What Sudbury Valley Is About

Note: Talks delivered in Shimonoseki, Japan, on April 19, 1999 by Dan and Hanna Greenberg, as part of their Japanese tour. These talks were followed by a brief slide presentation of pictures of life at school, with commentary by Dan, and then by a question and answer period.1

Part I. Dan speaking

We are very pleased and honored to be in Japan. This is a trip that we've dreamt about for many years and it's our first time here.

Before I start, I want to apologize in advance for anything I say that may not be appropriate. I do not wish to offend anyone but I am not familiar with many Japanese customs and ways of speaking. I am very sorry if I say anything that will be impolite or upsetting.

I'm here to tell you tonight about our ideas on education, especially as they apply to life in the 21st Century. We feel that Sudbury Valley School is a uniquely wonderful environment for children to grow and develop into adults. We want to tell you why we feel this and to answer any questions you may have.

I have to explain at the beginning that our school is not just a change in the way that traditional schools are run. It involves thinking from scratch about the whole concept of education, and starting from the beginning to figure out why we have schools.

Let me take you back to 1965, when we first started thinking about the school. I was teaching at a university at the time; Hanna was doing research as a biochemist at a university laboratory. I had been a very good student in school. I did everything the teachers told me. I got very good grades and did very well on all the tests. When I finished studying in graduate school and started teaching, I realized that I had forgotten everything I had learned in school and that I had wasted my childhood! By then, Hanna and I were married. I had known her since she was 16. She never did any work in school. She got terrible grades on her exams. She went to graduate school and did very well. The difference is that she didn't waste her childhood. She spent it on the streets of her city playing with her friends and enjoying life.

Then we had our own children and we realized that we could not send them to the schools that were in existence at that time. We spent a year or two looking for a good school. But even the schools that said they were different were really all the same. There were teachers, there were classes, there were tests and, most of all, there were not happy children. We realized that we had to re-think what school is about and help build one of our own.

What is school for? For most of human history, there never were schools. Schools are only about 150 years old. Schools are the intersection of children and society. Until about 150 years ago, we didn't need schools because the child grew up directly in society. By the time they were five or six years old, they were working in the real world. They learned how to become adults through play, and by interacting with adults.

About 150 years ago, society changed and we became an industrial world. In an industrial world, children could not just grow up freely, and they still can't. So schools were developed as the meeting place between the child and society. They have to find a way to meet the needs of the child and the needs of society at the same time. The questions we asked ourselves were: "What is the nature of children?" and "What is the nature of society?"; because only if we understand the nature of children and the nature of society can we understand the school, which is where the two meet.

Let's begin by talking about the nature of children. The most important single thing to understand about children is that they have an inborn evolutionary biological drive to become effective adults. This is true of every child. In fact, it's true of the young of every animal. The human species couldn't survive if children didn't want to become adults. Anybody who has children or has looked at children, knows that's what children want to grow up.

Now, granted that they want to become adults, the question is, "What skills do they possess?" Because they have to have skills to become adults. What I would like to do is go through a brief list of some of the wonderful skills that children are born with.

All children are masters at model building. Think of a newborn child. A newborn child has no idea what the world is about. S/he's bombarded from every side with all kinds of impressions, day after day. S/he has to be able to make sense out of these impressions. S/he does this by building pictures, by building models of what s/he thinks the world is. Every day, as s/he grows older, the models change. This never stops. Everyone of us, today, is still building patterns, pictures, models of the world that change from day to day in our own lives.

Every child has the ability to solve problems. Again, I ask you to look at very little children. (You'll hear me talking about very little children a lot. That's because in little children, you can see all these skills before they've been ruined by school.) Watch how little children solve problems. Think about a child learning how to walk. S/he has a million problems to solve: how to keep his/her balance, what happens when s/he comes up against the table or a chair, what happens when s/he encounters a stair. Have you ever seen a child trying to solve the problem of how to eat? The first few times, most of the food drops on the floor. This is a problem. They want it in their mouth. They have to solve the problem of getting the food from the plate into the mouth. These are very difficult problems, but they solve them, all of them, because children are wonderful problem solvers.

Children have tremendous curiosity. They want to know everything about their environment. They don't just want to know; they have to know. Anybody who has ever seen a two year old child knows what I'm talking about. They're all over the house, feeling everything, pulling everything off tables, off shelves. This curiosity drives us crazy as adults. In America, they have a word for it. Educators call it the "terrible two's"; but of course, it's the "wonderful two's". That's when they're really curious about everything around them.

