A Thesis Thing:Free Play and Democractic Education for A Better World

Schools today don’t play fair. We’re on a crooked path educationally because of an addictive dependency on academics. Unmistakably our reliance on experts, instruction, and anything curricula related has caused a destructive path to our society and the way in which we relate to each other and the natural world. We’re an “uptight” and “rigid” society that has almost forgotten how to play.

Our traditional school system in archaic, unsustainable, and fails at preparing students as citizens to take utmost responsibility with their education and in facing the critical issues and concerns of our times. Play barely makes the class schedule or curriculum agenda. Little time in schools is devoted towards providing non-structured and uninterrupted activities for kids to freely choose. Conventional schools have the home field advantage on academics and play is usually the first to be ejected, suspended, cut from the budget or other wise broken up into chunks of time on the school bell schedule, we call recess. Recess, a time when youth common freely play, has culturally become marginalized by the high demand of standardized testing, prescribed curricula, methodologies, and surveillance measures sprung forward from bureaucratic policies and demands. In school the pupil is “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value (Illich, 1972).” In a world of academics there is no balance, imagination, creativity, and our natural pull in childhood to freely play receives a crushing blow. The purpose of these pages is reexamine the value of free play as a trusting way for youth to follow their interests and guide themselves towards taking on more responsibilities.

The free play 1that I widely address throughout the following chapters, students have the freedom to choose their own activity or method of interacting with each other, materials, and can opt out of any prescribed curriculum, classes, or curricula. Free play is a simple principle of youth having choices about the activities they engage in, unfettered and uninterrupted by adults. In free play young people have the freedom to choice their own activities guided by one’s intrinsic interests and curiosities about the world. I have discovered in my personal experience and research that when schools have the courage to fuse free play with meaningful full participatory student governance then students become more engaged participants in school community. The problem is that our current school system has a long ways to go to resemble some of the core democratic principles, in which the U.S. was founded on.

The school system has failed miserable to uphold democratic principles. “Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled (Gatto, 2002, 23).” Schools were originally designed to run parallel with the demands of the factory or the precise calculation of the input and output of an assembly line. There are fundamental human principles and values that are amiss is our state public schools that not only fail to address our times, but can be repressive to our energies for creating, playing, and learning to live more democratically. Not that all teachers take up authoritarian and mechanical like order in the classroom, but the education system is designed to leave free play and democratically local governing of schools by students, parents, and teachers, at a dead last. I do not for a second rule out truly inspiring teachers that have a deep appreciation for children and allow a generous amount of time alloted to free play, but schools generally as a social institution has failed to portray a democratic model for students that promotes more free play. Wendell Berry author, farmer, and activist suggests that the industrial age of schooling be simply replaced with this next politically coined age of information, but one that takes on a different meaning.

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not primarily an industry and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means first things first (Berry, 2002).

This is a book about putting play as first thing first in childhood and not secondary to academic subjects. I want to bring into question any school design that simple indoctrinates whatever is shifting within economical and political interests, with a one size fits all ideology. This is outmoded thinking and design that has not serve the complexities of our times with oil gushing in deep seas at an unprecedented rate in the Gulf of Mexico, banks getting bailouts, a downward spiral in the economy, climate change, a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the list goes on.

I’m not just suggesting that a school need to be “green” or “sustainable” or that a school offer a class in environmental education to be on par for course in cultivating socially responsible students that genuinely care about each other, equality, justice, human rights, and sustainability, but this is a start. But I think there are two human values that will enable us to get back on course to being utmost citizens and more responsible of our actions, one is free play and the other is a democratic process in our schools. The democratic process is a value that goes as far back (and further) before the infancy of our current school system and in which ordinary people met at town meetings to take on extraordinary responsibilities to build a democratic platform in our country. And play has been around since the dawn of human-kind.

This is a book is about examining what happens socially when free play becomes restricted, condemned, or not considered a meaningful part of learning in schools. This is also a book that explores democratic free schools as a not just an alternative to mainstream schooling, but a more sustainable and responsible way for youth to take ownership of their education and of their lives. And last but not least, this is a book that has been personally brewing for the past few year in two particular schools that put play in center of the curriculum – the Community School of West Seattle and more recently the Village Free School in Portland, Oregon. Both of these unique schools have reminded me of the power of play in our every day lives, as a means of fostering greater care, respect, and responsibility to each other and the natural world.

