I. “This Used to Be a Jail.”

“Can you go outside with me later?” a small, unexpected voice asked when Hope Wilder opened a utility closet on a sunny Monday in August. 

It was the first day of school, and Wilder, the founder and director of Pathfinder Community School, had spent the morning greeting arriving students and their families. “Good morning! Welcome, Ben! Welcome, Scarlet!” she sang out. Their first stop was the “shoe cubby room.” Wilder told the kids they could leave their shoes on, but “most people prefer shoes off.” This is usually her preference, but chatting with parents necessitated “acting like an adult,” so her chunky brown Chaco sandals stayed on.

By 10:30, all fourteen children had arrived. Most had attended Pathfinder’s pilot program that spring, so they were familiar with the space. They settled in. A group of girls strung beads into necklaces at the lunch table, debating a post-lunch foray to the creek. 

“You know, this used to be a jail,” one declared. She’s not wrong. 

Around the corner from a Costco and a couple of strip malls, downstairs from a family medical clinic and a Montessori school, Pathfinder occupies the basement level of a stately brick building on Durham’s Broad Street that was once a penitentiary. Sunlight slants through the tops of windows laced with old-fashioned wrought-iron bars. The school may be new, but the institutional tube lighting, linoleum floors, and dropped acoustic ceilings have a distinctly old-school feel. 

Two boys were sprawled on a rug in the common area, quietly playing a nature-themed board game. Another child was stalking the central hallway in search. So when Wilder opened a dark closet and heard a voice emerge from within, she knew better than to ruin a game of hide-and-seek. 

“Yes, we’ll go outside later,” she whispered, and gently shut the door.

Wilder wouldn’t think to interrupt play to summon kids to learn. Here, play is learning. Children explore, take risks, practice skills, and, most important, figure out how to get along. 

Pathfinder—a nonprofit with students between the ages of five and fourteen that is now finishing its first year—is at the vanguard of a resurgent “self-directed learning” movement, which does away with classes, textbooks, and even teachers. It’s rooted in the notion that innate curiosity drives learning, and structured lessons get in the way. 

The concept isn’t new—in a sense, it stretches back to the beginnings of our species—but for the past century, it’s been a bit player among educational models. Perhaps the best-known flavor is the Montessori method, which loosens age segregation and allows students to work at their own pace. But with established curricula and teacher-led lessons, even that is more a compromise than true self-direction.

Modern “free” schools like Pathfinder can trace their pedigree to an offbeat British boarding school called Summerhill, founded by the Scottish educator A.S. Neill in 1921. Neill believed children thrive in settings of freedom and approval. His book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing came out in 1960, anticipating the countercultural zeitgeist. It sold three million copies.

It also inspired the creation of the Sudbury Valley School near Boston in 1968. In turn, over the last half-century, that school has spawned scores of imitators throughout the U.S.

It’s hard to overstate how radical the Sudbury model is. 

Consider that every county in America has standing armies of professionals paid to teach children how to read. Then consider that Sudbury Valley has no reading instruction whatsoever, yet its graduates all leave campus perfectly literate. That, advocates say, should count as proof of concept. So, too, should the fact that Sudbury persists in a region thick with universities and anxieties about college acceptance, where failure would be quickly snuffed out. Research on free schooling is slim, but the few extant studies that do exist—most by a Boston College psychologist who’s become a proselytizer—suggest that alumni go on to college and successful careers at the same rate as children from traditional schools. 

It’s enough to make you question the whole educational edifice, which is built on a foundation of grade-level benchmarks that require massive investments in teaching, testing, grading, homework, and discipline. 

Wilder wants to scrap it all. She promises Pathfinder parents that their children won’t be just as prepared for the future as their conventionally schooled peers—they’ll be better prepared. 

