Geeking out on democratic ed. in the shadow of the Flatirons

One of my longtime co-workers and I are going to be heading to Colorado in a couple of weeks. We’re spending five days on the campus of CU-Boulder with people from all over the world at the International Democratic Education Conference.

We will be listening, talking, sharing, eating and playing with such an amazing gathering of progressive educators that I can’t even begin to imagine what to expect, but I know it’s going to be completely amazing and inspiring and  I am committed to sharing as many of our experiences with our teachers as possible.  To help with keeping a connection to our school, we are asking teachers to give us their questions and curiosities to add extra focus to our thinking during workshops and discussion groups. I’m planning to write a brief reflection at the end of every day and email it to everyone so I don’t forget all of the million ideas and thoughts that will pass though my head in a day!

We’re honored and excited to be joining such a distinguished assembly of people from so many facets of education, social justice, educational reform and empowerment of youth. Perhaps we should wait to finalize our long awaited Mission statement until we’re back!

If you’re curious about the sorts of speakers and workshops being offered, here is a link to the site:  I promise that I’ll be sharing some of our most inspired moment here.

Bon Voyage!


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Summerhill on my mind….

I haven’t posted for a bit, but I’ve sure been thinking about it a lot!!
I’m reading A.S. Neill and Peter Gray and others in preparation for attending the Intl. Democratic Education Conference in Boulder, CO.
I am drawn to some provocative words from the founder of Summerhill School – “Every time we show Tommy how his engine works we are stealing from that child the joy of life – the joy of discovery – the joy of overcoming an obstacle. Worse! We make that child come to believe that he is inferior, and must depend on help.”  Notice that he chooses his words carefully, not suggesting that help is not needed but instead that it should be sought rather than depended upon. This may seem like a fine distinction when it comes to very young children, but I would submit that there is no better time for a person to have a clear view of their own potential. Our job is to be present, genuinely interested and invested in our kids as they construct their understanding of the physical world, culture and community around them.

I’ll close (for now) with a few more thought provoking words – “I hold that the aim of life is to find happiness, which means to find interest. Education should be a preparation for life.”  – A. S. Neill

What are your children interested in?


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Consequences…logical or not so.

Where did we get the idea that to get children to do better, we have to make them feel worse? I was reminded recently of this line from the book Positive Parenting. I have been giving a lot of thought to this concept of ‘logical consequence’.

For a long time I have advocated for this approach. Logical or natural consequences are respectful and related. They illustrate what will happen when one course of action is pursued. That’s fine, and if it’s a teaching moment that results, so much the better. It’s true, if you spend 20 minutes dinking around about putting on shoes before walking to the park, there will be less time to play when you get there. Simple, straight forward…no blame, no shame. It just is.

The thing is, I hear many more instances where the word consequence is used in a way that is little more than thinly veiled punishment. Most of us try to spin it so it sounds at least somewhat ‘logical’, but sometimes not even. So what, you say? Some situations call for a little more stick than carrot, right? Maybe. But I go back to the quote at the beginning of this post. Is feeling bad a necessary prerequisite to learning?

The other really big piece that is missing from all of this so far is the SOLUTION. Even when the consequence is natural, gentle and obvious, you have missed more than half of the teaching opportunity if you don’t have a conversation about how to do it differently next time. This has been one of my great revelations as I watch the school community write the rules each year. They are, by definition, coming up with the beginnings of solutions. Sometimes the solution is pretty authoritarian (NO bonking) and some are more subjective (Ask before pouring sand on someone) but whatever the angle, it has a consensus of agreement before adopting it, so there was a certain amount of discussion and reflection before settling on a rule that all could abide by.

The whole exercise is less about making a million rules for the school and far more about noticing and being conscious of the problem, how it effects self and others, and what can be done differently to avoid the problem in the future. As time goes by and the kids and relationships become more sophisticated, the process naturally transitions from just stating lots of totalitarian boundaries to being more about problem solving in the moment, the give and take of each individual circumstance so that all the players feel OK with the outcome.

During recent conversations with families and teachers there is a unanimous sense that there is a different vibe at school. More of a consciousness, better communication and, dare I say…a little more zen. I said a little.

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In all things….

….it’s never too late to embrace the art of meandering. There is much to be gained from taking it a day at a time.

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Something has gone terribly wrong….

Heavy week in the news again. We find ourselves faced with yet another young person whose life was shattered by the actions of others who purported to be her friends. The young lady from Saratoga High saw no alternative but to end her life after the devastating assault she suffered was shared all over social media by the boys who victimized her. It’s a terribly story, but apparently one that is more common than any of us would like to believe.

I grant you, not a very pleasant topic for a play based preschool blog. Nope – but a pretty serious one I’d say.

I just can’t stop thinking about the facts as we know them and drawing all sorts of conclusions that lead to more questions that all lead back to the same one:  What happened to make those kids so inured to another person’s dignity and well being?

We can go on and on and all around about the what, where and why of this particular event, but it still boils down to a complete absence of conscience and compassion. It’s hard to believe those qualities were not evident in their formative years. Did media overload desensitize them? Does the internet and social media make one feel infinitely powerful, remote and anonymous? It doesn’t really matter since none of that is going away. We, in our guidance of our children, must consider the outside influences that our kids are subject to….but our primary responsibility is to help them develop a good and caring heart. There is nothing more important for their individual happiness and for the well being of those they will share the world with.

