Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Natural Environment for Children’s Self-Education

The Sudbury Valley School is in these ways like a hunter-gatherer band.

A major theme of this blog is that we come into the world with instincts that are well designed to promote our education. We have instincts to observe, explore, play, and converse with others in ways that endow us with the skills, knowledge, and values needed to live and thrive in the physical and social world into which we are born. We do this with great intensity and joy. These educational instincts were shaped by natural selection during the hundreds of thousands of years in which our ancestors survived as hunter-gatherers (see August 2 posting). We might expect, therefore, that these instincts would operate best in the social environment of a hunter-gatherer band, or in a modern environment that replicates certain aspects of a hunter-gatherer band.

For the past forty years, the Sudbury Valley School has been proving that the human instincts for self-education can provide the foundation for education in our modern society. At this school, children and adolescents explore, play, and converse as they please--without adult direction or prodding--and then graduate and go out into the world as successful adults (see August 13 posting). I have spent a good deal of time observing Sudbury Valley to understand how students learn there, and I have also surveyed the anthropological literature to understand how hunter-gatherer children and adolescents learn. This research has convinced me that Sudbury Valley works so beautifully as an educational institution because it replicates those elements of a hunter-gatherer band that are most essential to self-education.

Here I offer a list of what seem to me to be the most crucial ingredients of the natural environment for self-directed learning. Anthropologists report that these ingredients exist in the hunter-gather bands they have studied [1], and I have seen that all of these ingredients exist at the Sudbury Valley School.

Time and space for play and exploration

Self-education through play and exploration requires enormous amounts of unscheduled time--time to do whatever one wants to do, without pressure, judgment, or intrusion from authority figures. That time is needed to make friends, play with ideas and materials, sort things out, experience and overcome boredom, and develop passions. In hunter-gatherer bands adults place few demands on children and adolescents, because they recognize that young people need to explore and play on their own to become competent adults. The same is true at Sudbury Valley.

Self-education also requires space--space to roam, to get away, to explore. That space should, ideally, encompass the full range of terrains relevant to the culture in which one is developing. Hunter-gatherer adults trust their children to use good judgment in deciding how far they should venture away from others into possibly dangerous areas. At Sudbury Valley, children are likewise trusted, within the limits set by prudence in our modern, litigious society. They can explore the surrounding woods, fields, and nearby stream, and by signing out to let others know where they are going, they can venture as far off campus as they choose.

Free age mixing

An enormous amount of learning occurs in interactions with others. When we segregate children by age, in schools, we deprive them of the opportunity to interact with those others from whom they have the most to learn. In hunter-gatherer tribes, and at Sudbury Valley, children and adolescents regularly, on their own initiative, play and explore in widely age-mixed groups.

In age-mixed groups, younger children acquire skills, information, ideas, and inspiration from older ones. In such groups, younger children can do things that would be too dangerous, or too complicated, for them to do alone or just with others their own age. Older children also benefit from age-mixed interactions. They learn how to be leaders and nurturers. They develop a sense of responsibility for others. They also consolidate and extend their own knowledge through explaining things to younger children. Free age mixing is so crucial to self-directed learning that I plan to devote two or three future postings specifically to that topic.

Access to knowledgeable and caring adults

In hunter-gatherer bands, the adult world is not segregated from the children's world. Children see what adults do and incorporate that into their play. They also hear the adults' stories, discussions, and debates, and they learn from what they hear. When they need adult help, or have questions that cannot be answered by other children, they can go to any of the adults in the band. All of the adults care for them. Most of the adults, in fact, are their aunts and uncles.

