Ralph Waldo Emerson is often quoted as writing (in an essay on boys), “I pay the schoolmaster, but ‘tis the schoolboys that educate my son.”
When I look back at my own education—growing up in the 1950s—I’m convinced that most of it came from my interactions with other kids, largely away from adults. Throughout history, until the most recent few decades, most children, everywhere, spent far more time in the company of other children than in the company of adults. The most crucial lessons of life were learned through observing, playing with, talking with, arguing with, and working with other kids.
Beginning as early as age 4 or 5, children are, for good biological reasons, strongly drawn to other children. They want, and I would say need, to get away from adults for large periods of time to interact with other kids in their own ways, on their own terms. It is with other kids that they learn how to make and keep friends, negotiate, get their own needs met while helping others meet theirs, deal with bullies, and (as they get older) flirt. These are among the most crucial of life skills. Moreover, in age-mixed groups younger children continuously acquire more advanced skills and knowledge from observing and interacting with older ones, and older children learn how to be caretakers, nurturers, and guides by interacting with younger ones.
I have written much about all of this in academic articles (e.g. Gray, 2011, 2012, 2016) and earlier posts on this blog, including posts on the value of age-mixed play, how hunter-gatherer children become educated, and the culture of childhood. It was no surprise to me, therefore, that a recent survey of former students at a democratic school revealed that what they liked best, almost unanimously, was the opportunity the school provided to spend great amounts of time with other kids in an age-mixed setting, without adult intervention. In today’s world, that is a rare opportunity. They learned from the formal democratic processes of the school and from the adult staff, but, far and away, they declared, they learned most from the other students.
Our Survey of Alumni of a Democratic School
The survey, conducted not long ago by Gina Riley, Kevin Curry-Knight, and me, was of former students at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School (HVSS)—a democratic school in New York state. Like other democratic schools modeled after the Sudbury Valley School, HVSS is a school for self-directed education. The school is governed democratically by students and staff together, and the students—who range in age from 4 or 5 on through late teens—are free to pursue their own interests and interact with whom they please throughout the school day. Our purpose was to learn what alumni thought, in retrospect, about their experiences at the school. Thirty-nine former students responded to the survey (71% of those who could be located). You can download and read, free, the full academic report of the study, which was published in the journal Other Education, here.
In my last post, I described our findings concerning alums’ views of the democratic legislative and judicial processes, through which students and staff together govern the school. Now, in this post, I describe their evaluations of their interactions with other students there. The relevant survey questions for this analysis were the following two:
(1) “What roles, if any, did other students at HVSS play in your experiences/education at the school? In what ways did they contribute to and/or detract from these?”
(2) “At HVSS students over a wide age range are free to interact with one another. In what ways, if any, did such free age mixing contribute to and/or detract from your experiences/education?”
What the Alumni Said About the Value of Free Interactions with Other Students
Thirty-six of the 39 former students stated clearly that they valued their interactions with other students and 31 stated clearly that free age mixing contributed to their learning. Among the themes that emerged were that they valued greatly the friendships they made with other students; that they acquired social skills and learned to relate to people of all ages and acquired a broad worldview from the diversity of the students at the school; and that they learned from collaboration with other students on various projects. The only complaint, made by a few of the alumni, was that when they were teenagers there were too few students in their age range relative to the number of younger students and that the latter could sometimes be pests.
The best way for me to convey the flavor of their views is through quotations from the questionnaire responses. Here is a sample:
• “The other students were all great. They made my experience a much more positive one. I wasn’t bullied, and I learned crucial social skills that I hadn’t learned during public school. As an autistic person, looking back on it, the Sudbury environment was ideal for learning these.”
• “I learned so much from my fellow students. Just spending time with people, working together to figure something out, whether that be learning to play a game like Magic the Gathering or Yu-gi-oh or creating new games like Ham’bush. The collaborative learning environment meant so much to me and was fantastic. …Having peers to learn from and to teach is fantastic. Sharing an interest with someone and learning about it together is one of the most effective ways that I learn.”