Children have imagination and creativity. There's no limit to their imagination. Watch a child play in the sand or play with sticks. They never get tired and they never get bored. They can build whole worlds out of sand and sticks, day after day after day.

Children have energy. They have so much energy! My three-year-old grandchild makes me tired. He wakes up early in the morning and he goes on and on and on, and I'm ready to drop off my feet. Children think that adults are very tired people. I've had children tell me that.

Children have persistence. They can keep doing something over and over long after we adults are finished with it. You can watch a child learning how to open a door. They'll open and close that door a hundred times. It's no trouble for them. They're persistent until they really understand how to open a door!

Children have tremendous powers of concentration. They can focus on something for hours. It's very interesting to me how people in schools forget this. I used to work preparing educational materials for classrooms and what they told us was that children in school can only concentrate on something for three minutes at a time. That's true in the usual classroom because they're not interested in what's going on. I can't concentrate on something for much more than three minutes if I'm not interested in it. When they're interested in something, they can concentrate and focus on it for hours.

Children have wonderful powers of self-criticism. They're always measuring themselves against adults and against the real world. They know better than anyone when they're doing something well or when they're doing something poorly. I learned this lesson first many years ago from our oldest son. He was three years old. We were playing baseball. I threw the ball to him and he swung the bat. He didn't hit it very well. I was a good father and I said to him, "That's very good, Michael." I thought that I was supposed to encourage him and tell him it was good. He threw the bat on the floor and got very angry. He said, "I'm not playing with you anymore." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because you're a liar."

Children have wonderful judgment. We don't appreciate how much judgment children have. Even the smallest children are very careful to think about what they are doing and to try to figure out whether or not they can do it. Adults often don't like the judgment of children, so they say children have no judgment. But my father didn't think I had a lot of judgment when I was fifty years old! Older people always think that younger people don't have judgment. The truth is we all have judgment, even little children, and we all make mistakes. That's part of judgment.

Finally, children have passion. They do things with great happiness or terrible anger or intense frustration. They feel.

These, then, are the skills children are born with to enable them to grow up to be adults. Let's see how they use these skills to learn what they need to know.

One way they learn, using these skills, is through observation. We all know this, so I won't talk about it. They also learn through life experience. Again, we all know this, so I won't bother talking about it. There are, however, two other very important ways that children learn that we don't really appreciate.

One is through play. Play is one of the greatest tools for learning. What I mean by the word "play" is any activity where you don't know the end result in advance. If I start to build a box and I take wood, nails, a saw, and all the materials to build a box, then I'm not playing, I'm building a box. I know the outcome in advance. But if I take wood and a knife and I start whittling, without really knowing what it is that I'm going to end up with before I start, then I'm playing. Children love to play. The reason they love to play is because it's so important to learning, because learning is finding out about things that you don't know in advance. The way you get practice in handling things you don't know in advance is by playing. That's why biology, that's why Nature, made sure that children like to play, because that's the way Nature guaranteed that children would learn best.

Finally, there's the most amazing learning tool of all, conversation. Why do people talk? This is a very serious question. Little children struggle to learn how to talk. In fact, it's the hardest job they have in all of their lives. There's nothing harder than to learn how to talk. Talking is learning how to associate a symbol with a whole set of thoughts and activities. That's very difficult and it involves deep thought.

Why do children work so hard at it? What good is it to them? The usual answer to this question is that people are social animals and like to do things together. People can do things together that they can't do alone, like building a bridge. But a two year old isn't thinking about building bridges! A two year old does not understand that there's a lot of benefit in doing things with a lot of other people. He doesn't have that experience.

So why is he struggling to talk? The answer is striking: because the child learns that speech makes it possible for him to look into the minds of other people. The child speaking to a mother or a father is finding out what they are thinking and is telling the mother or father what he's thinking. This is like a miracle; through conversation, the child is able to learn anything that anyone else in the whole human race has learned! Conversation makes it possible for each person to master not only what he has learned himself, but to benefit from the learning of every other person.

There is no greater tool for learning. Think about how each of you and I spend our time. Think about how much we talk every day. Think about where we learn about the world most. It's by talking. And we don't let children talk at school!

Now let's look at the nature of the society into which children are growing up. Politically, society is organized in the United States, in Japan, in most of the world, and soon in all of the world, as a democracy. What does this mean? It means that in society, people have to respect one another no matter who they are. The most important point in a democracy is that every single person deserves equal respect. That means men and women, the old and the young, and even children.

Democracy also means that you have to allow every individual to participate in every decision that affects the whole community. In a democracy, we don't have a king who makes most of the decisions alone. The idea is that everything that affects us all should be decided by an equal voice from everybody.

