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!

Experience-Driven Learning in Our Own Backyards

For the first week of Session 6, Spark heroes and guides found themselves working out how to best navigate a virtual landscape. Confined to our houses, we interacted by Zoom calls and did our best to carve out space to learn in our living and dining rooms. Under these circumstances, how does a school that uses real-life experiences to explore the world carry on with this crucial component of our learning design?

The answer for Spark Studio lies in our newest project series—the Backyard Biome. Through this unit, we use experiential learning to examine the parts of the ecosystem that interact to create the natural world. We use magnifying glasses and binoculars to observe the plants and animals in our neighborhoods. We record our findings in nature journals. We dig our fingers into dirt as we learn about its many layers. We plant seeds and watch as they use the energy of the sun to grow throughout the session. We collect the different elements of the ecosystem in jars—plants, animals, soil, water, air, and sun—and ponder how they all might work together. All the while, we are having fun and getting our hands dirty in the truest sense of the word!

By doing this, heroes see, experience, and think about the environment in new ways. We also subtly integrate other topics important to their learning and development. As we turn on all our senses to experience our environment—sight, smell, hearing, touch, and (occasionally) taste—we are grounding ourselves in the present moment, practicing the mindfulness we talk about so often. We learn alongside our parents and siblings, which helps us deepen and expand our family relationships. And the heroes work on writing, drawing, vocabulary, critical thinking, and their powers of observation. It’s a truly multi-disciplinary way to learn, and we can do it all from home!

ES Quest: Session 4 Week 5

This week was all about putting the finishing touches on the heroes’ 3D models of their Acton Academies. They livened up the outsides with ball pits, basketball courts, and trees made out of pipe cleaners, while decorating the insides with Lego pieces and windows made of aluminum foil.

And for a very special hero talk, the famous architect Ben Mickus joined us via Skype to talk about his career. We learned all about his biggest accomplishments, including a building he designed on rollers to safeguard it from earthquakes, as well as a renowned concert hall in New York City that took six years to complete.

ES Quest: Session 4 Week 4

Last week in Quest, learners started building 3D models of their Acton Academy designs. They began by drawing out their floor plans on foam board, then crafted walls using chipboard and scissors. It was tricky to keep the walls standing while the glue dried! They also explored the concept of landscape design. It was fun dreaming up the outdoor green spaces that would surround their schools. Through it all, the heroes talked about the importance of staying flexible and confident, especially when we are forced to change our plans.