Taking Play Seriously

Play is the ultimate teacher, isn’t it? Children can learn just about anything on the playground; how to interact socially, what their bodies can and can’t do, even how to read and write. Play is an essential component of social and emotional development.

But what happens if play doesn’t yet come easily to a child? Perhaps they are unsure how to approach a new group and feel excluded by others. Or, once they make friends, they have trouble sharing their ideas or incorporating those of others. It can be unsettling–even downright distressing!

Play and social interaction are among the most complex things we explore at the Village School. Part of learning to live together is learning to play together. But play can’t be “taught” with books and circle time discussions (though those can be helpful tools for troubleshooting). Rather, play has to be tried, tested, tweaked, and tried again. So at TVS, we play, and play, and play some more!

The pandemic took away so many opportunities to play with others. Many children are still catching up. In recent years we have seen more tentativeness and anxiety around play, especially when a learner first arrives at TVS. 

To counter this, we talk a lot about taking turns, voicing a desire to play, and including everyone in the studio. Whenever guides or other learners see a lonely-looking child, they gently ask how they are feeling and help them figure out what they would like to do next. They often invite them to play or give them space, depending on what they prefer. 

Sometimes learners need more help. If two of them disagree all the time on the playground, guides might group them together to collaborate on a fun project so they share positive experiences. And as this Pedagogy of Play paper points out, what is playful to one learner may not be experienced as playful by another. We frequently revisit the ways to know someone else is having fun.

Occasionally, when nothing else works, we get a little metacognitive. One learner came to Spark last year and spent weeks trying to fit in on the playground. They yelled to be heard, fought over toys, and or declared that they were no longer friends with so-and-so because they were “so mean.” Despite our best efforts, other learners started to exclude them to avoid these angry outbursts.

We took one of the more senior learners aside and said quietly: “We need your help. Our new friend is still learning how to play. We can teach them! If you tell them how they can play so that you both can have fun, I wonder how their actions will change?”

She got the message. In ten minutes, the veteran learner had a quick huddle with the new learner, left her original group of friends, and the two spent the rest of the afternoon playing restaurant. It wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing from then on, but this was a significant turning point for that learner.

There are countless other ways we coach learners to learn the more difficult lessons of play:

“I hear you say you are feeling left out. I wonder what would happen if we went to ask them to play? I can go with you.”

“They said no? Hmm, I wonder why they said that. Let’s go talk to them together and try to figure this out.”

“What do you think we could do differently so that everyone has fun?”

“Do you want to join in on their ‘family’ game or would you rather find someone else to play football with you?” 

All this to say, navigating play, friendship, and learning to live together is a TVS signature learning experience that sets us apart from most schools. Rather than outsource “social emotional learning” for a 15-minute lesson once a week, we intentionally include long periods of playful learning experiences and unstructured outdoor free time every day. We also walk to the park and library once a week and go on frequent field trips. These present countless opportunities to interact. There’s no better way to teach social skills than by diving in and trying them out. The opportunities are well worth of everyone’s time, energy–and yes, a little uneasiness–to get right!

Renewed Focus in Session 3

Spark learners may have told you about some new systems we introduced in Session 3. There are a lot!

Each learner now has a small chart posted next to their picture on the main bulletin board. There is a different row for each day of the week. It looks like this: 

In that first column, learners add stickers for reading (red), writing (yellow) and math (green) as they complete them during morning work. There is also a column for the “Learning Game,” which is explained in more detail below, a notes section, and a place where they can record their guide meeting for the week.

There is a lot packed into this little chart and the goals are many-fold. In the most obvious sense, this is a tactile, visual way for learners to see variety in their work. It gives them a way to track and record their own progress. Crucial here is that they are excited to give themselves those colorful little vinyl dots. They decide what constitutes enough work in each area to warrant a sticker. It’s also a great way for guides to see at a glance which areas the learners are engaging in most and in which areas they may need more support. 

Parents can also help learners reflect at home and at exhibition with questions about the chart. “What is the challenging work you did this week for reading?” You might throw in a few observations. “I notice there are two learning game points on Tuesday and four on Thursday. I wonder why you learned more later in the week.” Or “Wow, you must really like math. I see green dots every day this week!”

Maybe you want to help them see progress. “I see that you started out giving yourself one sticker each day, but now are earning three stickers per day. I wonder what that means?” Or you might help them reflect: “I wonder if you like being in charge of your own learning.” “What do you want to do differently next session?” “How have your feelings change about learning this session?”