At Sudbury Valley, too, adults and children mingle freely (there are 10 full-time staff members and roughly 200 students, between the ages of 4 and 19). There is no place in the school where staff members can go but students cannot. Students can listen into any adult discussions and observe whatever the adults are doing, and they can join in if they wish. Students who need help of any kind can go to any of the staff members. A child who needs a lap to sit on, or a shoulder to cry on, or personal advice, or the answer to some technical question that he hasn't been able to find on his own, knows just which adult will best satisfy his need. The adults are not literally aunts and uncles, but they are much like aunts and uncles. They know all of the students over the entire span of time that they are students at the school (unlike teachers in a conventional school who know each set of kids for just one year) and take pride in watching them develop. Since the staff members must be re-elected each year by vote of all of the students in the school, they are necessarily people who like kids and are liked by kids.

Access to equipment

To learn to use the tools of a culture, people need access to those tools. Hunter-gatherer children play with knives, digging sticks, bows and arrows, snares, musical instruments, dugout canoes, and all of the other items of equipment that are crucial to their culture. At Sudbury Valley, children have access to a wide range of the equipment that is of most general use to people in our culture, including computers, woodworking equipment, cooking equipment, art materials, sporting equipment of various types, and many walls filled with books.

Free exchange of ideas

Intellectual development occurs best in a setting where people can share ideas freely, without censorship or fear of being ostracized. According to anthropologists' reports, hunter-gatherers are non-dogmatic in their beliefs, even in their religious beliefs. People can say what they please, without fear, and ideas that have any consequence to the group are debated endlessly. The same is true at Sudbury Valley. The school has deliberately refrained from becoming aligned with any particular religious or political ideology. All ideas are on the table. In this kind of environment an idea is something to think about and debate, not something to memorize and feed back on a test. Daniel Greenberg, the school's leading philosopher, has described the school as "a free marketplace of ideas." Children who may not hear much discussion of politics or religion at home hear it at school, and they hear every side of every issue.

Freedom from bullying

To feel free to explore and play a person must feel safe, free from harassment and bullying. Such freedom occurs to a remarkable extent both in hunter-gatherer bands and at Sudbury Valley. According to anthropologists, the close-knit personal relationships, the age mixing, and the non-competitive, egalitarian ethos of hunter-gatherer cultures work effectively to prevent serious bullying. If an older or bigger child appears to be picking on a younger or smaller one, others will step in and quickly stop it. The same occurs at Sudbury Valley. Moreover, at Sudbury Valley the school's democratically created rules and judicial system, in which children of all ages are involved, prevent serious bullying. Students who feel harassed or bullied can "bring up" the offender, to appear before the Judicial Committee, comprised of school members of all ages. This contrasts sharply with the case in many conventional schools, where bullying is a way of life. Students there who report bullying are snitches or tattle-tales, and teachers can get away with bullying because they make the rules and are not subject to them.

Immersion in democratic processes

Hunter-gatherer bands and the Sudbury Valley School are, in quite different ways, democracies. Hunter-gatherer bands do not have chiefs or "big men" who make decisions for the group. Instead, all group decisions are made through long discussions, until a clear majority of those who care have come to agreement. Anybody, including children, can take part in these discussions. Sudbury Valley is administered through a formal democratic process, involving discussions and votes of the School Meeting, where each student and staff member who chooses to attend has an equal vote. Immersion in the democratic process endows each person with a sense of responsibility that helps to motivate education. If my voice counts, if I have a real say in what the group does and how it operates, then I'd better think things through carefully and speak wisely. I'm responsible not just for myself, but also for my community, so that is a good reason for me to educate myself in the things that matter to my community.
In sum, my contention is that the natural environment for learning--which existed during our long history as hunter-gatherers and is replicated at the Sudbury Valley School--is one in which people (a) have much free time and space in which to play and explore; (b) can mix freely with others of all ages; (c) have access to culturally relevant tools and equipment and are free to play and explore with those items; (d) are free to express and debate any ideas that they wish to express and debate; (e) are free from bullying (which includes freedom from being ordered around arbitrarily by adults); and (f) have a voice that is heard in the group's decision-making process.

How different this is from the environment of conventional schools. How ironic: In conventional schools we deprive children of all of the elements of their natural environment for learning, and then we try to teach them something!


See new book, Free to Learn


And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post near the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.

More from Peter Gray Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today