Free to learn: the self-directed-education

All children have interests, curiosities, passions, opinions, preferences. When they are free to learn without obligations and constraints, they follow their real attitudes.

Did you know that there are revolutionary schools in which children are free to choose their path of study based on their attitudes and preferences? These were coming from pedagogical approaches that focus on children and their interests such as autonomous and libertarian education. Examples of libertarian schools are the Summerhill School founded in 1921 by Alexander Neill in the United Kingdom and the most recent Sudbury Valley School founded in 1968 by a community of people in the United States.

What is Self-Directed-Education?

Self-directed education refers to that set of democratic principles, experiences and organizational practices that recognize children, boys, and girls the ability to decide individually and in groups as, when, what, where and with whom to learn.

With self-learning, children learn actively and in different ways: through life experiences in the real world, contact with people of all ages, play, personal interests, passions, curiosities, questions, conversations, books, travel, family and social interaction.

This kind of education works because we are biologically wired on this; children have always learned from exploring, playing, watching and listening to others. Autonomous learning is much more efficient and pleasant than coercive education because it focuses on motivation and no tasks and duties.

By choosing exactly what to study the child will use all his strength to dedicate himself to learning. He will not be listless or bored because he has decided what to do and when to do it according to his inclinations and interests. The child’s full ability to choose is valued.


Summerhill School: free to be happy

Summerhill School is a British private school founded in the 1900s and still active today. It is a non-repressive school without any authority or hierarchy. The cardinal thought of the circle is that “the true principle of education does not need to resort to fear and constraint.”

In this schoolhouse the rhythms of the child are respected and followed; there are no established objectives for any age to be pursued at all costs. The purpose of life, according to the founder, is, in fact, happiness; and to be happy means to feel interested in something. Therefore children are motivated by curiosity, interest, and motivation.

Sudbury Valley School: free to learn


Imagine a school where there are no classes, no texts, tasks, and directors. In which adults and children have the same rights.

What would happen if the boys would hire the teachers based on their schooling skills? If the students could stay all day outdoors? If they could learn to understand what’s right for them? If every boy could decide the lessons to follow? The time to arrive? If everyone could practice all day what he likes to do?

Can you imagine such a school?

Sudbury School Valley is all of this. For Sudbury, teaching is not a transmission of unilateral teacher-child concepts, but it is as a guide to the child in his natural path of growth and learning process.

Since the first days at school, here, the children are left free to use their time without falling into the trap of schedules designed by the adults. They read books; they play ball, ride a bike, talk on all the subjects, get to know new children, they learn to love the outside environment and to live it.

freeWhat will then emerge from this approach are all those skills that will allow children to make it in life: the desire to always learn new things of their interest, the ability to judge, problem-solving, the ability to talk, the creativity and above all, passion.

They learn a lot not only from the lessons they choose and by doing other things: for example, studying grammar by playing Scrabble; or doing maths through scoring games and video games; or physiology and the anatomy of the fish by going fishing; acquiring the social rules through sport, etc.

The children of this school are often compared to the hunter-gatherer children mentioned by Peter Gray. For years this psychologist has studied the populations still engaged in hunting and agriculture, traveling in Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia and New Guinea.


Gray has observed that self-education is peculiar to hunter-gatherers children. Kids living in this community in specific areas store innumerable and valuable knowledge like identifying the animal species and all their different habits, classifying weapons, recognizing the territory in detail. And then the seeds, the plants, the edible species, the rhythms of growth of the herbs, etc.

However, this education does not pass from school, but from experience. And above all, it transfers from the children themselves, and not from the adults, who help them only occasionally and give little explanation.

In short: their education passes from their curiosity and through the observation of the world.

Even the guys at the Sudbury Valley School learn a lot by driving themselves, just like hunter-gatherers, but above all, they learn to commit to achieving a goal.

What do you think about revolutionary and innovative schools? Do you find them a mirage? Or could they be an opportunity to grow free, happy people who know what they want?
Let us know.


Letizia Grasso, Educationalist
“All grown-ups were children, but few of them remember it” This phrase is engraved on my heart. The child who marvels at small things is always with me. I firmly believe that the school should focus on self-construction of knowledge through direct contact with the outside world and, therefore, through the experiences of life. A school open to life and from life itself learns. A school that teaches to observe every little thing, to wonder and to ask questions. A school that forms adults who know how to reflect and put into a relationship the mind and heart.”