The third aspect of democracy is that it only works with people who know how to be free. Now, that sounds very strange. What do I mean by "know how to be free"? Isn't that a simple idea? The truth is that it's a very difficult idea. It's difficult to understand how to be a free person and also respect everyone else's freedom. If you want to see how difficult it is for a society when people don't know how to be free, look at Russia today. Russia is a great country with a great history, but the Russians never were free. All of a sudden, ten years ago, they became free and they're now suffering ten years of chaos and anarchy because they just never learned how to be free.

Let's look at the economic side of society. We are now living in the post-industrial information age. I'm not telling you anything new when I say that the traditional schools, all over the world, were designed for the industrial age. The old industrial age had very definite needs. It needed people who could work closely with machines. That's because in the industrial age, machines weren't very smart. About forty or fifty years ago, we began to learn how to build smart machines. By now, every machine that does something in a factory is smart enough to work without people. We don't need people machines any more. The information age needs a whole new kind of person. It needs people who are creative. It needs people who are self-motivated and self-starting. It needs people who can take responsibility for themselves, people who can work independently without someone else telling them what to do. It needs people who have judgment. It needs people who know how to work with other people. It needs people who know how to solve problems. It needs people who are good at communicating with others. Communication is the heart of the information age.

Two weeks ago, I was at a conference. I heard a presentation by a top administrator of the library of the University of California. This is one of the most advanced libraries in the world. It has the latest in electronic technology. The man who was talking told us what kind of people he was looking for to work in the University of California library. This is what he said: "We want people who are innovative. We want people who are curious. We want people who are flexible. And we want people who are willing to take risks." I said to him, "Wait a minute. Don't you want people who know about computers and about libraries?" He said, "No! If we have the kind of people I have described, then we can teach them about computers and libraries very easily. But if we have people who know a lot about computers and libraries, but aren't innovative, creative and flexible, they're no good to us at all."

We've looked at children and we've looked at society, and we notice a wonderful thing: there's a perfect fit today between the needs of children and the needs of society! All a school has to do, in the 21st Century, is to allow that perfect fit to happen. If we make a school in which children are free to behave according to their own skills and abilities, then we'll get adults who are innovative and know how to communicate and have all the other characteristics that they need to function effectively in the modern world. The school should be a place that keeps out of the way of children and lets them develop fully all their natural abilities. School should also be a perfectly democratic structure. That means that children, all children in the school, should have an equal say in all the decisions. When we first planned Sudbury Valley in 1966, our lawyer looked at us and said, "You're crazy! You can't let children make decisions about the school. They'll spend all the money on candy. They don't have any judgment." We said to him, "How do you know? Did anybody ever try it?"

Of course, we knew the answer, because the same exact thing happened a hundred years ago with women. Women weren't allowed to vote because men said they were silly. Men said women have no judgment. They said women are like children. It just so happens that when women got the vote, everything worked just fine. In fact, maybe even a little better. The truth is that women are like children, and men are like children. People are people, whatever their age.

I've presented the background of the ideas behind the Sudbury Valley School that led to founding the school. Now, Hanna will tell you something about life at the school.

Part II. Hanna Speaking

When I was a young girl, Japan was a mysterious and fascinating place for me. I loved the pictures of the art of Japan, of the famous gardens and the temples. I never dreamt that I would ever have a chance to visit Japan in my lifetime. I'm so happy to be here and thankful for the opportunity to visit with you and to get to know you.

Danny talked about the philosophy and I want to tell you a little bit about how we practice the philosophy in the school. Thirty-three years ago, we had the perfect son. When he was very little, he was so alive and so busy. His mind was like a sponge, he learned everything and remembered everything. We both remembered our childhood with sadness. Danny was sad that he didn't play enough, that he worked too hard to get A's, and I was sad that because I didn't work enough, people told me that I was stupid and bad and that I will end up to be a nobody. Both things are bad for children. We hoped to design a school which will not be bad for children, but will be a healthy place for them to grow and develop their mind. So let me take you to visit Sudbury Valley.

We have a very beautiful building in the middle of a forest. We were lucky to be able to buy it, mainly because the building was so big. It costs a lot of money to heat it in the winter and nobody wanted it! When you look at it, it looks like a dream, like a palace. But I want to tell you that it's not important what kind of building you have, or how much money you have, to make a school work. Just like it's not important how much money you have to be a good parent. You can be rich and a bad parent; you can be poor and an excellent parent.