More and more, we are consciously and actively making social competence, social justice and social responsibility the core of our philosophy at RTG.  The imperative to give kids not only a strong sense of their own possibility, but and equally keen awareness of others. Not a day goes by that we don’t have some sort of a conversation about how to proceed with the rules of games, personal needs and general conduct in a way that respects and includes the hearts and minds of each member of our community.

These are not “conversations” that seek to exert our will on the situation. To the contrary, we are only there to keep the focus on the need for everyone involved to be OK so the group as a whole can be OK. The actual rules being formulated are really secondary…it matters little whether you can have three minutes or five minutes on the swing. What matters, so urgently, is that very young children are having this time to experience being aware, compassionate, responsive and considerate. All the things that, were they a little closer to the surface in the consciousness of the three boys in Saratoga, may have guided their decisions in another direction…to one of compassion for their friend. Of course we have no way of knowing for sure, but my money is on yes.

What can we possibly be teaching children that is more urgent, more useful and more critical than a strong and loving appreciation for dignity and compassion?

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.  And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.  –The Dalai Lama





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Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. — Miles Davis

I’ve been reading a lot of literature about alternative education. I came upon an article that was discussing the highly charged subject of standardized testing and it’s influence on an increase in the aggressive pedagogical model for younger and younger children.

The article asked the question “Does direct teaching make children less likely to draw new conclusions—or, put another way, does it make them less creative?” It references two studies by developmental scientists at MIT and Cal-Berkeley. In both studies, an adult introduced kids to a toy that was unfamiliar.  With one group of children, they showed how to operate it and demonstrated some of it’s features. With the second group, they gave the kids little or no information – merely inviting the kids to check it out. Both studies came to very similar conclusions, that the more direct instruction the children received about the toy, the less they independently sought more information or different outcomes.

The second group explored and found more varied features of the toy as well as playing with it longer than the children  in the first group who accepted the direct instruction and the authority of the teacher as the extent of the toy’s abilities. And that, folks, is the death of creativity.

It’s much harder to create a learning environment that allows for the curiosity, exploration, failure and triumph that are the foundation of rich and three dimensional competence. It’s harder to measure those attributes with a test that only requires filling in a bubble. But the spontaneous learning that children experience when they interact directly with something they don’t understand is more of a fundamental learning mode and allows us to then understand the more abstract process of learning in a structured and top-down setting.

This is all by way of saying that preschool is no place for directed lessons, expected outcomes or fact based lessons. It is the place where we learn about ourselves and our relationship to the world. It is also when we do or do not learn to trust our instinct to learn and the process of inquiry and discovery. Or, to paraphrase Miles, play with what’s not there….yet.

If you want to read the whole thing, it’s right here:

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Probably the hardest parenting lesson any of us can learn…

… is to embrace our children’s dreams for themselves rather than our dreams for them.

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You can shoot a bad guy with your snack if you really want to.

Have you noticed that? If you take a big bite out of one corner of a graham cracker, it immediately looks exactly like a gun. If not, you are probably well past four years old.

War play, gun play and other acts of make-believe violence are themes that recur with as much regularity as the phases of the moon. And, of course, we are all extra sensitized to this in light of recent National events and the ensuing discussions and debates.

A few years back when an especially enthusiastic group of kids were mapping that territory,  I was motivated to do some further research and reflection. As you can imagine, there is no easy or entirely comforting answer to the question of what to do when this stuff starts.

There is very little definitive research on the subject, but there’s plenty of contention and anecdotal observation on the part of early childhood professionals all over the place. It comes down to two fairly distinct positions on the subject, both well intentioned and pretty well supported.

Many teachers and parents feel more comfortable with the ‘zero tolerance’ rule. The lines drawn are clear, the message uncluttered by nuance and interpretation. Basically, any and all reference to or enactment of play that involves guns, shooting, firing, etc., is unacceptable and curtailed immediately. The belief is that allowing this form of play encourages aggression and endorses force and violence as acceptable ways of solving conflict.

The problem is … most of the research on demonstrable connections between fantasy war play and increased actual aggression is thin to non-existent. It is a logical extrapolation borne out of people’s personally held philosophies regarding peace and non-violence. All honorable points of view by the way, but what I think we’re skipping over is that we all came to our mature defensible beliefs after having a lot of life experiences that influenced our conclusions. The logical connection between zero tolerance and decreased aggression may only seem logically evident.

Other researchers are of the belief that limited and regulated war play is important to children’s total development. To completely deny any sort of imaginative games of aggression deny a child an avenue to experience a sense of power and control at a time in their lives when they are comparatively weak and powerless. They submit the theory that to completely enforce a zero tolerance policy, teachers and parents must rely on the use of adult power to enforce a real world moral and behavioral imperative against children engaged in imaginative play. This idea is based on the idea that peace cannot be achieved by force, but by understanding. A resourceful and attentive adult can find teaching opportunities around conflict resolution, empathy, alternatives to violence and various feelings elicited by other’s aggression as well as our own. It is also a logical and contextual opportunity to articulate your values and beliefs about guns, war and human conflict.

We have, as a school, made the conscious decision to embrace the second philosophy. We are very wary of being put in the adversarial position of assuming we are controlling the thoughts and ideas of the children. We have chosen instead to conduct conversations with the kids to give them the opportunity to articulate their ideas about shooting games, how they feel when it is happening,  how and if they like to engage in these play themes and what the agreed upon school-wide parameters should be. We feel this is in keeping with a democratic, respectful and thoughtful culture within our school community.

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Oh yeah….

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So simple, yet so significant.

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