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Whole Child Education at Sudbury School

Before the turn of the century, parents didn’t have many viewpoints to choose from when it came to childrearing practices and education philosophy. Tradition ruled the day and one’s familial or clerical elders made most of these decisions for new parents. Now it’s different. The Information Age has opened up avenues of communication for all. Parents now have the ability to hear from other parents, experts, educators, and scientists from all over the world. Traditions and parenting conventions are being questioned and reexamined. It’s an exciting time.

Despite this, our children are still being schooled in traditional ways. The current American schooling model dates back to the 19th century, when kids were made to leave their family farm during the off-season and trek to a schoolhouse led by a man from the city. This teacher would utilize chalk, textbooks, rote memorization, and examinations to instruct the children. If he became angry, he could inflict punishments on the children, often in humiliating and/or violent ways. American education continued this way for a century and a half before corporal punishment was outlawed in all states. Sadly, the rest of the 19th- century schoolmaster’s techniques are still widely practiced today, including shaming, labelling, and arbitrary punishment from which the child has no appeal or recourse.

Although schools today do not intend to physically harm children, classroom conventions can inflict long-term damage on children’s well-being. For instance, being made to sit for hours of the day listening to lectures. P.E. programs help but offer too little in the face of four or more hours of sitting. Healthcare professionals now warn the public of the risks of too much sitting. "Your body isn't built to sit," according to James Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist, "If you've been sitting for an hour, you've been sitting for too long." The kids’ bodies try to resist by inducing fidgeting and squirming, but many teachers have little patience for such behavior in “their” classrooms.  

Scientists are now uncovering evidence that the mind and body are more interconnected than once thought. If your body is inactive or slouched over throughout the day, it’s likely your mind is slouching too. According to John J. Rately, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School: "Exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.” Rately states exercise also stimulates nerve growth factors. Dr. Eric Jensen, in his textbook Teaching with the Brain in Mind, states:

“Strong evidence supports the connection between movement and learning. Evidence from imaging sources, anatomical studies, and clinical data shows that moderate exercise enhances cognitive processing. It also increases the number of brain cells. And as a bonus, it can reduce childhood obesity. Schools that do not implement a solid physical activity program are shortchanging student brains and their potential for academic performance. Movement activities should become as important as so-called “book work.” We need to better allocate resources to harness the hidden power of movement, activities, and sports. This attitude has become more and more prevalent among scientists who study the brain. It's time for educators to catch on.”

In prior eras, children would satisfy these physical and kinesthetic needs on the playground. Today, kids are less likely to fully meet these needs at all. Recess time has been trimmed back significantly while homework assignments and scheduled, adult-led activities take up far more of kids’ time than it used to. Dr. Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, describes in his book, Free to Learn, the precipitous decline in free play among children over the past several decades. During the same time period, depression, anxiety, suicide, and other disorders have proliferated among children and adolescents. Dr. Gray argues the decline in free play is largely to blame. He states:

“Play functions as the major means by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”

If traditional schools don’t allow their students enough freedom to move and play as much as they need to, what options are available to parents who believe in holistic or “whole child” education? One option is unschooling. Unschooling is homeschooling without a predetermined curriculum. Parents and kids work together to design a custom curriculum centered on the child’s interests, passions, and curiosity. Families can join playgroups, organize field trips, and use free public resources like libraries, museums, and state parks. In New Jersey, embarking on this process is as simple as pulling your child out of her current school. Parents needn’t ask anyone’s permission.

Another option for an accessible, low-overhead education model is a Sudbury school. These non-profit organizations allow kids to govern their own education in a democratically-run community. Instead of relying on compulsory instruction and homework assignments, Sudbury schools believe self-directed contextual learning during free play and social interactions teaches children how to think critically and how to learn based on their own motivations and mistakes. Sudbury schools build emotional intelligence during “talk-about-it” mediation sessions and cooperation skills during School Meeting. Because students have full control of their education within the boundaries set by the community, there are no time limits on physical activity or any task which the students finds meaningful.

Twenty-first century parents have the world at their fingertips. Tradition and go-along-to-get-along thinking doesn’t cut it anymore. The time has come to use this knowledge to improve our children’s minds, bodies, and spirits. For the kids of today the path is clear: more freedom, more respect, and more responsibility.   

Brian Foglia is an education reformer and founding staff member of South Jersey Sudbury School in Medford, NJ. Contact him at brian.foglia@gmail.com.

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