• “I learned how to interact with all sorts of people, alike to me and not alike, and I think that trumps everything else. Being able to communicate is very important.”
• “I spent time reading to the younger children. I had nice relationships with younger students that I wouldn’t have had in a traditional setting. Some of my close friends were elementary school aged. This offered a really nice mix of experiences throughout the day. I learned a lot about how to relate to people of all ages. I spent a lot of time observing behavior and how people related. I also enjoyed having an entire day to socialize with other students my age. It was really, really nice to just be able to exist with other people. That was probably my major learning point and area of growth/focus during my time there–relationship building and developing socialization skills.”
• “I made many friends while at HVSS, and many of the friends from HVSS that I still keep in touch with are people that I would never have even considered as possible friends before attending HVSS. HVSS really opened my mind to the possibility of life outside a strict religious community and definitely influenced my worldview as an adult.”
• “I think the major role that other students played was similar to the staff in some ways. I think the biggest benefit is having peers to act as role models and to give younger students access to socialization with older students. I think the other big benefit to having age mixing between students is exposure to hobbies and ideas that otherwise may not have been part of a student’s life, especially if the activity is something that might require a higher level of complexity to understand but can still be understood well enough by a younger student to participate. I think students are also more likely to respect and be willing to accept criticism from people that they view as peers rather than adults who are viewed as authority figures.”
• “My age group was pretty limited, when I was enrolled, but I had a lot of interaction with the younger students! A lot of the time, that was great. They would come around and chat with me as they ran through their daily motions, which made me feel way less isolated than the limitation of my age group could sometimes make me feel. Other times, it was frustrating to have a bunch of little heads looking over my shoulder. Although, I will credit those little heads with teaching me how to tell people that I need space.”
And here are five more quotations, from students who were quite emphatic in declaring that the community of other students was the primary source of their education at the school.
• “The students were everything at [HVSS]. Our education there was essentially what we learned from interacting with each other.”
• “Students were my life at HVSS. I looked forward to going to school and spending time with my friends every day. … They were all important to me and they all helped build the person I am today.”
• “The students that I befriended were the most important people to me in the world at the time. They were my new family that I chose and cared for more than anything.”
• “The other students were my family from 12 to 15 years old. They helped me create my social standards and identity.”
• I think the other students were where I got my education from. We spent so much time socializing and learning from each other. Anything from cool sledding tricks to how to handle difficult social situations, we got directly from each other.”
A Final Comment
We live in a society today in which many people, especially children and teens, are suffering from loneliness. That is the topic of a recent book by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (2020), who argues that lack of meaningful human connections is a major health problem in the United States today. In my view, a good part of the problem comes from our policies of preventing children from interacting freely with other children. When children are more-or-less always under adult supervision and control, in school and in adult-supervised activities outside of school, and are segregated by age, they are deprived of the natural means by which children in the past always learned how to make and retain human connections.
In today’s world, democratic schools, such as HVSS, are among the very few settings where kids can actually be kids and learn in the ways that kids are biologically designed to learn. We need far more such places, and we need them to be available to all kids. Many of those who came to the school we studied said they did so at least partly because of anxiety and other psychological problems that had arisen through their previous school experiences. At HVSS they recovered, not because a therapist helped them, nor because the school offered some sort of self-help or social skills course, but because for the first time they had lots of time with other kids away from adult interference. By learning to be comfortable with them, they learned to be comfortable with themselves.
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Peter Gray (2011). The special value of age-mixed play. American Journal of Play, 3, 500-522.
Peter Gray (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.
Peter Gray (2016). Mother Nature’s pedagogy: How children educate themselves. In H. Lees & N. Noddings (eds), Palgrave international handbook of alternative education (pp 49-62). London: Palgrave.
Vivek Murthy (2020). Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world. New York: Harper