If adults do not direct children’s education, then what role do they play in children’s education? A major role of adults is to provide the environmental conditions that maximize children’s abilities to assert 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 believing that they are responsible for their own education. That’s why they begin exploring and learning about their world as soon as they can see, hear, and move; and it’s why they begin asking questions as soon as they can talk. But, if we adults act as if we educate children, as happens in conventional schools, we take that responsibility away from children. We convince them that their own curiosity and questions don’t count, that play is trivial, and that their education depends on doing what they are told rather than their own initiative. Staff members at schools designed for Self-Directed Education, and parents in successful home-based Self-Directed Education, do nothing to diminish children’s natural assumptions that they are 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.
Adults in our culture often 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 take control of their own life, and for that to happen we must back off. Our greatest gift to children, concerning their education, is free time 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 culture’s tools. The way to master any tool fully is to play with it, that is, to be creative with it, impose your will on it, make it do what you want it to do. In most traditional cultures the adults recognize this, and so the adults allow even little children to play with the real tools of the culture, even those that can cause injury, such as fire, knives, and bows and arrows.
Schools and learning centers for Self-Directed Education, and families involved in Self-Directed Education, allow children to play with the tools of our modern culture, such as computers, books, woodworking equipment, cooking utensils, and sporting equipment, though for some tools there may be an initial requirement of safety instruction.
ACCESS TO A VARIETY OF CARING ADULTS, WHO ARE HELPERS, NOT JUDGES
In traditional, pre-industrial societies, children were not segregated from adults. Children could see what adults did and incorporate that into their play. They could also hear the adults’ stories, discussions, and debates, and learn from what they heard. When they needed adult help, they might go to any of the adults in their community. At schools and learning centers designed for Self-Directed Education, adults and children mingle freely. There is no place where staff members can go but students cannot. Students can listen to any adult discussions, observe whatever the adults are doing, and join in if they wish. Students who want help from an adult can go to whichever staff member they think can best help them. Home-based Self-Directed Education, too, appears to work best when children have regular access to multiple adults, not just their own parents.
Adults can help best when they are not judges of the children, and parents and staff-members involved with Self-Directed Education avoid the role of judge. 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, yet they are characteristics that our standard schools are well designed to promote.
FREE AGE MIXING AMONG CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
Prior to the emergence of age-graded schools, children were never segregated into separate groups by age. Children, including teenagers, almost always played and explored 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 older 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. Daniel Greenberg, a founder of one of the most famous and long-lasting schools for Self-Directed Education (the Sudbury Valley School), has long contended that age mixing is the key to the school’s educative success. In a survey of graduates of home-based self-directed learning, many 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
Children attending a school or learning center for Self-Directed Education are integral, full members of the school community. They learn to care for one another within the community and for the community itself. They are involved, democratically, in making and upholding the community rules. In that process they hear all sides of every disagreement and the moral and logical arguments related to it. 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. Such families are also commonly involved, along with their children, in civic activities with others outside the home. In such environments, children learn to be responsible not just for themselves, but also for others, a lesson that may help them become especially valuable citizens in the larger community as they become adults.
 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.