As a side note, we talk a lot in all the studios about doing challenging work. Work that is not too easy, not too hard, but just right. We visualize this in Spark with the ‘challenge doughnut’ above. We also tell a story about Goldilocks visiting Spark studio. (I wonder if they can recount this for you at bedtime this weekend?) The goal is to help learners find and stay in their challenge zone, a skill that will help them in the Discovery studio and beyond. 

Now we come to the second column in our chart. The “learning game” is inspired by Becky Kennedy in her book Good Inside. This is pretty straightforward–when you learn something new, you give yourself a point. There’s no competition with other learners, as everyone’s points represent different things to them. The goal here is to get the children to look out for opportunities to try new things that they’ve never done before, to step outside their comfort zone. There’s a notes section where they can be more specific about what the points mean. Did they have a new lesson that day? Did they master a drawer? Did they complete a really hard math work for the first time?

These new systems are in the trial phase. We’ll try different things in the studio, keep what works, and phase out anything that doesn’t. But in just this first week, we’ve seen them generate lots of engaging work. Interestingly, it has bred more variety than usual. They are writing more complex stories, sharing them, asking for new lessons from guides, and teaching each other new, creative things they come up with. We can’t wait to see what they do in weeks 2 and 3! 

To Assess or Connect? That is the question!

Almost two months into the school year, many of us wonder–how is my learner doing? In a school with no tests, grades, or homework, assessing progress can seem a bit mystifying. 

Our first instinct might be to ask our children about reading, writing, science, math, etc. “What did you read today? How long did you spend on math? Did you write a story?” As products of a more traditional school system, most of us were expected to progress according to specific norms on a set schedule. We might know logically that kids don’t actually learn that way, and maybe we chose The Village School for exactly that reason. But letting go of all of those benchmarks can still feel disorienting.

Take a quick look at our “Portrait of a Graduate.” It shows how we put the basic academics in a much broader context as a way to guide our learning design. Building character, improving interpersonal interactions, and developing the desire to learn are just as–if not more–important compared to knowing specific subject material. These essential building blocks create the lifelong learners we want our children to be.

That still leaves the question of how to assess their progress. What if, instead of monitoring test grades and poring over report cards, we use questions and conversations to gauge growth? Character-related queries, reflections on the process of learning, discussions about how they connect with their peers and guides, all send the subtle message that these are the things we value most. 

Who were you kind to this week?

What was your greatest failure (that taught you a valuable lesson)?

When did you have the most energy today?

When did you serve as a guide for someone else? Who guided you?

What was your greatest achievement this week?

How did you work through a challenge today?

Tell me about an opportunity you had to help someone this week.

What are you struggling with?

How can I support you?

Just choose two or three at a time–always questions, never answers. The goal here is to listen intentionally and approach with genuine curiosity. Pay attention to their interests. Do their experiences in school spark passions in new areas? Do they turn to books to answer their questions or collaborate with peers? Take stock of their interactions with others, too. Are they kinder, more patient or more empathetic? 

The pictures on Transparent Classroom are great conversation starters. Ask about specific works you see, what they learned from them, and whether that was easy, challenging or hard. 

It’s also helpful to quietly observe them from afar. Guides use this technique as an essential way to understand how learners think, see, feel, and learn. What are their goals? How do those goals change over the course of a year? Observation will help you connect more deeply to their learning journey. There’s no right or wrong way: evening or weekend, once a week or once a month. Capture a few moments and reflect on them later, perhaps at a family meeting. Children love it when they feel noticed, seen, appreciated. 

You can adapt school systems for home, too. Some learners are eager to create a home contract, much like the ones in their studios, in which they list the promises they make to family members. During difficult moments, you can pause and ask “What did we agree about XYZ on our contract?” 

Once a week, you might check in with them, like we do in guide meetings. Maybe you touch base about goals they have and talk about how they felt their work during the week. You might choose a few of the questions suggested above, or think of your own. The challenge is to ask these questions from a genuine place of curiosity, without conveying expectations–met or unmet. Children can sense when we trust them to do it themselves and when we take a real interest in their lives.

Assessment is a tricky thing. For a lot of us, it may cause more than a little angst. When in doubt, resist the urge to compare one child to another. Everyone learns differently, at their own pace. That learning comes easiest when children are ready and motivated to learn!

Another Day, Another Challenge

Aaand, they’re off! For their second week of school, Spark learners took on their first big group challenge. After a week and a half of routine-setting and practicing procedures, they were ready to let loose and build something cool together. They explored their new big, heavy blocks, learned how to use them safely in the studio, then got to work.

