Schools Where Children Can Play All Day Long

Special Focus : Roads Less Traveled: Alternative Approaches to Education
Early Childhood July 03, 2018

School gets us so worried. Will my kids get good grades? Will they graduate? Go to college? Get a job? It is normal to be worried, when failing school usually leads to a life of misery, while succeeding at school sets you up for a good career, and therefore a guarantee of safety and freedom for your future.

Picture a completely different world, where kids don’t compete for grades or any kind of evaluation at all. In this world, there aren’t any winners and losers, but simply people of all ages doing whatever they want to do, whatever is meaningful to them and makes them feel alive. Children enjoy the fundamental right to be in charge of their own lives, just like adults. They fully decide what they want to learn and with whom and at what point in time. They are not even coerced into any “educational activity” but are trusted and respected with the way they choose to lead their education and lives.

This is not fiction. It is a reality for tens of thousands of pioneering families, who opted out of schooling and offer their kids full autonomy over their own lives. Some of these kids attend very special places, called democratic schools. I am the cofounder of such a school in Paris, operational since 2015, called École Dynamique, meaning “dynamic school” in French.

The model I chose for École Dynamique is one that was first employed in Sudbury Valley School 50 years ago. It is the purest form of child democracy I could find.

In Sudbury schools, children and young people of all ages live together, without any kind of coercion to attend classes or study for exams. There is no curriculum at all. What do you imagine they do? They play. Classes, subjects and teachers do not exist. Children keep playing and they do so all day long.

They play with dolls, with animals, with blocks, with numbers, with ideas or anything else. Any form of playing is to be celebrated, because playing is always about pursuing a passion, and every passion you pursue causes you to learn about what you are doing: being a parent, finding out how animals behave, building towers. When a child follows his instinct to play, he doesn’t even realize that he is engaging in the highest and most powerful form of learning. In these schools, by playing all day long, children acquire all the essential knowledge and skills they need for life and are ready for a lifetime of free play.

One of them practiced fishing between ages 10 and 15 at Sudbury Valley. It’s all he did for 5 years. At age 16, he decided to stop fishing and opened a computer hardware store. He then pursued a happy career as a computer expert in a major company. One of them practiced cooking and photography throughout her childhood. Her name is Laura Poitras. She is the Oscar winner for the documentary Citizen Four.

One of them went to live in the wild for a year, and now lives as a farmer. One of them discovered math at age 15 and is now a math university professor. More than 80% of alumni from Sudbury Valley School go to college and usually get their top choice. Some of them learn how to read at age 4, others at 11. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Contrary to popular belief, late learners tend to evolve more towards academic and intellectual careers. Reading age doesn’t matter. What matters is to play and have fun.

I imagine that most of you remain skeptical that this small initiative could scale up one day. Doesn’t it feel like all this freedom can only work for a happy few? That for a fully functional society, we need most people to do whatever they are told to do?

Let me try to convince you that it doesn’t need to be this way. Society has changed several times in the past, so it’s not unreasonable to think that it can change again in the future. Only a century ago, in 1917, it was hard to believe that one day, women would be treated as free individuals and be granted equal rights. This is 2017. It is clearly not acceptable anymore to treat women this way. Yesterday’s unbelievable ideas are today’s reality. And some of today’s unbelievable ideas are tomorrow’s reality.

Tomorrow, in 2117, children will be treated as free individuals and be granted equal rights. No more forced schooling or forced anything.

Just as many women have increased freedoms today, so too shall children.

I hope that you are now ready to sit back, watch your kids play, and relax.