“Subtraction is fun! You get to play with these little blocks!” 6-year-old Brigid Davis says with a smile from the upper level of a building in a quiet Riverside, Illinois, neighborhood.

Laughter drifts under the door from the next room, where children ages 7 to 19 are bent over artwork that would make Pixar proud. Some kids are strumming a guitar or playing a piano, and one is crawling around the floor meowing as Erin the Cat.

Welcome to Tallgrass Sudbury School – a thought-provoking experiment in education.

Tallgrass is based on the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, a democratic education model founded by Columbia University Professor Daniel Greenberg in 1968. At Tallgrass and the other 37 Sudbury schools around the world, children don’t have to take tests. They don’t have to do homework. They don’t have to go to classes. There are no grades. Teachers don’t exist. Adult staff members and students are viewed as equals, people choose how they spend their time and the school is fueled by everyone voting on everything from rules to disciplinary actions to whether to renew staff contracts. This education model works in concert with human nature instead of against it, supporting self-education through play – a clear nod to our exploratory, hunter-gatherer roots.

And while it may be fun, it’s nothing to laugh at: Research shows we learn a lot on our own. We start grasping how to talk right around our first birthday and go on to average about 10 new words every 24 hours. By age 17, we’ve mastered more than 60,000 idioms. And toddlers spend about six hours each day trying to walk – taking an average of 9,000 steps and traveling the length of 29 football fields in the process. A drive to learn is just intrinsic to our human nature.

“They’re picking up reading and typing almost in the same way they’re picking up their native language,” says Peter Gray, a Boston College developmental psychologist, of the children at Sudbury schools. “The Internet has made information available immediately to everybody, so the idea that you need a teacher or you need a textbook or you need to memorize facts is just so obviously irrelevant to everybody.”

Which is how Brigid is learning – organically.

One night I just wanted to do, like, math,” she says matter-of-factly. “And then I got really good at it.”

Brigid’s Tallgrass days have been filled with things like crooning as the lead vocalist of a rock band (where she said she “sings in tongues” when she doesn’t know the words), taking a math class, browsing her Amazon Wish List, playing with older students and sewing a hat with bunny ears.

She says she doesn’t know how she learned to read well. She just did.

Her father, 46-year-old Tad Davis, says he and his wife actually tried teaching her to read the traditional way, but she hated it so much that she refused to pick up a book for more than a year. Then one night after she’d been enrolled at Tallgrass, Davis caught her reading the menus on the family DVDs. Now Brigid loves visiting stores and picking up random books to test her skills.

“I would guess that most people would assume it’s like Lord of the Flies, just a bunch of kids running around crazy, you know, destroying things and hurting each other,” Davis says about the Sudbury education model at Tallgrass. “It’s quite the opposite. Although it's loud and raucous, it's very constructive. And even within the chaos there's all kinds of learning going on that most parents probably would not notice, like interpersonal relationships.”

Traditional schools are structured, mandatory to attend and educate students by telling them what and how to think. They cultivate obedience instead of risk-taking and nonconformity – qualities necessary for innovation. It’s considered bad to get an “F,” even if you tried testing a different method to solve a homework problem – and those letter grades often ingrain a fear of failure in students. Trying something new can lead to a low GPA, which can be a damning label for future opportunities. While the traditional school system is smothering the creative spark of the next Albert Einstein, Sudbury schools are adding fuel to the fire.

“Because they’re in this kind of setting, they’re solving all kinds of problems, all the time,” says Melissa Bradford, who founded Tallgrass in 2008. “The first problem: How do I spend my time? And once I’m doing that, how do I work things out? How do I get the resources I need? How do I negotiate what’s a fair way to play together?”

Bradford’s daughter, Cassidy, 19, is a Tallgrass alum who says it was invaluable to gain those personal skills. She’s now a sophomore thriving at a local community college with a 3.9 GPA.

“A lot of my friends who go to public school, they go away to college and that’s where they’re going to discover who they are,” she says. “Because until the very end of high school, they’re constantly being told where to go, what to do, how to think. But at the Sudbury School, I’m constantly being challenged on my beliefs, what’s important to me, how I want to spend my time.”

Cassidy spent her childhood years in both Sudbury and public schools. She says it was frustrating to be locked into the rigid schedules of the traditional school system, where every minute of the day was accounted for and a ringing bell forced everyone to move to another class.

“When you’re really into something and all your energy is flowing into it and then it’s halted, it’s just kind of devastating,” Cassidy says.

Because most schools are not designed to coincide with children’s instincts, Gray says many doctors diagnose and medicate students who have a difficult time fighting their nature in traditional classrooms. At Tallgrass, Bradford says students who previously had prescriptions for behavioral issues have been able to stop taking them.

And they thrive.

As the Greek philosopher Plato once said,

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.”

So take the time to go, enjoy, learn and play. You’ll likely be surprised by the great results – and the impact such philosophical changes could have on education systems as a whole.

*Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on education. You can find the previous installments here and here.

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