Freedom from Bullying: How a School Can Be a Moral Community

Many years ago, as part of my early studies of the Sudbury Valley School, I sat in on a school meeting. The main agenda item had to do with a complaint made about a new student who had been coming to school wearing a leather jacket with a swastika painted on it. At most schools this kind of offence would be quickly and efficiently handled by the principal, who would call the student into his or her office and order the student to remove the jacket and never bring it back to school. But that's not how Sudbury Valley handles things. Sudbury Valley has no principal. It is run--entirely run--in democratic fashion by the School Meeting, which includes all students (age 4 on through high-school age) and staff members together. The debate I heard that day was one befitting the Supreme Court of the United States.

School Bullying: A Tragic Cost of Undemocratic Schools

Let's say you are 15 years old, or 13, or 11, and for some reason--over which you have no control--you have been singled out by your schoolmates as an object for scorn and humiliation. Every day at school, for you, is another day in hell. No matter how you feel about school and how terribly you are treated there, the law requires you to be there. What ...

Kids Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning

Math. As a society we worship it, hate it, and fear it. In our schools we force kids to study it (or pretend to study it) for thousands of hours and then we wail about how little they learn. Here, now, are reports from "unschoolers" that tell a different story. Math is fun; math is easily and naturally learned as a tool when needed; and kids who want to go to a ...

When Less Is More: The Case for Teaching Less Math in School

Early in the twentieth century, L. P. Benezet, superintendent of schools in Manchester, New Hampshire, performed an outrageous experiment. He prohibited the teaching of arithmetic in the first five grades (grades 1-5) in some of the elementary schools in Manchester's poorest neighborhoods.

Children Teach Themselves to Read

The general assumption in our culture is that children must be taught to read, but the experiences of "unschooling" families and of people involved in the Sudbury school movement prove otherwise. Here, based on stories submitted by parents, are seven principles relevant to the question of how children teach themselves to read without formal instruction.

The Decline of Play and Rise in Children's Mental Disorders

Today five to eight times as many young people meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder as was true half a century ago or more. Why?

I Want Your Stories of Self-Directed Learning

As you know if you have been following it for awhile, this blog is primarily about self-education, especially in children but also in adults. It's about learning that occurs through play, self-directed exploration, and self-initiated focused effort. The comments and emails I have received over the past few months suggest that many of you have stories to tell that are quite relevant to these themes. I would love to hear and perhaps share your stories, which can be about your children, others you know, or you. Your stories may be a great source of inspiration for other readers.

The Morally Questionable Lessons of Formal Sports

You are a big-league baseball pitcher. The opposing pitcher has been throwing hard inside fastballs and has hit one of the batters on your team--maybe deliberately, maybe not. Should you retaliate by hitting their best batter with a high inside fastball? To do so is to deliberately risk injuring a fellow human being.

A New Look at the Classic Robbers Cave Experiment

In his famous Robbers Cave experiment, Muzafer Sherif invited two groups of boys at a summer camp to engage in a sports tournament for valued prizes. As he predicted, the tournament led to serious animosity between the two groups and ultimately to a condition resembling inter-tribal warfare. How did this happen?

Some Lessons Taught by Informal Sports, Not by Formal Sports

Imagine an old-fashioned sandlot game of baseball. A bunch of kids of various ages show up at the vacant lot. They've come on foot or by bicycle. Someone brought a bat and ball (which may or may not be an actual baseball), and several came with fielders' gloves. They decide to play a game.  ...

The Biological Distinction Between Play and Contest, and Their Merging in Modern Games

In nonhuman animals, play and contests are sharply distinguished. Play is cooperative and egalitarian, and contestests are antagonisitic and aimed at establishing dominance. Hunter-gatherer humans accentuated play and avoided contests in order to maintain the high degree of cooperation and sharing that was essential to their way of life. In our society, with our competitive games, we often confound play and contest. What might be the consequeces of this for children's development?

Pushing Competition and Damaging Health: Making Play Offensive

If American football were a food additive or a drug, it would be banned by the FDA. Or, if financial interests prevented its banning, its package would at least carry a surgeon general's warning: Football causes brain damage. The evidence that football causes brain damage is now indisputable. But the deleterious effects of our strong focus on winning go beyond football and brain damage. The compulsioin to win, in general, may be bad for our health.

Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Play: A Modest Proposal

Because neighbors don't know one another as they once did, parents' fears of "strangers" in the neighborhood has helped to cause a sharp decline in children's free outdoor neighborhood play. Here is a proposal for bringing neighbors together and creating safe, neighborhood play-and-learning centers that everyone can enjoy. We may actually do this, as a pilot project, in a neighborhood already selected. Please read on, and supply your ideas for improving the project.

