New Beginnings

What a wonderful first couple weeks of school in Spark Studio. We’re off to an amazing start! Heroes spent this time settling into the their new environment, learning its rhythms and routines and the names of their new friends. They found focus and flow by using building materials, perusing the library shelves, and practicing activities on our practical life shelf trays. (Kinetic sand is just as engaging as you might imagine.)

The emphasis of these first two weeks in the studio was on expanding heroes’ concentration. As they move past the excitement of trying all the new activities and materials, they started focusing for longer and longer periods. Soon they will begin to ease into ever more challenging activities. 

Outside, the heroes had the opportunity to engage in more collaborative play. They invented games, imagined pretend worlds for themselves, and even began their first forays into  “loose parts” play.

“Loose parts” refers to materials such as plywood, tires, PVC pipes, lumber, tarps and bamboo that we store out back in a little shed behind the playground. During our extended outdoor afternoon period, heroes are free to explore these items, combine them in different ways, and plan and build unique structures.

Spark heroes were understandably unsure about the “loose parts” shed the first couple of days. The playground, climbing trees, and ample space to roam provided more attractive play opportunities. But as soon as it started to rain Wednesday, all of a sudden they were very interested! They came running from all four corners of the outdoor play area to grab materials from the shed to construct rain shelters. Within minutes, tarps draped over picnic tables and PVC pipe frames, and plywood leaned against picnic table benches to protect from the wind. It was so much fun to watch the problem-solving and teamwork take hold in this group.

When it was time to go in it took almost no urging for them to work together to organize it and put it all away. The heroes even used plywood to construct makeshift ramps for easier access to the shed. We could already tell this would be a group that would work and play well together this year. We’re looking forward to next week’s adventures!

Problem-Solving Masters

In the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by our heroes’ collective problem-solving abilities. It’s so interesting to watch this group of children work together to find solutions, without seeking help from an adult. They feel empowered to do it by themselves.

It happens daily, but one instance that really stuck out happened during outdoor water play last week. I brought along some water balloons, pre-filling as many of the colorful orbs as I could. I also brought along the water balloon-filling bottle and extra balloons in case they wanted to try it, but didn’t know if it would get much use as soon as the heroes realized how hard it was to use.

After they had so much fun throwing the first set of water balloons, the heroes set a goal of filling the bucket with “hundreds” more, and reached for the bottle without hesitation. With a little guidance, they learned how to position and hold the balloon on the spigot, pump the bottle full of air, press the lever to release the water, then tie the end of the balloon. It was complicated and difficult work. Balloons kept falling and bursting on the grass and squirting in heroes’ faces as they attempted to tie them.

Did these learners get frustrated or give up? Did they seek out some easier, more fun form of play (i.e. the nearby sprinkler)? Not once. I marveled at their tenacity and joy in the face of such a difficult task. They each took on a role, worked to try and master it, and encouraged each other along the way. Their little assembly line was quite a sight! They spent the better part of the afternoon trying to fill up those balloons. In the end, they didn’t amass quite the arsenal they had aimed for. But it really didn’t matter. It was the hard task of filling them and working as a team that was so engaging.

These children’s ability to organize themselves and find solutions to various challenges is teamwork at its finest. It’s a joy to watch.

Embracing a New Normal

After three long months at home, several Spark heroes returned to their beloved studio this week. The same familiar materials, their favorite books, and their beautiful plants—which have weathered this storm pretty well, all things considered—greeted them with open arms.

More importantly perhaps, the heroes positively basked in each other’s company. After weeks of interacting with each other on Zoom, FaceTime, and phone, they were more than eager to eat, learn, and play together once again. They were back to laughing as they played, comforting each other when they got hurt, and yes, resolving the occasional conflict. Their relationships picked up right where they left off, that’s for sure.

The studio isn’t exactly the same way they remember it though. Fewer chairs now tuck in around the tables, tape marks the carefully spaced out spots at the tables and on the floor, and their comfy pillows are conspicuously absent.  A small “disinfecting table” now stands off to the side and holds materials that need to be wiped down before they are put away. And some heroes still need to join us remotely, so the small crew now makes room for a computer at circle time!

How are they dealing with these new safety measures, you ask? Brilliantly. It was tough at first—not being able to crowd together at one table for afternoon project, heap together during quiet time, or play touch tag on the playground.

