by Stephanie Sarantos, co-founder, staff member, and parent

Reprinted from the April 2003 issue of “The School Bull,” the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

Of all the possible choices Clearwater students make about how to spend their time, the choice to play computer and video games raises the most controversy. Students may play video and computer games at their discretion—limited only by their personal preferences and the rules governing access to school computers and personal game systems. The school does not impose rating restrictions for teen or mature content, but requires that students show consideration to individuals who are offended or frightened by the sounds or images of their games. Our gaming policy exemplifies the extent to which Clearwater trusts children to define and pursue their education. We are committed to extending freedom to all members of our school.

Many parents drawn to the school’s educational philosophy, fear that if their child is given freedom to choose his or her own activities, he or she will play electronic games to the exclusion of all other life-enhancing activities. Some Clearwater parents resign themselves to their child’s passion for gaming by clinging to the belief that sooner or later the child will get bored and go on to other (better) pursuits. Parents of serious gamers who stay interested in video games for months or years, wonder if they will never get bored. Fears about the effects of the media and vivid imagery lead some adults to intervene– to limit access to electronic games in order to protect children from the harms of an obsessive interest.

Most parents of gamers know their kids love video and computer games, but do not want them to play all day long. The attraction that kids have for gaming raises fears of addiction, violence and time-wasting. Even adults who agree that gaming is a valuable, educational experience feel concerned when kids have open access to games. The merit and potential harm of gaming are discussed frequently at Clearwater and other Sudbury schools. Should adults at Sudbury schools try to protect children from video gaming? Should School Meeting limit the amount of time spent with computers or video consoles? Should limits be placed on the kinds of images that can be viewed?

When these issues are discussed, I am a strong advocate of freedom. I do not think School Meeting or staff should be in the position of judging and legislating people’s interests. If someone chooses to dance, draw, read or play video games 24/7 that is his or her choice and his or her business. As a staff person (and a parent) I feel it is my job to look at my own assumptions, judgments and values about other people’s activities when they come up. It is important to recognize that I feel concerned about how another person spends his/her time, because my concerns affect my relationship with that person. But it is not my job to decide what is best for that person.

When students spend hours, days, weeks and years “obsessed” by an activity and do not get bored, it is because the activity is rewarding to them. Playing video games is intellectually stimulating, filled with social interaction, exciting, challenging and fun. Sudbury schools are about finding out what interests you and pursuing it. As a person who grew up without computers, let alone video games, I cannot guess all that gaming holds for the kids I know. I cannot predict where this passionate interest will lead these kids in the future. I wonder how the skills gained in this activity will be used when they pursue other interests and future careers. As a Sudbury staff I look at students’ passions with interest and curiosity rather than judgment about the worthiness of the activities.

I do not believe video games pose a threat to our youth. But if games are dangerous in some way, it is important that kids figure out the dangers for themselves. I expect Clearwater students to learn for themselves which activities are healthy, risky or dangerous. Many leisure activities and career choices hold real or potential dangers. Take the arts for example. Few adults would be concerned about a kid who spent 6–8 hours a day dancing, drawing or painting. Most parents would be proud of a child who left school at 16 to move to New York City and study ballet or modern dance. Yet following a passion (even addiction) towards pursuing art holds many dangers. Only a few dancers and artists are able to support themselves through their art. Dancers who do become professionals frequently develop injuries that show up in their 30s and stay with them for life. They may need to retire and look for a new career. Many artists are exposed to toxic chemicals in the course of their work.

Sudbury education means trusting children to make decisions about how to spend their time. This may well involve taking risks and making mistakes. Through the freedom they experience in school they learn to create balance in their own lives. To understand the choices our children make, we need to see through our kids’ young eyes, not our own (all too often near– or far–sighted) eyes.