“The school system is antiquated,” she says. “It’s based on a system that was developed over a hundred years ago to prepare people to be Prussian soldiers. But today’s workplaces require dynamic, flexible, creative problem-solving—not taking orders from on high, and not just doing what you’re told. Also, everybody has the internet in their pockets. You don’t need to memorize all the facts. Kids who do self-directed education end up being incredibly confident and comfortable being uncomfortable in ambiguous situations where there’s no right answer.” 

Wilder’s point, paradoxical as it sounds, is that if the goal is to turn out self-motivated, socially skilled, adaptable adults, the path to success may come not from making children work, but from letting them play.

II. “The Curriculum Is Community.”

Children at Pathfinder play a lot. They spend a lot of time outside. They ride kick scooters in the parking lot. They climb trees. They make forts. They run on the grass. With adult supervision, they leave school property and ramble in a creek that runs through a small wooded area a few hundred feet away. They also read, have discussions, or simply relax.  

There are only two compulsory daily activities: an end-of-day cleanup that recalls temple-scrubbing Buddhist monks, albeit with less efficiency and more silliness and excuses; and a half-hour morning meeting. 

Organized by the adult staff—four paid, one volunteer, not all of whom are there at the same time—these meetings sometimes resemble conventional instruction. There might be a guest speaker. Or there might be an update on how things are going, with students offering suggestions on how they might go better. Like Sudbury Valley, Pathfinder is “democratic” as well as “free,” so children take an active part in school decisions—not just on trivial questions like whether to install a vending machine (more on that later), but on much of the discretionary budget. The goal is to teach them real-world decision-making in a way feckless student councils never could. 

Students must also occasionally report for “jury duty.” Democratic schools involve children in conflict resolution, rather than having them abide by adults’ decisions. And when children play freely, there’s plenty of conflict. Adults are on hand to help defuse arguments, but when a dispute can’t be quickly resolved, a child can bring a complaint to a jury for mediation. 

In Pathfinder’s first year, Wilder discovered that while she and the other staffers will sometimes lead attendance-optional workshops or teaching sessions on different subjects (usually by request), they’re mostly teaching kids how to grow into social beings. She insists on a code of mutual respect. 

“We’re proactively teaching conflict-resolution skills,” Wilder says. “The curriculum is community.” 

In school and at home, this kind of socialization is increasingly rare. Children no longer roam freely through their neighborhoods the way their parents did. Social interaction takes place through after-school programs, parent-arranged play dates, and on social media and smartphones, which some psychologists have linked to a troubling rise in rates of teenage anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, traditional schools are piling on homework and ratcheting up pressure to perform on standardized tests. 

That’s left some parents to seek out alternatives. This search can sometimes lead to Waldorf or Montessori schools, which still have structure but emphasize creativity. But there are other parents—“unschoolers,” as youth educator John Holt first described them in the seventies—who want a sharper break with mainstream education. 

These parents reject not just traditional schools, but the very idea of traditional schooling.

Lina Stoia is one of them. Conventional education, Stoia believes, teaches children to be compliant and asks parents to reinforce the message. 

She has two children at Pathfinder, ages nine and eleven. Before moving to Durham, she and her husband, an assistant music professor at Duke, tried various public and private schools around Boston. Stoia found that the more freedom her kids had, the happier they were. 

“Even in the Montessori school, which has so much more choice than other kinds of school, it’s still only a choice of, what order do you want to do things in?” she says. “There’s a root of authoritarianism.” 

It’s hard to pin down precisely how many unschoolers are out there. 

More than two million American children are homeschooled—about 3.3 percent of the school-age population—but most of their parents don’t want to upend pedagogy. They’re homeschooling for religious or moral reasons, because they believe public schools are unsafe or unstimulating, or because their child has special needs, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. In that survey, 6 percent of homeschooling parents cited a “desire to provide a nontraditional approach” as their most important reason for keeping their kids out of traditional schools. 

Free schools draw from this pool. Indeed, half of Pathfinder’s inaugural class was previously homeschooled, Wilder says. 