We’re living in new times that reflects some complex issues that can not simple be ignored or what Al Gore points to as the Inconvenient Truth. There is a common voice being echoed that there is a strong urge to put the breaks on burning up nonrenewable resources, on perpetual and preemptive wars, to stamp out all that is “wrong about the status-quo, to learn to consume less, conserve more resources, and organize our selves to generally live more sustainable. The problems socially are pressing, evident, inconvenient, but real across all partisans, religions, and social divides. My hopeful side would like to suggest that we’ve entered into a “sustainable age,” an age that puts nature first, rather than machines or production, and there is a growing awareness among the public to curb this idea as “business as usual.” But there is looming evidence among scientists, environmentalist, intellects, and the like that we’re on a destructive path that may not be reversed. How can we as adults and young people take better care of ourselves, the people around us, and the planet?

I believe schools can be grandiose places for experimenting with democracy to creatively prepare future generations, with students, teaches, and families involving themselves equally in the governance of their school, while at the same notion, honoring self-directed approaches to learning, as I commonly refer to throughout these pages, as free play. The movement to making school more playful and democratic is mainly the result of concerned families making responsible choices to get involved or to create schools that reflect more of their values. Families that recognize that taking a socially responsible stance moves beyond just casting a vote during another year election year, when one comes of age, but involves a clearer devotion to consciously share in community, expresses genuine interest in wanting to get involved, and makes important decisions governing their own lives.

No longer in our modern times can we afford to rely on schools that do not represent a democratic form of governance on a local level, and rank play last on the lesson plan. What I am calling for is for schools to operate with two main principles, free play and democratic governance, in that order. Free schools emerged in response to a destructive pattern of traditional schools in the 19th century. Today democratic free schools throughout the nation have an education philosophy built on equal relationships among students and teachers, freedom to choose activities (free play) and responsibility to govern the daily operations of the school. Free schools in general have withstood the test of time, and have embarked on creating environments honorable of free play and democratic governance. The challenges of this is not that there is one particular model that exists among democratic free schools that suits all communities, but there are two noticeable distinct principles in my research and personal experience among free schools, that I find give them a leg up for nurturing more humanistic, holistic, and democratic practices.

In the end we can look at democratic free schools as an educational alternative that strives to put individualism, self -directive learning, free play, and the democratic process front and center not only to optimizing learning, but for building more meaningful ways of engaging with each other and the world. There is a common thread among these schools that I find relevant to being experimental grounds, yet a reliable means for harnessing greater social responsibility.

When children have “opportunities to make decisions about their own learning and about daily life in their school communities, they show surprising maturity, creativity, and thoughtfulness (Miller, 73).” Throughout these chapters I will concentrate primarily on schools that I believe optimize the level of social responsibility among families, students, teachers, and community members. Schools that have committed to a democratic process that has been customized to meeting all the real needs, interests, of the students, parents, teachers, and active participants of the school community. Schools that also place much trust on free play, not just a means to improve cognitive ability and health, but as a substantial element for fostering independence, critical thinking, healthy conflict resolution, and caring response to others and the natural world.

There has been much evidence collected on the subject of free play (which I will address more of in Part 1) as brain boosting strategies to enhance the performance of youth in schools. My emphasis, is rather on the social attributes that emerge through free play, however I don’t dismiss the relevance of free play to cognitive and social development, nor do I discount some of this importance, but I think it would be a mistake not to delve deeper into this magic of play. Why is it that we’re a culture that puts all other subjects before play? And what is lost in an ideology that ranks play at the bottom of the school day “to do list”?

Let’s begin by examining some of the core systemic, social, and cultural obstacles in the way of free play. In later chapters we will look towards potential solutions in schools that may get us back on track through inviting more play and cultivating a democratic process honorable of creating greater social responsibility.

This is an excerpt from a grad. thesis I wrote. If your interested in obtaining the whole thesis as a PDF file with the purpose to distribute and share with care, please leave a comment:-)


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  1. #1 by lav on November 21, 2010 - 1:17 pm

    Hello my friend!
    I am truly enjoying reading the beginning of your theses. I keep meaning to talk to you about the school Toby is in for Kindergarten. This is the school’s 2nd year, the founders and educators are amazing. I would love your feedback on what you may be able to gather from the website. Are you still working at a school or whatcha doing? Have you and the other folks I know in your hood been getting to know eachother better. I dream sometimes about relocating to SE. But life is pretty good here and the folks are really great. Lots of young enthusiastic freethining peeps and parents!

