“YOU WANT TO COME SEE the worm bin?” asks Mary, a towheaded 9-year-old, who then hustles me to a shed on the edge of an outdoor garden at the JP Green School in Jamaica Plain. Sifting through a green plastic bin, she shows off dark, wet soil teeming with wriggling red worms. “The worms break down the compost and it’s good soil and fertilizer for the plants,” she says. “It’s like poop.” A few steps away, her 10-year-old brother, Jimmy, is standing at a cinder-block wall, painting a mural of a tree that, he says, grows cats in a “parallel dimension.” Other children are helping to build a chicken coop, or just wandering among the gardens of lettuce, cilantro, and wood sorrel.
Nothing about the scene this Tuesday morning in June looks anything like school — and that’s by design, says Andree Zaleska, the JP Green School’s co-founder and co-director. It was created as a center for “unschooling,” where children are largely free from traditional school structure. “Kids are talked at and given busy work, but I don’t think they are absorbing much of what they are taught anyway,” Zaleska says. She also thinks the sharp decline in recess time at schools “damages” students, affecting their ability to concentrate.
At the Green School, which is open Monday through Wednesday roughly in line with the school year, children ages 4 to 11 spend 90 minutes a day in science classes, mostly engaged in hands-on work such as dissecting flowers. The rest of the time, they can zoom around on Razor scooters, hack apart logs with hatchets to observe the bugs that fall out, and make smoothies with fresh herbs from the garden. Zaleska says it’s not so much school she’s offering as a traditional childhood — in other words, the exact opposite of jamming preschoolers’ lives with activities meant to help them get into an Ivy.
The two-year-old Green School drew 42 students last year, and this fall moved to a larger space at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain, with a quarter-acre property complete with gardens and an adventure playground. Jamaica Plain resident Kerri Marmol sent her youngest child, Emmanuel, to the program after Catholic school didn’t prove a good fit. “He would say over and over, ‘Mommy, I need to play,’ ” she says. After he started at the Green School, she noticed an immediate difference. “He was just at peace, being in nature, digging and playing,” she says. “He could come home and take a shower and be so calm and focused at dinner.”
Home-schooling in the United States stayed roughly level between 2012 and 2016, at about 3.3 percent of the total school-aged population. But the share of home-schoolers using informal learning approaches, or unschooling, jumped to roughly 1 in 5, or about 374,000 students. In the Boston area, the idea seems to appeal to parents concerned that standardized testing restricts time for creativity, physical exercise, and socializing. Unschooling programs can reduce isolation and plug educational gaps for home-schoolers. The programs can also help students meet certain home-school requirements, which vary by school district in Massachusetts, such as regular evaluations, testing, or portfolios of work.
Though their total numbers aren’t tracked, Massachusetts has several unschooling programs, technically called home-schooling resource centers. Among those formed in the Boston area in the last few years are Parts and Crafts, an open workshop in Somerville where kids take apart computers and hammer together wooden toys; the Macomber Center, a 114-acre campus in Framingham where students explore the environs or pursue music, theater, and even video games; and the Bay State Learning Center, a Dedham program where teens work with adult mentors to design individual programs of study and ad hoc classes.
* * *
THE COMMON DENOMINATOR for these “unschooled” children is that they are not forced to learn anything they don’t want to. The movement’s intellectual guru, Boston College psychology research professor Peter Gray, calls it a subset of self-directed education, which is based on the radical premise that kids learn better when they are learning what they want, letting their natural sense of curiosity and playfulness guide them. (Alternative education methods such as Waldorf and Montessori share some elements with self-directed education, but do not offer the same level of freedom or independence.)
Gray, co-founder and president of the nonprofit Alliance for Self-Directed Education, says that once kids know human universals — walking on two legs, speaking a language, getting along with others — they only need to learn things mandatory for their culture. “If you are growing up in a hunter-gatherer culture, you better learn how to hunt and gather,” says Gray, 74. In our culture, what’s needed for a fulfilling life are reading, basic arithmetic, and how to use computers. Everything else — advanced mathematics, the Italian Renaissance — should be learned only if the individual is interested. Indeed, imposing other knowledge on people is counterproductive, Gray asserts in his 2013 book Free to Learn. He says most people forget what they learn in school soon after hearing it, and some develop a lifelong aversion to subjects they are forced to swallow.
Such ideas emerged out of the counterculture of the 1960s, taking their lead from books like Summerhill, by A.S. Neill, about a boarding school in England where children were free to learn as they wished, and How Children Learn by Massachusetts-based educator John Holt (he coined “unschooling” in 1977). Hundreds of “free schools” cropped up nationwide. Most closed within a few years from lack of funds or infighting.
One alternative school that has survived is the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham. Founded as a “democratic school” in 1968, everyone there, from a 4-year-old preschooler to a 60-year-old teacher, had, and has, the same vote in how the school should be run. Together they pass rules to codify behavior and use of facilities, while giving children the freedom to explore — reading books on their own or running around in the woods all day if they want. Gray became an unschooling convert because he sent his son here after discipline problems at a traditional school. “For the first three or four years, [my son] did nothing but play Dungeons & Dragons — but he was also learning medieval history,” he says. “When he was rolling dice, he was learning probability.”