The challenge seemed simple at first–build a structure that guides a red ball from one side of the carpet into a basket at the other end. 

But it wasn’t so easy. There were only two inclines that had to be strategically placed to form a ramp. Where should they go? In what position? 

“They should go this way.” “No, not like that, like this!” “How about here?”

The ball kept falling off course before it reached the end. How to keep it on a straight path?

“I think there should be a wall. Make a wall around the basket.”

As guides, it was so neat to step back and watch this young group work as a team. All by themselves, they pointed out problems, tried out solutions, failed, and tried again with lightning speed. Sure, there were occasional arguments over whose block was whose and which ideas to use. If the learners couldn’t manage to solve conflicts themselves, guides helped them take turns, make respectful requests, and support each other. But more often than not, the learners took the reigns and figured out how to work together.

That wasn’t all of course. At the end of the first day, they still hadn’t solved the challenge. They were getting close to a solution, but the ball kept losing momentum before it reached its target and was falling to the floor.

After cleaning up, one learner concluded that the day was not a success. This proved an interesting point of discussion to start our second day. Was that true? Other learners volunteered that since they had tried hard and worked together, and found ways that didn’t work, it had been successful after all. 

That second day, they set about planning, drawing their ideas and proposing additional tweaks that would eventually steer the ball to its target. They tried building it again and again and this time found success. “It’s working!” “Wahoo!” They tried over and over, seeing what solutions made it even more consistent and stable. All the while they cheered and congratulated each other.

It’s real-world experiences and challenges like these that teach the “hard skills” we emphasize here at The Village School. The ability to collaborate, solve problems, think critically, be kind even when you’re frustrated, contribute ideas, reach compromises, resolve conflicts, and celebrate hard work are so important for success in learning, a career, and life in general. Reading, writing, and math? Those skills are important, too. But let’s call those soft skills. We promise, they follow soon after!   

Great Mistakes

This year, Spark Studio has been exploring the concept of Great Mistakes. These are regular old mistakes—a scraped knee, a broken toy—made “great” by identifying something learned from them.

I first heard about Great Mistakes last year in the Discovery Studio. During a launch, the guide asked if anyone had made any Great Mistakes that week. Without hesitation, each elementary-aged learner gave an example of a failure they had experienced that week and what it had taught them for the future. It was obvious that they had been thinking about these all week and were eager to share them. 

I knew we had to bring the idea to Spark. At TVS, we spend a lot of time prompting learners to try new things, do challenging work, and step outside their comfort zones. Those things require them to shed their fear of making a misstep. Not an easy thing to do! But what better way to reframe their thinking than by celebrating those mistakes?

How to do this? We began with a launch in Session 1 that introduced the concept. At the end, each Spark learner reflected on one misstep they had made and what lesson they could take away. They were surprisingly forthcoming and reflective. A short puppet show next modeled the best way to turn those snafus into Great Mistakes. We also read books–“The Book of Mistakes,” by Corinna Luyken and “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg, about the merits of embracing mistakes and turning them into something you may not have thought of otherwise.

Reading “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg

Bit by bit, we began to overhear pieces of conversations from Spark learners. “Hey, you just made a Great Mistake!” one learner told another on the playground. Parents also started saying that their learners had explained the term at home. 

Trial and error during outdoor play

The adults in the studio also started modeling the approach. For example, I started highlighting my mistakes instead of downplaying them. “Oh look, I made a mistake! Do you know that grown-ups make mistakes, too? I’m going to make it a great one: next time, I will proofread that chart before I print it. Thanks for catching that.” 

Tough as it seemed at first, this practice was kind of liberating for me as a guide. I didn’t have to be perfect in the studio, and I started celebrating my own gaffes. Imagine that! But more importantly, the children loved it. They’d smile when I owned up to an oversight and quietly cheered me on when I proposed a solution for the future. Could it be that they were relieved to see adults make mistakes? Might they infer that it’s OK for them to make mistakes, too?

I came across another suggestion in a course I’m taking on the book “Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom,” by Jane Nelsen and Chip DeLorenzo. It has to do with our reactions to our children’s mistakes. If we validate their emotions around the mistake and let them come up with a solution, they feel empowered rather than ashamed. Our response might sound something like this: “I’m so sorry. You must be feeling really sad about what happened. I’ve made so many mistakes that I can really understand. How did it happen? I know you well enough to know that you can learn something really good from this. How do you think you could fix this?”