But as the hours ticked by, the heroes were adapting to these new changes and accepting them as their new normal. After just two days, they were happily grabbing wipes to clean materials before putting them away, wiping down tables and chairs without prompting, and cleaning books and leaving them to dry before replacing them on the shelves. They made elaborate lily pads in art, created challenging obstacle courses at project time, and constructed imaginative buildings out of blocks. Their willingness to help, keep each other safe, and find ways to thrive in their environment have become another emblem of their growing resiliency.

The Power to Choose

Spark Session 7: Week 2

Our central theme for morning launches this session is making choices. Spark heroes are at that magical age where kids realize that they can choose to act in a certain way. Activities and thought exercises that remind them of this ability and allow them to practice it are particularly engaging. They love to imagine themselves in a situation and speculate about what they would do.

The first book we read as part of this unit was entitled “What Should Danny Do?” In this choose-your-own-adventure-style book, a little boy named Danny—a self-described “superhero in training”—encounters various problems throughout his day. For each one, the reader gets to choose between a good choice and a bad choice, then see what happens in the following pages.

On our first read, the heroes were opting for all the good, reasonable-sounding actions. Logically they knew these were the “right” things to do. They decided Danny would cooperate with his brother, play with him even after he teased Danny, and share his ice cream when his brother dropped his.

But before we made the final decision, one hero stopped us and said “I think we should make this more like a normal day, where bad things happen sometimes.” I asked what they meant. “Sometimes you feel a strong emotion that makes you want to [make a bad decision].” 

With this insight, they had beaten me to the punch. In very simple terms, this young hero explained that an entertaining book is not the same as real life. Reality is much messier, spotted with hurt feelings, selfishness, and knee-jerk reactions. In real life, Danny might have demanded his brother give up the coveted toy, stomped on his brother’s foot when teased, then slurped up his ice cream before his brother could ask for a taste.

So we did what they suggested and made the “bad” choice—we decided Danny would yell at the girl who fell, spilling his lemonade, rather than help her up. Not only did Danny make the girl feel bad, Mom wasn’t happy with him either. Danny resolved to make better choices the next day.

Becoming aware of our ability to make choices is eye opening and empowering for young children. Wow, that one decision changed the course of his whole day!? It’s a difficult concept to grasp, and even more difficult to exercise in real life. It’s a big ask to suggest that a child pause, think about their options, and thoughtfully choose their actions based on the best outcome. Heck, that’s hard for an adult.

But when kids realize that with a single decision they can turn a bad day around or make a friend feel better, they strengthen the agency they feel over their lives and empathy emerges.

Each hero in our studio has the “power to choose.” How will they use it today?

Let the Games Begin!

In Spark, our session 7 project time theme is Games and Strategy. Why games? First and foremost, games are fun. And who couldn’t use a little boost in excitement, laughter, and joy at the start of this summer?

But games provide so much more than that. When kids roll a pair of dice, they are getting real-life practice with numbers, counting, addition, subtraction, and even probability. While they hopscotch down the sidewalk, they help solidify their spatial abilities and gross motor skills. When they imagine they are frolicking through Candy Land, they get practice strategizing, keeping track of hazards, and following the sequence of play. A simple game of Scrabble Jr. has them reading, writing, and communicating verbally.

Countless other games help heroes solve problems, make predictions, use logic and reasoning, and understand that actions have consequences. They also hone the ability to set goals, recall the rules, and follow them.

Many of these skills are essential for getting heroes ready to enter the elementary studio: exhibiting self-control, waiting their turn, and being able to concentrate and focus for longer periods of time. Each game is a prime opportunity to practice winning and losing gracefully. That last one is particularly tough, even for us adults!

Throughout all these games, we are developing life skills of collaboration and teamwork, perseverance, and creativity. For our final project, the heroes get to create their own game!

The benefits of games are unending, but this might be enough for now. Sometimes what matters most is watching our kids lose themselves in the pure joy of it all. What fun it is to play together!

Practicing Resilience

Resilience is one of the most fundamental qualities we try to instill in our heroes.  To be able to bounce back from a change or misfortune is an essential life skill. At the same time, this may be one of the hardest characteristics to develop. It takes a LOT of practice.

This whole session has certainly provided lots of practice, hasn’t it? There have been so many examples of heroes meeting challenges and never giving up. They adjusted to new routines, tried out different reading and math programs to keep them in their challenge zones, and collaborated with each other over Zoom. Virtual school has been a challenge for sure, but it’s been wonderful to witness how these heroes can think creatively, solve problems, and explore amidst it all. Just look at the learning that took place this session!

