If adults do not direct children’s education, then what role do they play? A major role of adults is to provide the environmental conditions — material and otherwise — that maximize children’s abilities to follow and learn from their natural educative drives. Research suggests that the following conditions are key.
SOCIAL EXPECTATION (AND REALITY) THAT EDUCATION IS CHILDREN’S RESPONSIBILITY
Children come into the world noticing and learning. Children as young as 8 and 9 months old have demonstrated abilities for imagining, causal mapping, pattern recognition, and even probability. From the start, children assume responsibility for their own education, exploring and learning about their world as fast as their abilities to do so develop. They experiment, ask endless questions, and generally are known for getting into everything they can. But, if adults act as if children’s wonderings are invalid or — worse — offensive nuisances, as so often happens in conventional schools, they both undermine the child and take that sense of responsibility and efficacy away. They often convince young people that their own curiosity and questions don’t count, that play is trivial, and that their education depends on doing what adults command rather than risking following their own initiative. Adults at schools designed for Self-Directed Education and caretakers in successful home-based Self-Directed Education are careful to do nothing to diminish children’s natural assumptions that they are capable of learning and in charge of their own education.
UNLIMITED TIME TO PLAY, EXPLORE, AND PURSUE ONE’S OWN INTERESTS
To educate themselves well, children need great amounts of free time—to make friends, explore, play, get bored and overcome boredom. They need time for fleeting interests and to immerse themselves deeply in activities that engage their passions. They also need space—to roam, explore, get away, and experience the sense of independence and power that can only occur for children when no adult is watching.
Among adults in much of the world, it’s currently in fashion to assume that it is their job to keep children more or less constantly busy. But the crucial lesson that children must learn is how to make decisions to shape their own life, and for that to happen the adults must back off. Living beings need space to grow, and young people need plenty of time free from adults’ plans, meddling, “helping,” and judgements as they endeavor to discover and pursue their own interests.
OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY WITH THE TOOLS OF THE CULTURE
Much of education has to do with learning to use the relevant culture’s tools. The way to master any tool fully is to play with it: to be creative with it, impose your will on it, make it do what you want it to do. In cultures with traditions predating the imposition of performance-focused mass schooling, the adults recognize this, and so they allow even little children to play with the real tools of the culture, including those that can cause injury, such as fire, knives, and bows and arrows.
In communities and families practicing Self-Directed Education, children’s natural curiosity about and desire to play with tools of the culture, whether Macbooks or machetes. For some tools, like kilns or lab chemicals, there may be an initial requirement of safety instruction to turn invisible hazards into known, and therefore manageable, risks. Practice, though, of both tool use and risk management, is valued and made accessible as possible to the young person.
ACCESS TO A VARIETY OF CARING ADULTS, WHO ARE HELPERS, NOT JUDGES
In non-industry-oriented societies, segregation of young people from adults has occasionally had a ritual role for brief periods but generally been unthinkable in daily life. Children incorporated into household and community life observe what adults do and incorporate that into their play. They hear the adults’ stories, discussions, and debates, and learn from what they hear. When they need adult help, they have a variety of people to ask as they know and are known to adults within their community and kinship networks. Where schools and learning centers are designed to support Self-Directed Education, there is ample space for adults and young people to mingle freely. Youth can listen to adult discussions, observe whatever the adults are doing, and are welcome to join in or work in parallel if they wish. Young people who want help from an adult can go to whichever community member they think can best help them. While in some locations it can be more of a challenge to build out support networks of adults for home-based SDE youths, particularly in places where moving between households requires driving significant distances, this is less of an issue than ever before thanks to cell phones and the internet enabling us to connect across distances and to stay in touch with folks that, for example, a worldschooling family meets on their travels. For many families that include self-directed learners, whether rural or urban, regular interaction with other SDE families, supportive adults, and other local community members has been and continues to be a huge part of their experience. With more time to socialize, connect, and even volunteer or apprentice during hours that kids in conventional schools are required to spend on coursework or homework, self-directed learners often even have an easier time broadening and deepening their networks of supportive adults than their conventionally schooled peers.