    Love, Lav

  2. #2 by Teacher Tom on November 21, 2010 - 5:40 pm

    Holy cow, man, brilliant start! I do want to read the whole thing and I do want to help distribute it.

    Increasingly, I’ve come to understand that we really need to “radicalize” parents as a way to push for the kind of educational revolution we need. In the past couple years, I’ve been focused on “proving” our play-based approach to the parents in our preschool and it’s starting to come home to roost. Just in the first 3 months of this school year, I’ve had 3 parents of “graduates” contact me about their frustration with their public school kindergartens, and I know that there are several others out there at the end of their ropes. Once you know how education should be, it’s awfully hard to watch your child get shoved into a desk and made to learn from a text book.

    Educated parents (which, frankly, is the same thing as “radicalized parents”) are the engine, I think, toward locally controlled, play-based schools.

  3. #3 by Teacher X on November 22, 2010 - 12:12 am

    I think it is a serious misrepresentation of Wendell Berry’s work to suggest that he would approve of “free play” as a serious approach to education. I don’t see anything new or original here. What I do see are the same tired, failed progressive ideas trotted out yet again. Open schools were tried and failed miserably, due to their naive, romantic ideas of human nature. I would have loved to have gone to a school where I could play all day and could opt out of any scheduled classes or lessons. The problem is that I wouldn’t have learned anything. You can advocate all you want for progressive education, but it is seriously misleading to insert Wendell Berry’s work into your advocacy.

    • #4 by Roc on November 22, 2010 - 8:08 am

      Teacher X, like most we’ve gone through a the regiment of a place we call school. And from a place of fear we expect youth to return to the same program featuring every day mechanical routine, still behind desks and about as far removed form the natural world, except mostly for a special scheduled break we call recess. I believe Wendell Berry would have to agree, and his work exemplifies this insulation from natural places as an outcome of a complexity of invented institutions – traditional school being one of those. Open schools does not define progressive education. There is a spectrum of alternatives to traditional school and the list is long and vast.I’ll leave you with a few questions, if your still reading, or reading at all: How would your education be different if you had the choice to “opt out of any scheduled classes or lessons?” Would you have stopped learning? And assuming that your know longer in school; has not going to “scheduled class or lessons” impeded your own growth and learning?

  4. #5 by C. Hernandez on March 29, 2011 - 3:48 pm

    I would be interested in receiving a pdf copy of the thesis including a reference list. I am currently researching the place and view of choice in preschool education.

    Thank you.

  5. #6 by Payal on May 7, 2011 - 12:38 pm

    Hi there,

    What you say resonates with me. Would love to read the remaining part of the thesis. In fact, I have made a maiden attempt to do an e-Book based on my experiences as an educator as well as a mother. I could share that with you, if you are interested.
    Thanks for offering to share and I look forward to learning from your perspective.

    • #7 by Roc on May 9, 2011 - 11:34 pm

      Yes, I’d love to read what your working on. I’m also currently plugging the thesis into a book/e-book so that the whole thang can be read. Thanks so much for contacting me and offering to share.

      Be well and thanks,


  6. #8 by HTTPS://www.facebook.com/pages/Cm-com-Inc/567709886587374 on March 18, 2013 - 9:30 pm

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    Play and Democractic Education for A Better World | K-2 Punks”?
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  7. #9 by marqueriteroberson on April 8, 2016 - 1:44 pm

    […] the summer, Dean and I hosted a party for the staff at his office. I made tons of barbecued ribs, pulled pork and chicken and all the fixin’. We h Click https://twitter.com/moooker1

  8. #10 by bugsmudbooksandsticks on November 6, 2017 - 6:25 pm

    What a great blog I came across. I have been a kindergarten teacher for 24 years, the last 12 at a school in Maine. Kids learn so much from unstructured play especially when it is outdoors. The trick here is that somewhere along the way parents lose this insight. They get caught up in the comparing of children and are blindsided by all of the “academics” that must be learned by a certain age. I have found that educating parents has really helped have a classroom that embraces and nurtures real learning. Looking forward to reading more of your writing and links you have shared. Thanks.

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