Ms. Katey wisely commented that if this period of isolation had occurred at the beginning of the school year, it likely would have looked quite different. The group was still figuring out how to learn independently and working to forge strong bonds. However, with six months under their belts, the heroes were quick to translate their learning to their home environment. For them, the location of school mattered far less than the attitudes they had developed. It’s been a privilege to witness their strength and determination!

Positive Feedback: The Words We Use Matter

“Good job, kids! Well done, that’s beautiful! Way to go, that was great!”

These affirmations are music to our ears, aren’t they? We all love to hear that someone else likes our work, that something we did makes them proud, that they approve.

But perhaps a bit paradoxically, we try not to say things like this to heroes at The Village School. When we tell kids that we like their work or we think they did a good job, we are essentially giving them gold stars. It doesn’t take long to shift their drive from “I want to learn new things,” to “I need applause from another person.”

For this same reason, we don’t give grades. Grades have the unintended consequence of encouraging students to do whatever they need to do to get that ‘A+.’ Instead, without that pressure, our learners have room to tinker, try new things, work at their own pace, and make mistakes—all without worrying that they need to perform to perfection. That frees their young minds to learn and grow and helps foster the learner-driven environment that we are trying to create.

So we try not to praise results at TVS. But we still want to cheer our learners forward, steer them in the right direction, and maybe give them a boost of confidence. How do we shape that feedback?

In the studio, one thing we try to do is praise effort rather than results. We say things such as “Wow, I saw you keep trying and not give up.” Or “I can tell you worked really hard on that.” In praising their effort, we strive to help kids focus on the process they used to make something. That encourages them to continue trying in the future—to practice and get better—which builds persistence.

Another way is to ask a few pointed questions. “Interesting, what gave you the idea to use those colors?” “Wow, how did you decide to use wood instead of cardboard like last time?” These questions show our interest and engagement, but avoid any judgment—positive or negative. And if they seem hungry to do more or make more, we might say something like ,“Great, what do you want to do differently next time?”

Perhaps the hardest method—but one of the most effective—is to say nothing at all. So many times, kids aren’t looking for any kind of feedback while they’re hard at work. If they don’t ask, they won’t miss it!

Our fervent hope is that the payoff for learners will be huge and long-lasting. Their whole lives, they will be able to pat themselves on the back for a job well done rather than chase the elusive accolades of others. Above all, they will be excited to learn for learning’s sake, which will help maintain that precious intrinsic love of learning. That life lesson will take them far!

Obstacles: Roadblocks or Opportunities?

Problems in life may seem to come one after the other, especially when you’re young. In one afternoon, a child might spill red paint on the table, get muddy water in their boots, and lose a favorite toy. What to do? Get mad and complain? Or tackle these situations head-on?

This week we talked about problems like hurdles on a track. Some kids might grumble, kick or yell that they’re not fair. Others may decide to leap over them. What would you do? During launch, I asked the heroes what advice they would give to a child who was stuck behind a hurdle. One piped right up. “I would tell him to jump!” And jump, I believe, they would.

An outdoor mission this week followed on that same theme. The heroes were invited to make themselves or their siblings an obstacle course using objects they had around the yard or garage. I saw footage of heroes jumping through hoops, balancing on pool noodles, and jumping off of playhouse roofs. Even if they didn’t quite grasp the obstacle course as a metaphor for life, I couldn’t help but imagine them bobbing and weaving, pirouetting, and running when life’s challenges came their way.

But while it might seem fun to leap over obstacles in a game, it’s not so easy to scramble over the stumbling blocks of real life. A sticky mess, painful scrape, or shouting match with a sibling—none of these is fun. So how can we nudge kids to see these problems as hurdle-like opportunities they can surmount?

One thing guides try to do in the studio is model the approach. We might say we are perplexed, explain how we feel, and then talk through step-by-step how we could put things right. We might even ask heroes’ advice about the best course of action.

We also try to help heroes recognize that they can solve their own problems. After we acknowledge that it’s a hard situation and label their feelings as valid, we may offer a way to reframe or give a choice of actions. “It sounds like this is a tough problem. What would you tell a friend in a similar situation? How could you turn this into an opportunity? Would you prefer to do X, Y, or Z?”

