On the Idea of a French Edition of ‘Free at Last’

Aurelien Dumas

[Aurelien was one of the founders of the Ecole Dynamique, in Paris, and is presently staff at Fairhaven School, in Maryland]

Ever since I heard about SVS, I began thinking of ways to develop an awareness of the Sudbury model in France. Founding Ecole Dynamique, in Paris, was a fascinating adventure that reached well beyond the circle of the families involved in the school. It sparked a huge interest in ‘democratic education’ in France. But as you know well, all ‘democratic schools’ are not created equal. And with so many opening in France at present, francophone readers need to be able to access materials which can help them refine their understanding of the model and discriminate between so-called ‘democratic’ practices. That is why I am so happy to see “Free at Last” translated into French.

Some Memories

Like many others in our field, “Free at Last” was the first book I read about Sudbury Valley School. I can remember vividly how I felt while reading it. It was during the hot summer of 2011. My wife, was pregnant with our daughter.

I had become frustrated and depressed with the school I was working for and what seemed, at the time, to be the whole education system.

I had decided to work in the field of education because it seemed one of the most noble things one could do. But after a few years working in it, I started to despise it. I could not find even one colleague with whom I shared the simple idea that children need to be respected. Of course, all educators agree openly that children deserve respect. But none of my colleagues at the time equated ‘respecting children’ with respecting children’s desires. Everybody I met believed that allowing children’s desires to drive their education would only result in chaos and ignorance. They all had a way of justifying why we, educators, have to constantly force children to do what they do not want to do in order to help them become competent human beings.

I was feeling very lonely entertaining these ideas while doing some research to find like-minded thinkers. One day, I ordered a used copy of “Free at Last” on Amazon for only a couple dollars. When I opened the book, the voice of Danny, like a magic spell from an old grimoire, started instantly to quell my loneliness. I immediately ordered many other books from the Sudbury Valley School Press. I read them mostly on an inflatable mattress in the basement of our house where we sought shelter from a steamy Washington DC summer.

Through your books, with my wife and daughter-to-be, your voices, Danny, Mimsy and Hanna, became my friends. And I did not feel lonely anymore. I felt exhilarated with a renewed sense of purpose that has continued to grow since then without pause.

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Where did you say that was?

Recently, an article was brought to my attention, entitled “Alternative Educational System Sudbury Valley as a Model for Reforming School”. It was a paper presented to the 4th World Conference on Educational Technology Researches, held in Barcelona, Spain in November, 2014. It appeared in May, 2015 in Procedia: Social and Behavioral Science, a peer-review journal published by the prestigious Dutch research publisher Elsevier.

The research was done by two people I had not heard of previously: Reza A. Valeeva and Ramilya Sh. Kasimova, academicians at the Kazan (Volga regional) Federal University in Kazan, Russia. I was intrigued. Kazan? Where on earth was that? It turns out to be an important city, located on the Volga river. As Wikipedia reports, it is “the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. With a population of 1,143,535, it is the eighth most populous city in Russia.”

But what was most amazing was the Abstract, at the head of the article. It stated that “the article is devoted to the historical development, and the experience of the alternative education system Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 in Framingham Massachusetts USA. . . . We consider this educational system a positive model for reforming school in Russia.” And the research was funded by the Russian Government!

To say that I was amazed would be an understatement. A couple of decades ago, some academicians from Novosibirsk in Siberia had visited the school, and subsequently Hanna was invited to present the school to an education conference in Moscow. But since then, we had heard nothing at all from anyone in Russia, and figured that we had faded into the great unknown in that region.

It turns out, as we can see, that I was quite wrong. The article had five sections:
Introduction, about the development of alternative educational models globally;
Methods (of this research), involving, among other things, examination of theories of knowledge;
Theoretical Foundations (of Sudbury Valley);
Development of Sudbury Valley, a historical review of the development of the school – culminating in the spread of the model in the 21st century throughout the world, a phenomenon the authors find “demonstrates the high level of the Sudbury Valley concept development”;
Specific organization features of education in Sudbury Valley School, a section that begins with the author’s statement that “based on the analysis of students’ vital activity in Sudbury Valley schools [sic], it was concluded that the backbone of activities are creativity and play.”; and, finally, the section entitled
Conclusions, which finds the school to be “a promising model of education . . . compared with traditional school,” for several reasons the authors identify.