Developmental Psychology’s Marriage to the School System

Have you ever seen the Handbook of Child Psychology? Amazingly, this 5000 page work, billed as the authoritative summary of all of child psychology, has almost nothing to say about children's playfulness and curiosity. How can that be? Here's my theory.

Our Social Obligation: Educational Opportunity, not Coercion

Children educate themselves. Children are biologically built for self-education. Their instincts to explore; to observe; to eavesdrop on the conversations of their elders; to ask countless questions; and to play with the artifacts, ideas, and skills of the culture all serve ...

Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education

Let's speak honestly, without euphemisms. Compulsory education means forced education, and forced education means that schools are prisons. The question worth debating is this: Is forced education a good thing or a bad thing? Most people seem to believe that it is, all in all, a good thing...

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” Well, Duhhhh…

Willingham's new book, "Why Don't Students Like School?, utterlly fails to answer the question posed by it's title.  Really, why don't students like school?  The answer is obvious: School is prison.

Conventional Schooling Conflicts With Trustful Parenting

As I write this essay, children and adolescents all over America are frantically completing their assigned summer reading, so they can turn in their book reports, due on the first day of class. Or, they are blowing off the assignments while their parents are frantically trying to get them to do them. If your child fails to turn in those reports, you may be blamed...

Routes Toward Trustful Parenting in Our Time

Here are six ways to become a more trustful parent and to grant your children more freedom: (1) Examine your own values and priorities, and think how they relate to your interactions with your children. (2) Let go of the idea that you can determine your child’s future or are responsible for it. (3) ...

Why Have Trustful Parenting & Children’s Freedom Declined?

Why is trustful parenting so much more difficult than in decades past? Why are today's children afforded less freedom than we were when we were children? In this essay I suggest five reasons: (1) the decline of neighborhoods; (2) the decline in adults' firsthand knowledge of child development and the worldwide sharing of fears; (3) the increased ...

Hillary Clinton’s and My Wonderful Childhoods

What about your childhood? What memories do you have of adventures that would be forbidden by most parents today? Here are some of Hillary Clinton's childhood memories, and some of my own. I thank my parents and the whole community that made such adventures possible, and I imagine that Hillary thanks her parents and community too.

Trustful Parenting: Its Downfall and Potential Renaissance

Trustful parenting sends messages to children that were consistent with the needs of hunter-gatherer bands and are also consistent with societal needs today: You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. .

Play Makes Us Human VI: Hunter-Gatherers’ Playful Parenting

Our society's concepts of raising and training children assume a dominant-subordinate relationship between parent and child. The parent---or teacher or other parent substitute---is in charge and is responsible for the child's actions. The child's primary duty, at least in theory, is to obey. Hunter-gatherers had a very different, more playful approach to parenting.

Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Play

My reading about life in many different hunter-gatherer cultures has led me to conclude that their work is play for four main reasons: (1) It is varied and requires much skill and intelligence. (2) There is not too much of it. (3) It is done in a social context, with friends. And (4) (most significantly) it is ....

Play Makes Us Human IV: When Work Is Play

One of the first and most often reinforced lessons that children learn in school is that work and play are opposites. Work is what one has to do; play is what one wants to do. Work is burdensome; play is fun. Work is essential; play is trivial. But when we leave school and go on to the "real world," at least some of us, the lucky ones, discover that work is ...

Play Makes Us Human III: Play Is Foundation for Religion

Some people would take offense at the idea that religion is play. Religion, they would say, is sacred, and play is trivial. How can the one be lumped with the other? But regular readers of this blog know that I regard play as the highest form of human activity, so I am not demeaning religion when I describe it as play. ...  

Play Makes Us Human II: Achieving Equality

We human beings have two fundamentally different ways of governing ourselves in social groups. One is the method of hierarchy, or dominance, or force. The other is the method of play. In this essay I explain how hunter-gatherers  employed play and humor to keep order and maintain their highly egalitarian, highly cooperative mode of existence.

Play Makes Us Human I: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature

I've been working lately on a ludic theory of human nature. In case you haven't studied Latin in a while, I hereby inform you that ludic means playful. I'm calling it a ludic theory because if I called it a playful theory you wouldn't take it seriously. ... My theory--which I outline here--is that play is the germ we inherited from our ...

The Headman Was a Woman: For Batek, Nurturance = Leadership

Tanyogn was the kind of person who would be an asset to any community. She was intelligent, energetic, hardworking, a skilled debater, and most of all extraordinarily caring of all people around her. Among the hunting and gathering Batek...

Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy

We value democracy. As citizens, we want our children to grow up holding and abiding by democratic values. We know that democracy is not easy. Democracy implies freedom, but it also implies responsibility. The balance between the two is delicate and takes wisdom that can only be gained through practice. . . .  How do children acquire such values ...