You walk into this beautiful building and what you see is children doing what they want to do. I know it's hard to imagine, but if you think of your children before they went to school, you will know what we're talking about, because young children do not have a calendar with a plan of the day where they practice walking from 9 until 10 in the morning, learn how to eat with chopsticks from 10 until 11, and then learn how to put the toys away from 11 until 12, etc. Children just naturally are busy all day long, and often you don't know in advance what they're going to do at any given time. Even older children are like that when you go on a summer vacation. You don't worry about anything; they just play all day. Children are naturally very busy.

So, that's how they are when they come to Sudbury Valley. They come in the morning, sign a check-in list when they enter, hang their coats, put their lunches in the refrigerator, and then they do what they decide to do, without the adults, the teachers, the sensei telling them what to do.

There are two hundred children in this one building and you might think that it is a very noisy and chaotic place because they are all doing what they want to do. You would think that it's like the stock market where everybody is yelling and screaming and pushing and shoving. In fact, it's really not so. It's really quite peaceful and busy. When you walk in, you feel the energy of people doing purposeful activities. It's not noisy and it's not silent.

What we see is that some children do one thing a lot of the time, for months or even years, and others go from one activity to another. They might climb the beech tree, over and over. The artists work in the art room, the musicians in the music room. Some kids build forts and some kids take walks. They do all kinds of things. But the point is that whatever they do, they do because they want to do it, and so when you look at them, they look like you do when you are reading your favorite book or talking to your favorite friend or arranging flowers or doing something that you love to do. That's what the children do all day, every day.

I want to say something about a child's mind. You don't have to be a doctor to know that the mind works best in young people, and that as time goes on and we grow older, our mind becomes less and less functional. I found it very interesting that adults (and I know that my parents were like that too) think that because a child is young their time is not valuable. When I was little, I had to buy bread every day at the grocery store for my mother and I would stand in line and all the old ladies would push me away and say, "You wait! Because I am busy and you are not! You have nothing to do." I was a polite little girl and I would say nothing until the man who owned the store finally said, "Here's your bread."

Even as a little girl, I felt angry that they didn't understand that my time was very important, and today I know it even better, because if I have to learn something together with a child, the child will learn it 10 times, maybe 100 times, faster than me. When I was about 40, I took a ballet class with my 14 year old daughter, which was probably the most courageous and humiliating experience of my life, because compared to her, I was so stupid. I learned so slowly and she learned so fast. From that experience, I started observing how fast children learn everything and how well they remember what they learn. So the lesson for me was that it's almost criminal to waste children's time and take it away from them to fill their heads with all kinds of facts and things that they are going to forget anyway. It's so much better to let them use their time to learn things that they will remember all their lives. The truth is that most of us don't remember very much from what we learned in twelve years in school. Yes, we learned to read; very few of us learned to write well; only a small percentage of us are good in math; many of us don't know anything about science and others of us don't know anything about literature, poetry, art, and so forth. Twelve years is a lot of time. Think of the years, say, between the ages of 30 and 42. That's a long time; and in the end, we remember so little of what we learned in school, that I think we wasted the best time of our mind.

At Sudbury Valley, we give the children a safe place to use their own time to learn what they think is important, and the wonderful things we've seen after 31 years of experience is that when they grow up, they know a lot.

Another thing about Sudbury Valley that might be shocking is that the children eat their lunch whenever they want to. Some children eat their lunch at 10 in the morning. My children never ate their lunch! We prepared their lunch, gave it to them, but they never ate it. They were too busy! This reminds me of a wonderful story. A little girl of six said to her mother, "Please teach me how to read." The mother said, "I'm sending you to school. Ask the people at school to teach you how to read. I don't want to teach you how to read." And the little girl said, "But mommy, I don't have time at school, I'm too busy!" So mommy taught her how to read, ten minutes a day, and in two months, she knew how to read.

So they eat when they want to eat, and they have to clean up after themselves, and they have to put on their own shoes and coats and hats and gloves if they want to be warm in the snow. One day we were going to school and my father happened to be visiting me. I said to my five year old daughter, "Take a coat. It's cold outside." And my little daughter said, "I don't want to." I said, "OK, if you don't want to, you don't want to." We arrived at the school and she got out of the car and said, "I'm cold, Mommy." I said, "You didn't take your coat, now you're going to be cold"; and my father said, "You are very cruel." The end of the story is that my daughter always took a coat when I told her it's cold. She learned the lesson, her way. What's so amazing about this way of learning through self-initiated experience is that the kids at Sudbury Valley are not underweight and they don't get sicknesses more than children who are told when to eat and what to wear. On the contrary, they are more responsible than other children because they learn from experience and they make good decisions. As they grow up, they develop a feeling of competence, a feeling that they can do things. Here's a lovely quote that I happen to like very much, taken from some interviews of graduates from the school who were there when they were very young. It's from a woman who is about 30, remembering when she was 6: "I always thought that I was a grown up. At every age, I felt as a whole person, not a little kid, or a big kid, just me. A person with a vote. I wasn't less powerful as a person than a 15 year old, or an adult, and I thought that was normal." I love this quote because she was so little, but still she felt like a whole human being. She didn't have to wait until she graduated from high school.

