Monday, December 02, 2013

No One Has Ever Wanted To Escape From Freedom

Children don't like school because to them school is -- dare I say it -- prison. Children don't like school because, like all human beings, they crave freedom, and in school they are not free.  ~Peter Gray

On my first day as the teacher of the Woodland Park 3-5's class, a parent warned me, "Paul is an escape artist. He's quick and he's clever. You'll need to keep an eye on him all the time."

My throat was immediately blocked by my leaping heart. I envisioned Paul slithering under the gate or getting lost in the dark, off-limits, back hallways of the building in which we leased our space, a prospectively inauspicious beginning to what I was hoping would be a long teaching career. 

Paul did not try to escape that day, nor in the days ahead. In fact, and I suppose I ought to be knocking on wood as I write this, in my 12 years during which I've been daily coming to this preschool, we've not once had a kid even attempt to make a break for it. Oh sure, there are the occasional 2-year-olds who simply want to go where mommy is going, following her to the door or the gate, and perhaps standing there for a time to miss her, but that's not the same thing as trying to escape. According to parents, most kids are disappointed to awake on weekends to learn that it's not a school day.

I still think of Paul's non-escape quite often. It had simply not occurred to me that a child would want to escape school. But isn't that the stereotype? Kids hate school. Around our place that isn't the case. I've not found it to be true in the progressive, play-based cooperatives with which I've been associated that kids hate school. And honestly, I've not found that to be generally true with kids pretty much up through elementary school. In fact, I had several of my former students who are now K-2 come to visit with their younger siblings this last week, and they all still "like" school. They like their friends and their teachers, they love to show off the things they're learning. (William taught me all about "word families" last week, writing C-A-T and words that rhyme with it all over our art project for the day.) It's going well for them, it's clearly engaging, and over the years I've found this to be true with most of my former students until they hit about middle school.

A few years ago, I was talking with Zsa Zsa, a former student who was just finishing sixth grade. She had recently figured it out and it pissed her off. I can't recall her exact words, but she was quite cynical about the whole thing: tests, and studying, and learning about stuff you don't care about and will never "use" just for grades, and all so you can do it over again the next year. I've heard similar rants from other middle schoolers. My own daughter hit it at about 11-12 years old as well. Me too. It's around this age that children begin to see it for what it is. They've gained the wisdom to understand that they have no choice about if and where they go to school, nor what and when and how they're going to learn. And I have no answer for them when they ask, "What does this have to do with my life anyway?" It's a valid question, one that is not sufficiently answered by saying it builds character.

Some kids thrive, of course, while most make some sort of peace with it, but some want nothing more than to escape, be it under the fence or into the back hallways, if only because they crave freedom, the freedom to learn what and how they learn best. I might suggest that much of what we ascribe to adolescent surliness is largely attributable to this: they've had this epiphany about school and, like with Zsa Zsa, this whole school thing looks like a huge sham. Even the kids who do well in school come to see that it's all a game they're playing, a series of hoops through which they have to jump to satisfy their teacher or the administration or the school board or their parents. When do they get to satisfy themselves?

It's surprising how few of them actually do make a break for it. 

It's a pity because children are born passionate about learning. That's what play is, at bottom, the drive to learn. That drive doesn't go away when they hit kindergarten; we slowly begin to take it away by our insistence that learning is work. This system of education that we've been using for hundreds of years isn't backed by centuries of research, it isn't a product of careful testing and tweaking. It is, rather, a mere product of history and habit, just as is our assumption that children will hate it. Even the kids who came to visit me last week at Woodland Park, those who still like school, told me they were excited to have "ten whole days off." They didn't feel that way about school even last year.

One of the legacies of Paul's mom sharing her fears about him with me was that I became rigorous about installing barriers and locks to ensure that kids couldn't escape, although I'm not aware of a single time that they have been tested. In fact, most of our measures couldn't hold a persistent child, one who really wanted to escape. We don't even put the barriers up for the 5's class, who think they are just there for the "little kids." It's because they are free at Woodland Park, free to learn what and how they will, to play without coercion or a sense of "duty" imposed from without. No one has ever wanted to escape from freedom.

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erin said...

Dear Teacher Tom, First of all, I love your blog...your philosophies resonate with me. I am a first time parent of a 17 month old boy who loves to be outside no matter what the weather looks like. He loves to PLAY. Is there such a thing as a play-based elementary school, middle school, high school? or is that called home schooling? Just curious, as I think our boy may be an escape artist come kindergarten (although that is still a ways away.) Thanks, Erin

Anonymous said...