Legally, they still are. Despite its name, Pathfinder isn’t actually a school. It’s not accredited and doesn’t have a state license, which means it doesn’t have to abide by state laws on mandatory attendance and testing. It doesn’t award grades, nor will it give out diplomas should it take on high-school-age students. (It will help them create portfolios as part of their college-application process.) Instead, it’s a “homeschooling resource center,” a place that offers homeschoolers opportunities to socialize and learn in a small-scale, customizable environment. 

Because free schools are not regulated, it’s unclear how many exist. Wilder says there are about eighty Sudbury schools in the U.S. There’s also a new, tech-influenced free-school model called Agile Learning Centers. Since 2013, it’s grown from two schools in New York City and Charlotte, respectively, to more than fifty across the country. 

A volunteer-run website called Alternatives to School offers a “partial list” of more than a hundred democratic schools, learning co-ops, and homeschooling resource centers in the U.S. and Canada, including six in North Carolina. In 2017, Harvard’s Ed. magazine profiled one of the list’s two Triangle entries, Durham’s Dimensions Family School, which had opened the previous year. It has since closed. 

That’s not uncommon, Wilder says. Sudbury schools have a high failure rate. So, too, did the previous generation of free schools that arose in the sixties and seventies, characterized by their “brief life spans and the often loosely defined nature of their educational practices,” as one study put it. 

To avoid that fate, Pathfinder—the only free school within two hundred miles, Wilder says—needs more students. Like private schools, it’s funded by tuition, or, in the school’s parlance, membership fees. Unlike most private schools, membership fees are calculated on a sliding scale based on household income. In other words, wealthier parents pay more—sometimes a lot more—than lower-income families, an effort to make Pathfinder accessible to a broader mix of Durham residents. 

Pathfinder’s website says it needs to average $9,000 a year per member to keep the lights on. Wilder says the school will be viable with thirty-six kids. 

Since August, its student body has grown from fourteen to twenty-one. 

III. “I Was Going to Be a Rocket Scientist.”

One month into the school year, Wilder is running barefoot in the play patch, throwing knotted-up socks at her students. 

A group game sometimes follows the daily morning meeting, and today it’s “sock wars,” a mash-up of dodgeball and Star Wars that Wilder found in a 1970s-vintage book of summer-camp games. Like most activities at Pathfinder, neither Wilder nor any other adult organized the game, aside from bringing knotted socks and a rope to spread across the field’s midline. 

The kids chose teams spontaneously, forgoing a draft or any other systematic method. As a result, while the sides were equal in number, one had more of the older children, by far more athletic talent, and all the boys. (If this made the game less fun, that’s knowledge they carry into tomorrow’s game. The functioning principle of free play is that anyone can quit at any time. This makes all rules negotiable, and keeping things fun is in everyone’s interest.) 

Sensing the imbalance, Wilder dove in on the underdogs’ side. She gleefully rolled in the grass, chucking socks and calling out the opponents she successfully targeted. 

This isn’t typical principal behavior, but Wilder isn’t a typical principal. That’s not even her title: She’s the school’s executive director, or, less formally, “core founder” and “vision keeper,” as Pathfinder’s website puts it. 

To understand Wilder’s unorthodox approach to education, you have to understand her unusual history with schooling. 

By conventional measures, she was a prodigy. She grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. At fourteen, she entered a gifted program at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, in which high-school-age students live in dorms and take courses for college credit. After earning a year’s worth of credits, and with a dicey home situation that she’s reluctant to talk about—she mentions a divorce and a latchkey existence—she skipped high school (she never earned a high school diploma), enrolling at the University of South Carolina at age fifteen. 

She was too young to live in the dorms, so she and a co-conspirator from Mary Baldwin rented an apartment near campus. “It’s totally not legal,” says Wilder, now in her mid-thirties, with short dark hair and a ready grin. “It was like this con that we were running on everybody.” 

She graduated in 2003—at nineteen—with a double degree in biology and German and minors in chemistry and Japanese. 

