I was very amused when I heard that my children were "Playing School" at Sudbury Valley. I learned about this one morning when my daughter urgently needed to print out some "worksheets" before we left for school. God forbid, a teacher arrive at school without some busy work for her students! It brought to mind a rich and layered understanding of the word school. Here they were attending a school which defines itself, in part, by the very absence of teachers and worksheets, choosing to play a game they called "school" complete with teachers, students and worksheets. This they did during part of their real school day at SVS. Trying to wrap my head around it, I found myself envisioning some sort of Escher-like drawing with lots of mirrors.
Later, I found myself wondering if perhaps there was some deeper meaning in the game. As parents, worksheets, particularity math worksheets, had become symbols of all that was wrong with our public schools. Many an evening we had struggled with worksheets. There were even times when my wife and I would find ourselves debating what the meaning or intent of problem number 3 was while our children, oozing with disinterest, waited for one of us to figure it out and help them complete the stupid thing.
I wondered if maybe, by playing with "worksheets" they were in a sense flirting with the devil. Playing with the dangerous tools of our current educational system, to see if they could safely control these mysterious and diabolical devices. Perhaps it was like playing with matches, where part of the attraction is the fact that they are dangerous.
But in the end, I decided I was ceding too much power and meaning to worksheets. As anyone doing their taxes well knows, worksheets are nothing more than a tool, sometimes useful, often not. Far more important is who controls the worksheets, and for what purpose they are used. Enlisted by children in support of self directed play, worksheets are not evil, they might even be fun. Recess was not withheld for failure to complete them (I hope). No one's higher education was put into jeopardy for getting questions wrong. And, in the end, I think, I noticed an improved understanding of fractions by both teachers and students alike.
Perhaps playing school at SVS is no different than all other forms of play at SVS. Rich in opportunities for learning and created by the children themselves.