As they say in the Discovery Studio, heroes are not people who never make mistakes. (They actually make a lot.) Heroes are just people who accept responsibility and learn from them. When learners embrace that idea and lose their fear of failure, they can go farther than they ever thought possible!

When they’re not afraid to make mistakes, children are more willing to just try!

The Spark Contract

Ah, the start of a new school year at The Village School. Sharpened pencils itching to write, blank notebooks waiting to be filled, learners hungry for ever more challenging lessons…and a brand new set of rules to create. These aren’t just any rules. Every year, learners in each studio—not the guides—decide what guidelines they will follow for the year. How will they treat each other? How will they treat their studio?

In Spark, creation of the year’s contract is a very thorough process. Guides set aside time in Session 1 for the learners to brainstorm a set of promises they want to follow. The children take this quite seriously, offering suggestions for ways to make their studio safe, fun, and peaceful. Then they vote on which rules they will adopt, and which they won’t. 

Votes on the rules they brainstormed.

In large part, they come up with many of the same rules we adults might: be kind, be honest, and don’t run, hit or scream. But inevitably, they come up with some unexpected gems: be thankful, teach each other, listen to each other, and talk to one another.

Who would have thought these things were important to our youngest learners? 

Through these suggestions, learners are shaping their own space. Given the agency to come up with their own guidelines, they become more invested, taking on more ownership of the studio and taking the rules that much more seriously.

During Friday project time in Spark this week, learners wrote down their rules, painted cards, and assembled their contract. Soon they will sign it and hang it on the wall. Throughout the year, the contract will serve as a constant reminder of the standards they set for themselves at the beginning of the year. They can refer to it often, holding each other accountable and constantly examining their own actions to see if they measure up. Mistakes are expected and OK, so long as they learn from each one.

Creation of a fresh, new contract sets the tone for the year. It also furthers learner independence and leadership. Above all, it fosters a sense of right and wrong. The goal is for learners to do the right thing because they want to, not because an adult told them they have to.

You can see the final product at Exhibition next week. Learners will be more than a little proud to show it off!

Expanding Spark in the Fall

The transition from Spark Studio to Discovery can be a big one. While learners navigate new systems and computer programs, they simultaneously strive to find their place in a new, older peer group. At the same time, they have left a studio with more support, structure, and direct one-on-one instruction and entered one with new levels of freedom and responsibility. For some learners, all of this paired with the studio’s newfound academic rigors can be overwhelming.

In an effort to ease the transition for some learners, TVS will build in a ‘flex’ year to Spark Studio starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Essentially, the studio will expand to include comparable academic work to that offered in the lower levels of Discovery Studio. This expansion will allow some Spark learners to continue to excel academically while they spend a little more time in the structured, familiar environment of Spark Studio. In other words, early Discovery and older Spark learners will be working on the same material in both studios. A learner can do that work in the studio that fits them best.

The expansion will apply throughout academic areas from math to grammar. It will include computer practice, advanced workbooks, research projects, writing prompts and more. Some of these additions have been piloted in Spark this past year with great success. 

Who stands to benefit most from this change? Perhaps a shy learner is still working on the confidence needed to speak up in a group. Maybe a child still needs practice reading, working on a computer, or resolving conflicts peacefully. Whatever the need, allowing these final puzzle pieces to fit into place before moving to the next studio will enable a smoother transition when the time comes. If learners are excited and ready to take on more independence in their learning they will find the move much easier. 

As an added bonus, more older learners in Spark will have the opportunity to step up as leaders. They will gain confidence as they bring newer learners up to speed on how to run discussions, hold each other accountable, and maintain a tidy studio. At the same time, younger learners will benefit from their example. That’s the beauty of mixed-age learning!

The hope is that building in this flex year will relieve any anxiety on the part of Spark learners that they are being held back or being moved too quickly into something they are not ready for. Hopefully, parents can also rest assured that their unique learner will be getting exactly what they need to grow and flourish.

Spark Celebrates Earth

This past Thursday was Earth Day, and was it ever a celebration. It was clear that learners love the earth and already knew a lot about how to save it. The day started with cheerful greetings of “Happy Earth Day!” as heroes entered the building.  Before circle time, they offered ways that they like to save energy and water. Learners then read a book about other ways to conserve precious resources.

In the afternoon, learners decorated flowerpots, carefully packed in soil, poked seeds in, and added water. They pledged to water them daily and see what grows.