“I think that has shaped a lot of how I think about this, because for one thing, I had this accelerated, intense experience of the education system,” Wilder says. “And I was so good at it. And it was such a waste of my time, and I am so angry about it—the things I could have been doing instead of studying organic chemistry, which has never been useful to me, and was really hard, and made me feel inadequate, like I’m stupid because I don’t understand this.”

After graduation, she again charted an unexpected course. 

“Everybody thought I was going to be a rocket scientist or something,” she says. “There was a lot of pressure on me, because I was smart, to excel, and I was not interested in getting on that train. But I also had no idea.” 

She was accepted to the Peace Corps but didn’t go. Instead, she worked for a year on a wilderness trail crew in Colorado. She realized she liked being outdoors, a choice that defined her professional life for the next decade. She read a self-help book and determined that environmental education would bring together her major interests. The first job she found—at SEEDS, in Durham—involved teaching children. She discovered that she really liked it. 

“I have a very strong inner child,” she explains. 

Wilder’s resume reads like a directory of Triangle kid-nature programs: after-school program assistant at SEEDS, lead teacher at Schoolhouse of Wonder, science teacher at River Rock School on the Haw, outdoor school teacher at Clapping Hands Farm, camp counselor at Piedmont Wildlife Center, lead teacher at Duke Gardens. Some of her sessions were free-form playtimes. Others were school programs designed to sync with state-mandated curricula. 

She could capture kids’ attention, but she noticed how children left to their own devices would engage and interact with the natural world—and with each other. 

In February 2016, she attended a teacher training at Duke Gardens, in which she pretended to be a fifth-grade student in order to train new educators. It was only a simulation, but it made her realize that she hated being told what to look at and where to focus her attention. She also realized that’s what she was doing when she was teaching. 

Wilder considered a career change. But that same month, she attended a workshop at Marbles Kids Museum in which the keynote speaker, Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, spoke on the importance of play. She left with an epiphany. 

Gray is a dean of the modern self-directed education movement; his 2013 book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Students for Life, is its bible. 

In the late seventies, Gray had sent his troubled son to Sudbury Valley and witnessed a remarkable turnaround. After that, he and a co-author—a founding member of Sudbury—decided to poll seventy-five alumni. Three-quarters, they found, had pursued higher education, at a time when only half of the nation’s high-school graduates did; 80 percent said their time at Sudbury Valley benefited their careers. In 1986, they published their research in the American Journal of Education

It was roundly ignored. 

For the most part, it still is. Among education scholars, Gray says, no one even bothers to argue that the Sudbury model is bad; rather, it’s so far out of the mainstream that it’s not debated as a viable option. (The subtitle of a 2015 Schools: Studies in Education article, written by a high school English teacher, pleads for attention: “Why the Sudbury Model of Education Should Be Taken Seriously.”)

Academics might have been indifferent to free schools, but the idea captivated Wilder. And in a flash, it came to her: She should start her own school. 

It didn’t happen just like that, of course. 

It took two years to lay the groundwork for Pathfinder. Wilder advertised planning sessions at the library, found like-minded supporters and collaborators in the unschooling community, toured free schools all over the Northeast—including Sudbury Valley—and interned for three months at Arts & Ideas Sudbury School in Baltimore. 

She also raised money from what she laughingly describes as “friends, family, and fools.” Most of those funds came from “spousal support,” she says. Her husband is a software developer, but they’re not rich. They live in an East Durham house they purchased in 2012 for $99,000, according to property records. (It’s worth a lot more now.) 

In 2006, the couple didn’t live in a house at all, but rather in a sort of covered wagon bolted to the top of a car-towed flatbed trailer, completely off the grid—composting toilet, rain catchment, bucket shower, etc. On the threat of hefty fines, the city forced them to move their eco-friendly urban caravan out of Trinity Park.  

“All we have is our personal choice,” Wilder told the INDY then. “We can’t change the law, [but] we can choose to live the way we want to—or as close to it as we can.”