I made a break for it. I had to go to alternative schools for "ditching" pretty much my entire freshman year. There were, of course, other factors that contributed to this as most children will have who cannot "play" public school successfully. But no support from family or the school for coping with what felt like an imprisoned, meaningless experience to me were the central factors to my behavior. I was labeled as a "troublemaker" and teachers would actually tell me they thought my aptitude for learning was low. I did much better in the smaller campus community of continuation school for a year and made up lots of credits for graduation there. I also was connected to a technical school for graphic design through the continuation school that had meaningful "doing" work to participate in half day that supported many of my other academic requirements for graduating High School. I worked hands-on, and with lots of mobility within the classroom, executing real projects for my community using offset printing presses, photographic and dark room equipment, drafting tables and tools, computers etc. I was even going to school for about an hour and a half longer than my peers to complete High School like this, gladly. I graduated with highest honors with my class from a traditional High School, supported by my participation in the technical program for half of each school day for 3 years of High School. I won awards through the graphic arts program, and a scholarship from my High School, graduated with highest honors from High School and College and now have an MA in Human Development. This experience was invaluable to my perspective of learning, learners and pedagogy. I am so grateful for the principal of the continuation school who recommended the technical school!!! We need to do better, because what we are doing is not effective and does not encourage life long, meaningful learning in our children or for the of our nation as a whole. Thanks again, Teacher Tom.

Teacher Kristie

Julia said...

What an interesting idea... I've had a few interlopers over the years. One who was mostly interested in hiding, she didn't leave the building, but hid in the hallway and found it terribly funny how upset I was when I finally found her. I have a little one this year who came in labeled as an escape artist. Fortunately, she's not had any serious incidents this year. I think she enjoys being with her classmates and we've created a sense of community so she wants to stay with us. She has had a few instances in which she followed the dog out into the hallway or out the door, but I think that wasn't her escaping from us, just following something more interesting!
I had a boy one year that I didn't think would escape on his own, but loved to talk with strangers over the fence, so I spent the year slightly paranoid that someone might abduct him (unjustified fear, but a fear none the less!).

Christina said...

It's funny, I felt my difficulties with finishing college in my young twenties is that I didn't get it. College, life and sometimes even teaching is jumping through hoops. It's nice when we can delay this for young children.

Danielle 'Red Bird' Cassetta said...

Erin, There are schools out there that keep the element of freedom intact for children. They are called Democratic, or Sudbury schools, as well as 'Free Schools'. There are directories for them all over the internet: AERO (, IDEN, Sudbury Valley School (, and wikipedia.

They allow children to take charge of their own education, deciding how to spend their time. Though this may sound frightening to some as it is so very different from what most of us know school to be like, most current research on learning supports unstructured blocks of free time for exploration, maintaining child choice in learning, and learning styles that allow for exploration rather than 'teaching' - which actually has been shown to limit exploration (see Peter Gray's Free To Learn chapter on Curiosity). In fact, when you visit these schools or read about their graduates it becomes clear that the self-determination and responsibility for their own education that these children are entrusted with leads them to develop a strong sense of self, persistence in areas that are necessary to their success, and in general, successful and satsifying lives in their chosen fields (and there are as many chosen fields as students, including college and high-paying careers for those of you who worry about that). See Free to Learn by Peter Gray and Kingdom of Childhood by Daniel Greenberg for more on life after Sudbury School.

It is at least an option worth looking into.

In fact, Peter Gray, whose quote started off the blog post, just wrote a book about the disjunction between how children learn and the method the school system uses to 'teach them' and offers ideas as to other alternatives, namely, Sudbury Schools.

On another note, the age of 12 seems to be a time of transition in terms of child behavior and expectations. In John Taylor Gatto's speech "Weapons of Mass Instruction" he reads through a laundry list of highly successful people throughout history who seemed to have entered the adult world at full force and with tons of success at age 12. One of them was Thomas Jefferson, for example, who was running his own plantation by then (this is not to condone the running of plantations or anything that was involved in that, but to show that even at a young age, children throughout history have shown amazing abilities to manage complex situations in what is often thought of as an adult-only arena). In the short film Born To Learn (, developmental psychologists also refer to the massive change in brain development that occurs around that age to explain changes in behavior - in this case, as a necessary step towards societal progression. Our teenagers buck the system and strike out on their own, because it keeps society evolving and progressing. The only difference is that in a free environment, they don't have to buck the system, they just start to question and innovate without having to fight for the right to do so.

Teacher Tom, I am glad you and Peter are putting your thoughts out there. You have enough of a following to where these very viable alternative models for education can finally get some time in the well-deserved spotlight.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, I have seen 2 different posts going around Facebook that seem relevant here:

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Nelson Mandela

"May you rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. The world was left a better place from your presence here."

I think both can be said about yourself and Peter, too.

Full disclosure, I am establishing a Sudbury School in my own town for my children and others to attend, because I am so convinced of the need and value of this model that I see every reason to make it available to my community. For more information, including resources on this type of education, please see our website at .