing with them a rich mix of home environments and family influences that create a vibrant culture.
    Yes, attendance is compulsory (state law requires this). Since parents are not part of the school (ie they aren’t enrolled students nor are they hired by the school governing body, their involvement in day to day activities would be an intrusion.

    • Sheila

      Parents are a child’s first teachers, that said, why would their involvement be an intrusion? My children have gone to public school in Perry, GA, Perry Primary and Tucker Elementary allowed parents to come sit in on the classes and hang out with their children. I used to read to the classes and help with assignments. My children flourished in that environment even though they were structured as all public schools were. So again I ask that if a public school can encourage parent participation in their classrooms, how is it detrimental to such schools as described in the above article?

  • Wendy Priesnitz

    Most unschoolers/life learners are part of the vibrant cultures in their communities and are also a fundamental part of family decisionmaking. Aside from seeing parents as an intrusion and the compulsory attendance requirement (both of which are highly problematic for me personally, and for life learners in general), there are many commonalities. However, I love the fact that families have such a wide variety of choices!

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  • Dr Nancy Buck

    Dr William Glasser has been explaining this method that he calls Quality Schools for years. Worth the read.

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  • sonya

    I agreed with the part that’s said children can educate themselves.I have watched it that they do it by watching and learning and repeating.just children can do it not adults.

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  • bill

    there are many talented children,but we should recognize them and teach them to use their talent.

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  • Margaret

    Our daughter went through Montessori schooling as a child. There was much appreciation of the child as an independent learner. Today, she teaches college and is seemingly comfortable with issues of self. She had brief experiences with public education and Catholic education. Those experiences were more traditional forms of learning. In high school she had private tutorials with college professors. She did very well in school. Children should have a voice in their education.

  • Sheryl Morris

    Montessori and Waldorf, or some combination of the two are too often, sadly, overlooked. imho

  • Daniel Vassiliou

    My son learns a lot at school…and is taught at home etc learns himself. Why choose just one way? Also children need guidance and direction.

  • WriteLearning

    I wonder how many readers of this post are aware that there are actually a few dozen schools that follow this same model. See http://www.alpinevalleyschool.com/about-us/sudbury-schools-around-the-world/ for a map and links to a few introductory videos.

    On another note, while there is significant philosophical overlap between Sudbury and other approaches (e.g., Montessori, Waldorf, unschooling), in my 17 years of staffing these schools I’ve found the combination of educational autonomy, free age-mixing, and fully democratic structure make the Sudbury model unique. See http://www.fairhavenschool.com/ok-so-youre-sort-of-like/ for one person’s overview of the similarities and differences.

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  • Bets

    My 13 year old son tried a small democratic school (not a well established one like Sudbury Valley). We chose this path because traditional school had completely battered his love of learning. He was the oldest student with a few boys a year or so younger. He asked me if he could quit after a month because he was so bored. He said the closest peers he identified with only played Minecraft all day and never went outside.
    We left on good terms and I had mentioned to the school upon starting that since my son was new to this approach and social interactions drove him that this may prove a bad fit but I completely left it up to him with very little commentary.
    This is not meant to bring up the negative side of unschooling but to explore the ‘tools’ that are freely accessible in this construct. There have been a few indications in studies I have read (and mind you, I haven’t read anything published in a peer-reviewed journal) that phones and gaming screens are akin to drugs in the addictive neurons they trigger in the brain. Has anyone seen the approach if any that has been taken in a democratic school environment when/if screens take over?

    • Sue Houston

      Bets, yes, I too have found information that the electronic games are activating the same sort of addictive neural pathways. When I first learned of the Sudbury school (on NPR I think?) I was surprised that computer games were part of the offered activities. I’m a high school science teacher and use technology extensively, and successfully, in my curriculum but I do know from observations of teenagers that there really is an issue with some kids for out of control gaming. I love the idea of student directed learning and yet I do think from my own experience that the computer games might be best managed a bit in some way. There is a role for adults in any culture, to help guide the next generation.

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Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is www.LubaVangelova.com. She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

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