Wilder secured a location for her school in fall 2017; the next spring, Pathfinder opened for a pilot program: twelve kids, three days a week, four hours a day, for two months, “to test the principles of the program in a low-stakes way,” Wilder says.

In August, it opened for its first full year. 

“I was terrified,” Wilder says. “I was completely terrified that it would fail. I was terrified that it would work. In the first few days, I relaxed, because I realized these are just kids, and I know kids. I know how to be with kids. All I have to do is show up, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.”

IV. “He Can’t Sit Still.”

Informally, this is a lunch table. But there’s no lunch period. The kids eat when they’re hungry—there’s a nearby mini-fridge that holds food they bring from home—and this table in the main area is often repurposed. Today, in September, it’s the setting for a game of “school.” The children seem fully aware of the irony. 

Six-year-old Jeina announces that she’s the teacher. “First class of the day: spelling!” she says. 

For several minutes, they debate how to spell “apple”; meanwhile, the terms of the game constantly change. Is this a college class, or preschool? What’s a better grade, an A or an O (for “Outstanding”)? Is “Q” a grade? (“Quite good, but nothing to bang a drum about,” they decide.) Should Darwin get in trouble for sketching? Does it matter, if he intends to be an inventor? Instead of staying on task—it bears mention that the older children carry the day with the standard spelling of “apple”—they think creatively, weigh each other’s contributions, and collaborate. 

Jeina announces math class, and some kids drift away. She prepares a worksheet. Nine-year-old Lucy is the first recipient. She begins to fill in answers, then stops. 

“This says ten equals ten,” she tells Jeina. “It should say ten plus ten. The answer is twenty.”

Meanwhile, in the empty foyer, eight-year-old Ben has spent most of the day—most of the year—sitting alone, headphones on, staring into an iPad. He’s playing Minecraft. It’s a game all the kids know, and they’ll often play it together on three donated PCs in the computer room. The PCs have a twenty-minute time limit if another child is waiting, but if a parent lets a child bring a device from home, they’re free to indulge. 

This morning’s meeting had featured “Conflict Resolution Theater,” a play put on by the adults. Angie Dannemiller, an intern studying early childhood education at Durham Tech, and Jaisy Courtney, an all-purpose helper, enacted the kind of roughhousing restricted to the “rumpus room.” 

Dannemiller launched a foam-sword attack on Courtney’s pillow fort, then started swinging the sword at Courtney until she invoked the “stop rule.” Saying those two words together tells a playmate they’ve crossed a line; their use in the play led to a discussion about respecting boundaries. 

Ben had mostly frowned through the simulation, but when the children were asked for their input, he leaped up, pointed at Dannemiller, and shouted, “She’s a criminal! Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!” As the discussion continued, he repeated this performance several times, bringing the meeting to a halt as the adults tried to calm his pointed rage. 

When the meeting ended, he retreated to the lobby, put on his headphones, and played Minecraft the rest of the day.

A few months before Pathfinder opened, Wilder invited Peter Gray to give a public talk at Duke Gardens. On a hot summer evening, in a wood-accented indoor meeting hall, Gray delivered a polished hour on his core philosophy. 

“[Children] come into the world burning to educate themselves, and then we shut all those things off,” he said. “We put them into a setting in which curiosity doesn’t count, [because] it’s not their questions that matter anymore; in which play is not learning, it’s recess, a break from learning; in which sociability, talking to your neighbor about how to solve a problem, is cheating.” 

A Pathfinder parent asked a question on everyone’s mind: What about video games? 

Gray’s answer consumed eight minutes. He attacked press reports on studies that have likened the “addictiveness” of computer games to heroin and talked about research that shows that games can bestow cognitive benefits. Then he floated a theory that kids often play computer games, and spend time on social media, “more than they even want to.” 