The reach of the Sudbury model is remarkable, even astonishing. We had no idea that any kind of research at all involving the school was being done in Russia. Its existence came as a pleasant surprise, and another sign that, year after year, more children everywhere are experiencing the intensity and joy that an environment such as ours provides.

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To Strew Or Not To Strew?


Strewing is one of the latest techniques used by educators and parents to lure children to learn things that the adults want them to learn at a time of the adult’s choosing. It has become especially popular among “unschooling” homeschoolers. Consider, for example, the following excerpt entitled “Some Ideas for Strewing”, posted on an unschooling website (http://www.racheous.com/):

(1) If applicable, set up a new area (even a simple shelf) related to your child’s interest. I love the planting table at [www.welivewelearn.com] as an example of this.
(2) Add new items from nature to your nature basket/tray/shelf/table.
(3) Leave out an invitation to be creative – with new art or craft supplies.
(4) Place together tubes and/or ramps with appropriately sized cars, marbles, or loose parts.
(5) Organise a new activity tray related to an interest (like ‘busy bags’ – lacing, sorting, matching, cutting, colouring, etc).
(6) Set up a small world play invitation with loose parts, animals or toy people.
(7) Leave something to take apart, with tools alongside.
(8) Reintroduce or introduce math manipulatives such as counters, connecting cubes, pattern blocks, tangrams, dice, a hundreds board, graph paper, or rulers with a material that relates to a current interest (i.e. some tanagram or pattern cards with animals that they are interested in, or various parts of figures of their interest and a ruler to measure and compare on graph paper).
(9) Put an interesting book beside a current project, open to interesting pictures. I have wrote about using books to enhance materials before.
(10) Magnetic letters, numbers or shapes set next to a metal cookie sheet.
(11) Set out a puzzle or game.
(12) For the older child – ‘iStrewing’ – adding a new interesting app to their device.

It is not a mystery to everyone with common sense and knowledge of childhood that the young are eager to figure out what the world they are born into is all about and to find ways to survive and thrive in it. That is as true now in the modern world as it was true from earliest times. In fact, most parents let their babies decide when to walk and talk and use a spoon to put food into their mouths. Of course, if you want your babies to talk you have to talk to them but you do not have to tutor them or entice them to learn. They will do so in due time when they are ready. It puzzles me why people don’t have faith in the natural processes that have evolved during human existence which ensure that our species will survive from generation to generation due to the ability and drive of our young to learn and understand the environment into which they were born.

The major tool for all this learning is curiosity. It seems to me to be obvious that all children are infinitely curious. It is not necessary to goad or entice them to learn new things. All you have to do is be there to answer their questions and make them feel safe.

At Sudbury Valley we do just that. The kids are surrounded by activities. They see adults as well as students engaged in reading, writing, using computers, phones, copying machines, painting pictures, doing pottery, fixing the roof or the plumbing, doing carpentry, talking and debating, laughing, playing basket ball, capture the flag and four square, climbing the rocks and trees and sledding and skating and on and on and on. They also see a lot of older kids taking care of younger ones when they are upset or need help to figure something out that eludes them. In short they are immersed in a peaceful, active and vibrant place where they can learn about the world and themselves when they are ready to deal with the information that bombards their senses in full force.

They don’t need strewing which is artificial and not organic or natural. Above all children dislike inauthentic behavior from adults. They seem to be averse to phoney activities and thus no benefit accrues from all the effort to expose them to this or that, facts or skills. Just the opposite will result: they will tend to avoid the very things that are set out for them and prefer to follow their own agendas.

So why not just trust in nature and let them explore and learn on their own? No strewing is needed, thank you very much; their own curiosity will lead them to lots of skills and knowledge they will need in order to grow up to be capable of functioning as effective adults.

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