Gray has conducted research on the school, which is accredited by the state, for decades now. His surveys and studies consistently have found that large majorities of its students were very happy with their education and adjusted well to college. In a broader, peer-reviewed 2013 study on unschooling, Gray and Hunter College psychologist Gina Riley surveyed 232 families and found they overwhelmingly rated its benefits higher than its challenges — most said their children were happier and could delve more deeply into subjects than they would at a traditional school. In a survey Gray and Riley conducted of 75 home-schoolers following unschooling ideas, published in 2015, all but three of them said the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages. More than 80 percent of them went on to higher education, and two-thirds said they planned to unschool their own children.
Ben Draper graduated from Sudbury Valley, and after college tried substitute teaching at a public school in Wayland. Though Wayland schools routinely rank within the top 25 in Massachusetts, and exceed state and national averages for test scores and graduation rates, Draper found it stifling. He says, “What people mean by the best schools in the area is that the kids are most compliant and conformist.” Draper, 40, is now executive director of the Macomber Center, a six-year-old alternative school not far from Sudbury Valley. When I visit, he’s sporting an untucked checkered shirt and jeans, and says “kids come here to enjoy their lives.”
A large common space is filled with dozens of children, ages 5 to 19, talking loudly and playing. A group of kids in the middle of the room are building with LEGOs, while others cluster in a corner with laptops and tablets. Down a grassy hill outside, kids are playing a dodge-ball-like game called Gaga. Up the hill in an “art shack” wallpapered with pieces from cardboard boxes, a group of middle-school-aged boys dissects sea stars, making detailed sketches in notebooks.
Draper echoes Gray’s assertion that, if they are motivated, students can learn very quickly. He says two recent graduates spent their first four years running back and forth from the Gaga pit outside to card and dice games inside, until in their last year they decided to get serious about math and ended up blowing through calculus. One of them, Calvin Jungreis, is majoring in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, hoping to become a rocket scientist. The other, Ben Rubel, is now a first-year student at Wesleyan University interested in studying astronomy. “I didn’t even learn arithmetic until I was 9,” says Rubel. “I was doing it because I like math, and found it fun and wanted to do more, not because someone was telling me I had to do it.” During a gap year after Macomber, Rubel placed into calculus 2 at Harvard Extension School.
* * *
UNSCHOOLING PROGRAMS TYPICALLY do not require kids to come every day, or even every week. Their fees vary based on days used — Macomber charges $3,980 annually (roughly the same as the public school year) for access two days a week, and $8,997 for five days a week, while JP Green School charges $65 per day. Of course, parents might feel skeptical about paying money so their child can have all-day recess for a few years until her latent math genius emerges.
Two of the three self-directed educational programs I visited had mostly white students, but nationally the percent of home-schoolers who are white has fallen to about 60 percent. Gray says self-directed education is “especially valuable” for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, and points to successful minority-run self-directed learning centers in New York, Washington, and elsewhere.
Many of the students at Somerville’s Parts and Crafts have had problems in more traditional school settings, bucking against authority or having conflict with peers. They find a very different environment inside this former Nepali food market near Porter Square. Walls are covered with shelves of plastic bins labeled Petri Dishes, LED Bike Lights, Feathers, Leather Scraps, Ribbon, and Even More Ribbon. Downstairs are unplugged walk-in freezers filled with large pieces of metal and wood, with workbenches and power tools standing at the ready for construction projects. “We have a very specific identity around creating and building things,” says Parts and Crafts’ co-director Will Macfarlane, 35.
Kids ages 7 to 14 brainstorm a schedule for how they’d like to spend their time in eight-week increments, with activities ranging from drawing club to bike repair. When students show interest, staff put together more traditional classes on topics ranging from the Civil War to castles. Nothing, however, is mandatory. At any one time about half the kids engage in structured activities in groups of four to eight, while half work independently. That is key for kids who’ve had a tough time in school, Macfarlane says. By letting them know they truly don’t have to do anything, the center earns their trust. “Our job as conductors of education is to help kids push themselves, and think of themselves as people who are capable and competent to go out and do stuff,” he says.
Many of them break out of their shells and discover talents they didn’t know they had. Sometimes they end up going back to school with renewed focus. “They return with a sense that school is a resource and it has good parts and bad parts, but they can be in charge of their own learning,” he says.
Other students come to the program to round out their home-schooling regimen. Cambridge resident and Alliance for Self-Directed Education board member Kerry McDonald sends her 11-year-old daughter Molly and 9-year-old son Jack to Parts and Crafts two days a week. Molly pursues craft projects and baking to complement home-school math classes and an online fiction writing course. The increasing number of centers, both physical and virtual, fueled in part by Silicon Valley’s latest push to reinvent education, has changed what it means to home-school, says McDonald,who is writing a book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, due out in May. “It isn’t replicating school at home, it is much more focused on the child’s interests and community interactions,” she says. “That enables you to develop some of these creative skills and passions that I think will be even more important in our economic future.”
Michael Blanding is a Boston-based journalist and author of, most recently, “The Map Thief.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.
This story has been updated to reflect corrected tuition pricing for the JP Green School, and to clarify Peter Gray’s view on how children learn.