Lastly, we might ask their advice when a fellow hero (or at home, a sibling) has run into a difficulty. “It seems like Maeve is having a tough time waiting for her turn to use the toy John has. What advice could you give her?”

It is certainly a long process, but little by little we can help show our heroes that their problems don’t have to get them down. They can be part of life’s rich experiences, and they can mold us into more resilient human beings!

Building the Tribe: Home Edition

At The Village School, we work diligently on “building the tribe.” We strive to create a community that works well together, can talk about problems, resolve differences, and encourage one another. These character-based, real-life lessons are a huge part of our learning design and a solid way to build lifelong social skills. 

While we are learning from home, it’s hard to build those same school relationships. However, we can turn our focus to a different tribe—the one at home. Heroes’ relationships with siblings, parents, even pets will be some of the longest-lived—and arguably most important—relationships of our lives.

One thing we can say about this pandemic is that it has led to LOTS of family together time. (That can be either a blessing or a curse sometimes…) Kidding aside, we may never again have so much uninterrupted time together. So how can we make the most of it now?  

As a studio we are exploring sibling relationships in morning launch. This week we read a book called “Violet and Victor Write the Best-Ever Bookworm Book” in which a sister-brother duo writes a creative story together. The two sometimes disagree and dislike each other’s ideas. But at the same time, they compromise, respect each other’s contributions, work as a team, and delight in their final product. “I like our story,” says Victor at the end, before Violet spends the afternoon rereading it aloud. That push-and-pull of the sibling dynamic is one we will continue to explore.

We are also trying to provide opportunities for siblings to participate in projects. In the past couple of weeks, siblings (often younger ones) joined heroes to explore the water cycle, create art, and collaborate on videos. So while more togetherness inevitably invites more squabbles, yelling, and competition, the lessons in teamwork are invaluable.

Have you noticed any shifts in the sibling dynamics at home? What challenges have your kids faced? In what ways have you observed the strengthening or deepening of that bond? Where do they seem stuck, and have you discovered helpful tips that might help another family? Do you have any beautiful or encouraging stories to share? Please share in the comments!

Hopefully, when this is all over, we will emerge stronger as family units. That will translate to better relationships at school, where we will continue building our Spark tribe as soon as we can safely be back together.

Find the Flow

Pandemic parenting is tough. In addition to everything else, we are trying to homeschool our children and keep them motivated. I don’t know about you, but I find the latter one of the hardest tasks on my plate, and the one over which I have least control.

It has helped in the past couple of weeks to recall the primary goals of Spark Studio. Our chief aim lies not in academic progress, though that comes in time. Instead, it’s to help children expand their ability to find focus and joy in their work, and to concentrate on a task for longer and longer periods of time. Does it matter whether they are getting equal amounts of math, reading, and writing, or even whether they are doing any of these things at all on a given day? Nope.

Kids can find themselves in the concentration zone (or “in flow,” as it’s also called), when they are doing something that especially interests them in that moment. It’s especially common with hands-on work. They might be building with blocks, creating art, exploring an instrument, or playing a game. Those periods of flow, when heroes become lost in their task and are intensely focused—yet are completely relaxed and enjoying themselves—are the Holy Grail of learning. These are the times when the deepest learning occurs.

Why? Because that’s when learners are most curious and interested, which makes them hungry to go deeper. Key here is to give heroes the freedom to choose what they work on. (Within limits, of course. They can’t watch movies all day.) Kids have this wonderful innate love of learning that keeps them seeking novelty in their activities. We aim to preserve that intrinsic motivation by following those interests. Where will they take us today?

Aside from that, they can set the stage for periods of flow by choosing activities that are challenging but not too hard. They can set realistic goals that they know they have the skills to accomplish. And activities don’t have to come from school-related materials, but they certainly can. You as a parent can then keep an eye out for any periods of deep concentration and try not to interrupt them if you can avoid it.

Chasing those periods of flow and allowing them to linger has become my focus, which has shifted my thinking about what homeschooling should look like. I still have to remind myself several times a day, but I now have less pressure to check things off a list and more room to observe and enjoy the moment.

Does this mean heroes will ignore their at-home materials? Probably not. There may be days when they happily take out their grammar books, breeze through some math sheets, or tackle a few challenging Bob books. And on those other days (and there will be lots), as long as kids are getting outside and being read to, that’s plenty. There’s so much learning that takes place with just reading and unstructured play. The rest is completely optional and icing on the cake!