Mimsy Sadofsky on play and talking

2009 October 20
by Evan Lenz

The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) recently posted a free video recording of Mimsy Sadofsky’s keynote speech at the 2006 AERO conference. Mimsy is a founder and current staff member of Sudbury Valley School. I had the good fortune of meeting her at the SVS staff conference last summer. The video is rather long, but here are some quotes worth transcribing.

On innate curiosity and survival in the 21st century:

Every child has a deep drive to become a highly functioning member of the adult society into which he or she was born. That’s what survival is about in today’s terms. And curiosity is the tool that guarantees survival.

On how traditional schooling messes things up:

All children have done a great deal of exploration on their own before they begin in school. They’re channeled into specific curricula usually once they’re part of a school setting. With enough exposure to learning things in the way that other people have chosen, with enough time learning what other people have chosen for that person—at the time that others find it important—most students lose touch with their own curiosity. Most children become less effective learners each year that they spend being taught by others.

On the importance of conversation (a.k.a. talking) to a person’s development:

It’s not only the way we are exposed to new ideas and to find ways to refine them and to make them more sensible and strong. It’s the way to get into another person’s head; it’s the only way to really get into another person’s head and incorporate what they think into what you think. And we engage in it for long periods of time, every single day of our lives.

What that should mean for our approach to education:

Children should be in situations for most of their waking hours in which there are opportunities for real and intense exchange of ideas through talking. To have conversation restricted thwarts their education.

On the importance of play:

The other major area of learning for people is through play. Play is following a path of action or thought freely…We each have our favorite kinds of play. And often when we think about it, the kinds of things that are our favorite kind of play are the things that restore our spirits, the things we return to when we need a lift. Play is vitally important to creativity. If one cannot be free to follow new paths, one can’t accomplish much….Not only do you accomplish things while you’re playing, you reinforce the knowledge that you’re someone who can always accomplish more, who can push your own boundaries. Through play, you get in touch with yourself as a creative human being. Through play, your horizons expand constantly. There’s nothing more important, from the earliest age on.

Schools (including Sudbury schools) did not invent these “methods of education”—play and talking. They’re natural and automatic and they work extremely well. The genius of a Sudbury school, in my mind, is the acknowledgment of these realities and the creation of a structure in which they can both flourish freely. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and Mimsy goes into these as well, such as the nature of participatory democracy, how School Meeting functions, how discipline is handled through Judicial Committee, etc. Some essential ingredients that go into creating the structure in which play and talking and thus learning can flourish: respect for people of all ages, freedom to pursue one’s interests, and responsibility to create and uphold agreements in one’s community.

But my biggest takeaway is Mimsy’s affirmation of what I’ve been learning over and over again. Two “secret” ingredients of any person’s education, regardless of what school they go to, are play and talking. The Sudbury approach is to let kids go as deep as they want in both areas. The traditional schooling approach is to drastically restrict both and then replace them with time spent doing something else. Relative merits of “something else” can be discussed, but that’s telling it like it is.

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  1. November 9, 2009

    A very important post…all of it so true.

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