On a sunny Monday in late October, I watched a 10-year-old student spend the majority of his day destroying a chair. It was beautiful.
The chair was a discovery. It had been discarded — with a cracked seat and rusty legs — into the small patch of woods behind our playground. It was the exact kind of chair I remember from my time as both a student and a teacher in the public school system – metal frame, plastic seat. Sturdy. Industrial. Uninteresting and seemingly indestructible.
The student pulled the chair from the forest and then spent some time studying it. He pressed on the seat. He turned it upside down. He looked closely. And then the experiments began. With the help of a friend, he launched the chair from a few high places. The chair didn’t break. It was clear, though, that deconstruction was his goal.
Throughout the day, with great focus and determination, he continued the disassembly project. The chair was launched with greater force, at different angles. The plastic portions started cracking, and then cracks started growing. He wiggled the seat. He kicked it. He jumped and stomped on it. Shards of plastic popped off. The first satisfying snaps of success!
As the project continued, I remembered we had a tool kit inside the school, and I was 99% certain the student was unaware of this fact. I spoke up – “Just fyi, we do have a toolkit in the supply closet.” (This was my only involvement in the project, by the way. I had plenty of ideas of my own, but this wasn’t my work. He didn’t ask for my thoughts.) Our youngest student, a 4-year-old, who was playing nearby, and who had been watching the deconstruction throughout the day, rushed into the building chanting, “Toolkit! Toolkit! Toolkit!” A few moments later, the little one exploded through the door with the box of tools. She said to me, “They are not toys. They are REAL tools.” She was clearly delighted by this discovery. She delivered the box to the 10-year-old chair destroyer, and he selected the hammer. The 4-year old continued watching from afar while exploring the different sizes of screwdriver bits, practicing fitting them on the screwdriver.
Now equipped with tools, the 10-year-old continued his task. With a good bit of trial and error, experimenting with different tools and different angles, he managed to fully remove the plastic. All that was left now was a metal base. And with this, he seemed satisfied. The object in front of him was no longer a chair. He cracked the code. He solved the problem. He achieved his goal.
Does this seem like a strange activity? A dangerous activity? A wasteful or frivolous activity? Too wild? Not academic enough? Unacceptable in some way? Not to me. And certainly not to the student. Not only was this activity fun for him, but it was also rich with learning. He was exploring physics, no doubt. And he was getting deep practice on some of the most important skills a human can have – perseverance, persistence, critical thinking, problem solving, assessing risks and rewards. He did this all on his own terms. In his own time. In his own way. And he even cleaned up his mess when he was done.
In so many ways, on so many levels, this chair project encapsulates all that happens in an environment of true Self-Directed Education. Children at Sudbury School of Atlanta make discoveries. They poke and prod. They look closely. They experiment. They struggle. They adjust their strategies. They collaborate. They innovate. They enjoy the process. They define their own success. They own their time, their choices. They own themselves. They are empowered, and they are free. I hope that every student who comes through our school will, in their own unique way, revel in the beauty of deconstruction. Goodness knows, this world is full of seemingly indestructible structures and systems that need to be dismantled. And Sudbury kids will be up to that challenge.