“We don’t allow them to just go out and connect physically with one another,” he said. “Kids—especially by the time they’re teenagers, but even before they’re teenagers—need to be able to communicate with their peers without the prying eyes and ears of adults.”

Gray is a persuasive evangelizer. His blog on the Psychology Today website, “Freedom to Learn,” makes the case for self-directed learning as part of an overall philosophy of respecting children and giving them space to grow. He’s also the founder and president of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, which hopes to build a movement to make such learning “available to all children, everywhere.”  

All kids would benefit from free schools, he argues—not just “highly motivated children, or the white, middle-class students” who go to Sudbury. 

Free schools are often criticized as enclaves of privilege and wealth, their success stories dismissed as the result of demographics. Take this 2015 essay from the website Ravishly, in which a parent described her experience with a Sudbury school like this: “Only one student at the school was nonwhite. Almost all students were middle class or higher, and many came from exceedingly wealthy households. … Only highly educated white people seemed willing to consider the idea that their children might learn best without any instruction at all.” 

At Pathfinder, Wilder has struggled to achieve a racial mix that looks like Durham. Right now, only a handful of children come from nonwhite families. She says she’s trying to recruit more African American staffers in hopes that they’ll make nonwhite families feel more welcome. 

“We’ve done our racial equity work,” Wilder says, “and we’re working very hard at the issue, but I don’t think there’s a magic way to solve it.”

She’s had more luck attracting families from across the income spectrum. Wilder, like Gray, believes self-directed learning shouldn’t be restricted to the rich, which led her to develop a sliding-scale tuition system that eases the burden on working-class families. A family with a household income of $40,000 would pay $560 a month to send two kids to Pathfinder. If that same household earned $125,000 a year, their monthly fee would increase to $1,750. 

Unlike Gray, however, Wilder doesn’t think all children will do better in free schools. It’s not a question of background, she says, but temperament: “I think there are people, adults and kids alike, who prefer a structure, who prefer to have classes laid out for them, who aren’t comfortable making decisions on a moment-to-moment basis.” 

But parents whose kids struggled in conventional environments say self-directed learning has been a godsend.

Jaisy Courtney, a North Carolina transplant from New York City, says she came to free schooling because her eleven-year-old son, Nate, wasn’t well-suited to traditional classrooms. 

“Every teacher he ever had—it didn’t matter what school, or what state we were living in—said the same thing,” Courtney says. “‘He can’t sit still. He’s got a lot of energy. He’s the class clown. Disruptive.’ I knew he was energetic, I knew he was active, I knew he was so inquisitive, to the point of [being] disruptive.”

Courtney was raised by strict immigrant parents from Costa Rica and had raised her daughter from her first marriage the same way. But the poor relationship that resulted disquieted her, and she resolved to raise her two kids from her second marriage differently. Instead of forcing Nate to adjust to traditional schools, she looked for alternatives. She considered unschooling, but she also wanted him to experience a community. 

She and her husband were willing to relocate for the right situation. They looked into the Agile Learning Center in Charlotte and other schools with self-directed models, but none fit their budget. Then she found Pathfinder’s website and plugged her family’s numbers into its online tuition calculator. 

After one phone conversation with Wilder, the Courtneys moved to Durham. Courtney took a three-day-a-week job at Pathfinder—she’s since left—and Nate became a precocious, energetic member of the tribe. 

V. “Candy Junkies.”

As the school year progressed, Pathfinder lost one enrollee.  

Uli was a fourteen-year-old budding computer expert who took it upon himself to administer the school’s Minecraft server. There were few children his age, and he wasn’t getting the social or intellectual stimulation he needed. So in a sort of ad-hoc graduation, he left Pathfinder to intern at the web services company where Wilder’s husband works. 

But other children came aboard. Austin—not his real name—is a neuro-atypical fourteen-year-old “who they had to pull out of school,” says Wilder. “He’s blossomed. He’s everybody’s big brother. He’s also a really positive influence on the other teens and tweens, because he’s really gentle and compassionate.” 