Whatever their role and location, adults supporting young people need to offer them non-judgement, respect for their self-determination, positive regard, and the least restrictive environment possible. It’s particularly important that adults involved with Self-Directed Education avoid the roles of judge and assessor as none of us, regardless of age, can be fully honest with–fully willing to show our vulnerability to and ask for help from–people whose business it is to evaluate us. When we think we are being evaluated, we go into impression-management mode, in which we show off what we know and can do well and avoid what we don’t know or can’t do well. Evaluation also induces anxiety, which interferes with learning. Impression management and anxiety are antithetical to education, even as they remain characteristics conventional schools produce and promote.
FREE AGE MIXING AMONG CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
The practice of segregating children into separate groups by age for the majority of their adolescent hours is a fairly recent development, normalized and widespread as the practice has become. Left to their own, young people, including teenagers, almost always play and explore in age-mixed groups. Research indicates that age-mixed play has many benefits beyond that of play among those who are all similar in age.
In age-mixed play, the younger children are continuously learning new skills, and more advanced ways of thinking, through their observations of and interactions with those more experienced and more capable than they. At the same time, the older children acquire leadership and nurturing skills, and a sense of their own maturity, through interaction with the younger ones. Generally the wider range of ability levels accepted as “normal” and that games and activities are adapted to include opens a more generous space than a classroom of same-age peers where divergence from an expected developmental path can draw unhelpful scrutiny and judgement. Many staff at Self-Directed Education schools and learning centers, including Daniel Greenberg, a founder of one of the most famous and long-lasting schools for Self-Directed Education (the Sudbury Valley School), tout age mixing as key to the school’s educative success. In a survey of graduates of home-based self-directed learning, many similarly commented that much of their learning came from their ability, throughout the day, to interact with others who were considerably older or younger than themselves.
IMMERSION IN A STABLE, SUPPORTIVE, RESPECTFUL COMMUNITY
Community — that web of relationships intertwining individuals united by shared purpose, place, identity, or practices — appears and organizes differently in different contexts. Self-directed young people are often part of several communities, some independently and some with their households. Community, when stable, supportive, and respectful of the authentic selves and journeys of individual members, plays a crucial role in the development and well-being of young people. Community can offer material resources, collective wisdom, a variety of caring adults, stability thorough crisis, and a sense of empowered belonging.
For children attending a school or learning center for Self-Directed Education, that community is often designed with ongoing education for deschooling adults and practices for organizing and decision-making that consider the needs of even the youngest learners, who are valued as integral, full members of the school community and encouraged to participate in shaping the community as far as they feel moved to. Through modelling and practice, young people (and adults!) learn to care for one another and for the well-being of the community itself. They are involved, sometimes through votes and sometimes through less formal consent-focused practices, in making and upholding the community rules. Participating in major decision-making, young people may hear all sides of an issue, sort through the moral and logical arguments related to it, practice persuasion and navigating disagreement, and take turns as facilitator or record keeper for the group. Their own views are taken seriously by others and influence the community’s decisions, which motivates them to think more deeply about those views than they otherwise might.
Families, in successful home-based Self-Directed Education, likewise respect and value their children’s ideas and concerns and allow those to play a role in family decisions. Some families also choose to have formal meetings for decision-making, while others find their needs are met through informal practice of check-ins and ongoing dialogue, and while the group may be smaller, the discussions — and resulting reflection and development — can be just as deep. Beyond the home, many SDE-involved families are also engaged in civic activities that either were chosen by the young people or that the adults were inspired to take up and invited interested young people to join them in. From park clean-ups to protests, participation in these environments also offer opportunities for youth to practice ways of being responsible not just for themselves but also for others, a crucial skill-set in an increasingly connected and delicately interdependent world.
 Gray, P., & Feldman, J. (2004). Playing in the Zone of Proximal Development: Qualities of Self-Directed Age Mixing Between Adolescents and Young Children at a Democratic School. American Journal of Education, 110, 108-145.
 Peter Gray, P., & Riley, G. (2015). Grown unschoolers’ evaluations of their unschooling experiences: Report I on a survey of 75 unschooled adults. Other Education, 4(#2), 8-32.