So the students at the school manage their time, their physical needs like eating and dressing, and their learning. They are in charge. They educate themselves and they take care of themselves. Now, Danny already told you a few things but I'm afraid I'm going to repeat some of them because we're talking about the same school. This is what they do at the school: they play, they explore, they converse, they work on their friendships, and they study. And they also run around.

Let's talk about play first. Danny explained why play is so important, but I would like to elaborate a little bit. In America, we love to watch nature shows, and the scientists always explain how animals play when they are young in order to learn all the skills they'll need as adults. We hear it so much about animals that it's almost boring to hear it again, but the same is true about humans, and we almost never hear it about humans, but humans are also animals. They belong to the animal kingdom.

The kind of play we watch at the school is as varied as can be. They play house. They dig in the sand. They build things and they break things. They do art, they do music. They tell stories, they write stories, and they listen to stories. They do drama, and they make up a million games. It doesn't matter what they do, everything they do with incredible concentration. What we have noticed over the years is that the same kind of concentration becomes the way they work. People who give our students work usually love them because they work so well. Because those children never learned how not to work well. They don't know how to do it. They work with the same intensity and concentration as they applied to play.

Another thing the kids do is explore. Children always explore. They explore themselves, they explore other children and all the adults around them, because they want to understand how people are. They're all psychologists. But the thing they do most of the time at the school is talk, communicate. Danny already told you why we think talking is so important.

Part III. Dan speaking, in answer to a question

The rules are made by the community, in a community meeting, called the School Meeting. It has met once a week, every week, for thirty-one years. It makes and changes all the rules of the school. For example, one of the first rules of the school was that you cannot disturb another person in their activity. The rules always are made because of something that happens in the school. Somebody will bring the idea to the School Meeting that we now need a rule because we don't like this or that. Often there are very big debates about these rules, before they pass. From the very beginning, there was a rule that there would be no violence in the school. That rule is a basic part of the school's culture. By now, new students who come in learn that not only from the rule book, but from other students. It's become part of the culture of the school.

I have to tell you a funny story. In the very beginning of the school, somebody proposed a rule that you shouldn't litter. This was at the very beginning, before the school's culture was established. That proposed rule was not accepted by the School Meeting. The majority of students felt that it's ok if somebody wants to litter. If you don't like litter, pick it up. So, some people would litter and other people would pick it up. And this lasted about two years, until finally the whole community got sick of picking up other people's litter, and the rule was proposed to the School Meeting, again, two years later; at that time, it passed. You have to have patience. You have to trust that over time, the good sense of the community will prevail. We always remember what Winston Churchill said: "Democracy is a terrible form of government, except that all the others are worse."


1. During our Japan trip in April, 1999, we addressed audiences in eight different cities during a two week period: Himeji, Fukuoka, Shimonoseki, Takamatsu, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and Tokyo. In every instance, Dan gave the first, theoretical, half of the talk (about 3/4 hour), Hanna, the second, more personal and experiential half of the talk (about 3/4 hour); sometimes this was followed by a slide presentation, with commentary by Dan; then there was a question and answer period (about an hour or so), and usually another group gathering of several dozen of the organizers, who continued the discussion for another couple of hours. Because all talks and conversation had to be translated, and all translations were consecutive (rather than simultaneous), it was often difficult to convey a lengthy, sustained argument. Thus, the presentation was, perforce, reduced to some essentials. The situation was made more difficult by the interpreters lack of familiarity with many of the concepts and terms we used, steeped as they were in American culture and our unique educational practices.

The talk reproduced here is fairly typical of the ones we gave in all eight cities, although of course there were many significant variations from place to place. The text is taken from a direct transcript of the English portion of a tape made of the talk, with some fairly minor editing for continuity and clarity. The sentences are, for the most part, short, and the concepts shorn of embellishment. The audiences were all extremely attentive, trying to grasp what they realized was a whole new way of looking at education, child-rearing, and society. The reception we received was invariably respectful and enthusiastic.

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