This morning I read a great article by the father of a four-year-old who hit upon a way of adapting his love of role-playing games such that he and his daughter could enjoy them together. As he says, this girl is already quite adept at creating and shaping elaborate, fantastic narratives; the only thing he had to do was simplify the mechanics, in particular the means of calculating and noting the logistics of the game.
As a long-time Sudbury educator, this doesn’t surprise me in the least. Over the past sixteen years, it’s been my great privilege to be, as I sometimes describe it, an anthropologist of childhood—studying this exotic culture in its natural habitat, which is to say, unfettered by the limiting, if well-meaning, assumptions that lead most adults to narrowly restrict children’s growth “for their own good.”
And what I have seen in hundreds of young people over the years is this: they are all, each in his or her own way, profoundly creative beings, to a degree rarely appreciated or understood.
No doubt you’ve known glimpses of this yourself. Even with the limited freedom they’re generally allowed, all children draw, right? They build things, they dig in the dirt, they make up songs and stories (often involving props like stuffed animals or random household objects).
Usually, however, we relegate such open discovery and play to the carefree Eden of early childhood. Come elementary school—well, current trends are to push this back ever earlier, to kindergarten, preschool, toddlerhood, etc.—it’s time to get serious, little boy; time to stop playing and put your imagination to productive uses, little girl. This is absolutely a tragedy, both for the children themselves and for the limited view of young people that we good-intentioned adults manifest as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fortunately, my Sudbury career has shown me overwhelming evidence that young people—people, period—are not only capable of much more, but will realize their creative potential if and only if we stay out of their way, granting them full measures of respect, trust, and responsibility. To be clear, “staying out of their way” doesn’t mean holding back who we are, the adults in their lives. Rather, it involves treating children as our equals in a basic, human-rights sense, not condescending to them as lesser beings in need of constant, unsolicited guidance and direction.
Humans evolved in such a way that children are naturally driven to learn via play, observation, and interaction with others. Thus, in a mixed-age community allowing young people the freedom to learn as nature intended—which is to say, a situation bearing a striking resemblance to Sudbury schools—amazing things happen. Sadly, though, these things amaze us mainly because, somewhere along the line, we lost our sense that this is really a normal, natural thing, not at all extraordinary.
The space opened up by a Sudbury school calls to mind an artists’ colony, or a small town in which everyone negotiates the available tools and their unique talents and personalities to enrich their lives and their community. Everywhere you look, people of all ages are engaged. They’re playing games and reading and talking; they’re in large and small groups, and they’re off by themselves. They’re wrestling with dilemmas, figuring out how things work and how to make them work better.
So yes, you see lots of creative activity in a Sudbury school: lots of art, music, and drama, creative writing and computer programming and imaginative play. (In fact, it’s only in my Sudbury career that I’ve come to appreciate the value of role-playing games as basic writing instruction; but that’s a subject for another post.) Our students play at designing, making, and fixing things, both concrete objects and the processes and procedures of the school, which they actively help shape. They “play” in the most intense way, which usually looks more like work and often isn’t fun in the moment, but only in the broader sense of a meaningful challenge willingly undertaken.
In a more basic sense, what these young people are doing is not so much creating objects, activities, or systems: they are composing themselves—who they are now, and who they are becoming. Given a blend of freedom, respect, and responsibility, they are writing their own lives, sculpting and crafting both themselves and the world around them. Rather than being the work of another’s hand (though surely shaped by family and community), they are artists in the deepest sense, as well as truly exquisite works of art themselves.