Juliette is a ten-year-old girl who was also taken out of public school. At her Pathfinder interview, she didn’t say a word, and “her body language was completely shut down,” Wilder says. She spent most of her first week in the library, in nervous apprehension. The staff left her to adjust in her own time. One day a girl came to the library and asked Juliette if she wanted to play. 

“She went to play, and basically she hasn’t stopped,” Wilder says. “Now she’s the kid who will not shut up.” 

Having whole days free to socialize can drastically speed up the process of finding one’s place, Wilder says. Pathfinder is “like social boot camp, because you can have hundreds of interactions in a day.” This can be hard on introverts—Wilder made the library a “solitary-activities-only space” for kids who need quiet—but the socialization has tangible advantages. 

“[Free-school kids] are much more mature than kids their same age who are schooled,” Wilder says. “It’s a thing. In Sudbury schools, people usually guess [kids are] two or three years older than they actually are, because they’re so well-spoken and articulate.” 

They’re also noticeably more confident when speaking to adults. Whether this is desirable may be a matter of taste—the “seen and not heard” adage comes to mind—but the ability to speak freely to authority figures may bode well for future job interviews. 

Six months into the school year, nine-year-old Lucy became a candy tycoon.   

She was in the habit of bringing candy to share with her friends. She sensed an entrepreneurial opportunity and started charging them a nickel or a dime. This turned into a game called “candy store,” in which candy was exchanged for high-fives. Eventually, she asked her mom if she could buy a candy machine, the kind that dispenses a small handful for a quarter. The other children gave her permission to install it, with the proviso that 13 percent of the revenue would be shared with the school. (It’s a democracy, after all.) So far, it has generated $100 in profits, spurring her to invest in a second machine that sells M&M’s and Jawbreakers. 

Soon another child brought a gumball machine she got at a yard sale and filled it with chocolate-filled pretzels and malted milk balls. This crude plastic contraption makes no distinction between coin denominations—an important lesson in economics (and basic arithmetic). 

The jury’s still out on the machines’ benefits and drawbacks. Some children are clearly obsessed—“candy junkies,” Wilder calls them—while those from families who discourage sugar consumption have petitioned for an almond-dispensing machine. At a morning meeting, when Wilder asked each child what was most needed at Pathfinder, a nine-year-old boy from the latter camp said, “No. More. Candy. Period.” 

“These are all the hot-button items of the day,” says Wilder. “These are things that there’s a large spectrum of opinions in the world, and they’re really juicy topics that the kids can sink their teeth into.”

Another juicy topic: profanity. After consulting with parents, Wilder began the year with top-down enforcement of a global “PG” rule, because at a free school she visited, she was put off by the fact that the kids “swear like sailors.” That rule has since been reinterpreted and modified by the school’s Culture Committee, in which the children hash out the school’s ground rules and judge violations. The committee decided that Wilder’s ban on R-rated words went too far, and—with the exception of a some truly offensive, identity-disparaging terms—they could be uttered in private, as long as everyone present was OK with their use. The kids also decided that “crap” isn’t a swear word. 

“We talk about profanity with the kids,” Wilder says. “We talk about internet content filtering. We talk about sugar. Rather than the adults deciding everything for them and pretending we have the answers, we’re engaging them in dialogue.” 

At a morning meeting in late February, the hot-button issue is screen time. The children are deciding whether to continue a new “screen break” policy, in which the computer room is closed to encourage kids to play with each other (though they can continue playing games on their own devices). 

All eyes turn to Ben. 

He’d spent the morning running, laughing, and playing with friends. While he still likes to play Minecraft, he recognizes the value of an external nudge to turn it off. The “screen break” was his idea. 

“Are you guys OK trying that again today?” Wilder asks. 

Several children say yes, the rest nod, and the resolution passes unanimously. Ben thrusts out his hand: thumbs up.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com. Additional reporting by Thomas C. Martin.

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