Learners then added a little mud and lots of plastic trash to clean water. They challenged themselves to fish it out again using tools from the shed. They raced against the clock to remove the trash, comparing water samples to see which one was cleanest when they were done. They found out how hard it is to remove trash once it’s in water and that you need teamwork and determination to do so. 

Their project was followed by a video about a teenager, Boyan Slat, cleaning polluted water on a much larger scale. He invented a gigantic tool involving a pipe, a net, and natural ocean currents to help clear the oceans of toxic trash. Though Zoyan struggled to get his idea off the ground at first, he is now successfully helping to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It was a great example of a young person seeing a problem, finding a creative solution, and then persevering through obstacles to bring a good idea to fruition. As soon as the video finished, Spark learners proposed inventing their own Earth-cleaning machines and creating models from recyclables next week.

This daylong celebration of the earth, where we explored the many ways we can protect and nurture it, demonstrates the benefits of a cross-disciplinary approach to education. If we apply an idea in as many areas as possible, learners make stronger connections and are more likely to extend the ideas in innovative ways. 

After their Earth Day activities, these learners were inspired and excited to protect their environment. From the sound of it, the celebration will continue into the upcoming weeks and hopefully throughout their entire lives!

Serious Collaboration

On February 18, the Perseverance rover landed on the surface of Mars. After traveling for seven long months, the robot touched down in a crater, ready to hunt for signs of ancient life. Days later, learners watched the dramatic video-recorded landing, heard the researchers’ cheers when the rover landed safely, and listened to scientists talk about what they hoped to find.

For the culminating activity that week, learners were invited to put themselves in the shoes of space explorers and build their own robots. After taking a video tour of Perseverance and seeing all its working parts, they were given access to boxes, glue, markers, and so on. Away they went! The learners assembled cardboard pieces with plastic screws, glued craft sticks on the sides, poked pipe cleaners through to decorate, etc. They made cameras, lasers, chutes for materials, and even hiding places for people.

While the learners worked to create the robots of their dreams, the guides had some ulterior motives for this activity. This was yet another opportunity for them to practice their expanding collaborative skills. They shared ideas, took turns, and shared tools. “Can I have the screwdriver when you’re done?” “Can I have the tape after you’ve finished?” “Can you help me use the poking tool?” These requests flowed effortlessly from heroes’ mouths, in contrast to the sometimes contentious interactions that took place in the first part of the year. Even when minor arguments did arise, it was amazing to watch other learners step in to stand up for one another, issue reminders, and correct problems.

This was also a chance to practice their independence. Occasionally, someone had a hard time figuring out a tool, poking all the way through their cardboard, or ripping the tape. Rather than ask a guide for help, they sought out others who had struggled with similar issues or solved the problems already. Or sometimes guides offered suggestions for how the learners could do it themselves. “Have you tried holding your hand this way?” “What happens when you grip the tape here?” Rather than learning to depend on adults, learners showed that they are gradually coming to rely on themselves and one another.

Spark learners had a blast letting their imaginations and creativity run wild. They also got some valuable lessons in teamwork, as they do every day here at The Village School. Who knows, maybe some of them will explore Mars in the future!  

Are We Ready For Change?

Do things need to change? Spark learners think so. They believe that they can change the world, as they voiced with us during circle times. We’re behind them! We discussed the past, present, and future of things like racial equity and women’s rights during our morning and closing launches. We have at least one future lawyer who is willing to make sure no one is treated unfairly. Learners won’t give up until they reach this goal!

Learners empathized with the frustration and embarrassment past heroes felt when everyone wasn’t viewed or treated the same. At times, learners have been candid about their intention to work hard to change what they do not like. Laws and ideas need adjustment, they’ve told us. They’re willing to take the necessary steps needed to foster a positive community like the one they’ve created in Spark studio. Characteristics like perseverance, pride, self-control, unity and passion, all of which we’ve discussed, will lead them along their way.  Learners are coming together, voicing their concerns, and providing solutions to the problems of the world we talk about in the studio. The awareness shown to their guides make their journey to leaders that much more likely. 

Watching and listening to Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about women’s rights inspired learners to be happy about how some things in the world have changed. They told us how dads would not have time to give hugs because they would have to work more than usual. They told us that they like how moms and dads work together in teams. Some learners even felt that they might not be at The Village School if these changes hadn’t occurred. Let’s challenge ourselves and our learners to a create a world where change is encouraged and accepted!