Children, by nature, are intensely curious, playful, and sociable, beginning at birth or shortly after. A fourth drive, which we might call call planfulness — the drive to think about and make plans for the future — emerges in the early months and strengthens as children grow older. It is reasonable to refer to these drives as the educative drives. The biological foundations of these drives have been shaped by natural selection, over our evolutionary history, to serve the purpose of education.
Conventional, coercive schools quite deliberately suppress these drives, especially the first three of them, in the interest of promoting conformity and keeping children fixed to the school’s curriculum. Self-Directed Education, in contrast, operates by allowing these natural drives to flourish. Here is a bit of elaboration on each of these drives and how they interact with one another to promote education:
We’re born curious and are experiencing changing in our brains, for most of us, up until we die. Within hours of birth, infants begin to look longer at novel objects than at those they have already seen. Within months they show the ability to recognize patterns, problem solve, and make cause-effect connections about how the world around them works.
With mobility, they expand their efforts and begin to explore ever-larger swathes of their environment. They want to understand the world around it and the connections between its objects. They particularly want to know what they can do with those objects. They are continuously getting into things, always exploring, experimenting, and gathering information. With language, they ask endless questions. They probe and play and argue convincingly as they can, sometimes using tactics they observed a sibling or playmate have success with. Children are, by nature, scientists. Such curiosity and drive to engage with the world as a full participant with agency does not diminish as children grow older, unless schooling or the schoolish interference of adults quashes it. Engaged as a gift rather than stifled as a nuisance, the curiosity drive we are all born with continues to develop and motivate ever more sophisticated modes of exploration and experimentation as we grow.
The drive to play serves educative purposes complementary to those of curiosity. While curiosity motivates children to seek new knowledge and understanding, playfulness motivates them to practice new skills and use those skills creatively. Children everywhere, when they are free to do so and have plenty of playmates, spend enormous amounts of time playing. They play to have fun, not deliberately to educate themselves, but education is the side effect for which the strong drive to play came about in the course of evolution. They play at the full range of skills that are crucial to their long-term survival and wellbeing, with heightened emotional states supporting memory-building and built associations of learning with pleasure motivating desire to keep seeking out new learning.
- They play in physical ways, as they climb, chase, and rough-and-tumble, and that is how they develop strong bodies and graceful movement.
- They play in risky ways, and that is how they learn to manage fear and develop courage.
- They play with language, and that is how they become competent with language.
- They play socially, with other children, and that is how they learn to communicate, compromise, and get along with peers.
- They play games with implicit or explicit rules, and that is how they learn to navigate and negotiate rules.
- They play imaginative games, and that is how they learn to think hypothetically and creatively in collaboration with others.
- They play with logic, and that is how they become increasingly logical.
- They play at building things, and that is how they learn to build.
- They play with the tools of their culture, and that is how they become skilled at using those tools.
Play is not recess from education; it IS education. Children learn far more in play, and with far more joy, than they could possibly learn in a prescriptive classroom.
We humans are not only among the most curious and playful of mammals, but also among the most social. Our children come into the world with an instinctive understanding that their survival and wellbeing depend on their ability to connect with and learn from other people. Almost as soon as they can communicate at all, children start to tell stories and ask questions. Even children who cannot ask with words find ways to inquire about their world. Young people — and most people — don’t want to be told about things that don’t interest them, but given space and validation of their curiosity they almost demand to be told about things that do, for the connection as much as for the information. All humans, but especially young humans, want to know what those around them know and share their own thoughts and knowledge with others. Anthropologists report that children everywhere learn more by watching and listening to the people around them than through any other means.
Our most unique adaptation for social life, which enhances tremendously our ability to learn from one another, is language; our ability to use language to develop and organize around social fictions, an ability developed through play that has led to creations from soccer to stock markets, is arguably the defining characteristic of our species. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett put it in a chapter on language and intelligence, “Comparing our brains with bird brains or dolphin brains is almost beside the point, because our brains are in effect joined together into a single cognitive system that dwarfs all others. They are joined by an innovation that has invaded our brain and no others: language.” Self-directed learners, eagerly and naturally, hook themselves into that network. Today, because of the Internet, that cognitive system is bigger than ever before. Young people with access to the Internet need to develop new literacies, but doing so gives them access to whole worlds of hypotheses, ideas, and information that would have been inaccessible or encrypted in the local library’s card catalogue previously. With much of the world at their fingertips, young people self-directing and seeking new information, community connection, or opportunities have unprecedented abundance available at the speed of their internet connection.
We, far more than any other species, have the capacity to think ahead. In fact, we are driven to do so. We don’t just react to immediate conditions; we make plans and follow through on those plans. This is the most consciously cognitive of our basic educative drives, and it develops more slowly than the others. As children grow older, they become increasingly able and motivated to plan ahead, and ever farther ahead. This is the drive that leads self-directed learners to think about their life goals, big and small, and to deliberately seek out the knowledge and practice the skills needed to achieve those goals.
Cognitive scientists refer to this capacity to make plans and carry them out as self-directed executive functioning. Research by such scientists has shown that children who have ample free time to play and explore on their own and with other children, independent of adults, develop this capacity more fully than do children who spend more time in adult-structured activities. That is not surprising. When children create their own activities, without adult control, they are continuously practicing the ability to make plans and carry them out. They make mistakes, but they learn from those mistakes.
 Lancy, D. F., Bock, J., & Gaskins, S. (2010). Putting learning into context. In D. F. Lancy, J. Bock, & S. Gaskins (Eds.), The anthropology of learning in childhood, 3–10. AltaMira Press.
 Dennett, D. C. (1994). Language and intelligence. In J. Khalfa (Ed.), What is intelligence? Cambridge University Press.
 Barker, J. et al (2014). Less-structured time in children’s lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Pssychology, 5, 1-16.