I spend most mornings standing by the K classroom yard greeting families as they arrive at school. Over the course of one particular year, I noticed a group of children, both boys and girls, but mostly 3-4 boys in the kindergarten class who consistently play outside in the yard for about 15 minutes while I’m greeting arriving families.
Nearly every day this year, this group of boys would come out into the yard after finishing their classroom sign in and then immediately make a B line for the swing set in the K yard. This particular swing set has a couple of bars hanging by chains, similar to a trapeze bar one can swing on by the arms, along with the typical seated type of swings that most people are familiar with. But the seated variety of swing holds less interest for this group of youngsters.
Each morning this set of boys would devise all sorts of games and challenges that involved this trapeze bar. They would run and grasp it to swing. They would run headlong, grasping it to harness the momentum of their bodies to land on their feet on the other side of the trough. Some boys would hang upside down from it, looping their legs around it and dangling their bodies and arms groundward.
They engaged in this type of play until the rainy season set in. At that point, their curiosity about the many ways they could use the trapeze satisfied, these boys became enthralled by marble runs indoors. Similar to their time outdoors which was focused on the swing, they now became focused on constructing marble runs from a kit of wooden grooves, tubes, curves and holes.
They would create runs individually and sometimes collaboratively. Some were simple, involving a drop and a short roll in a pitched groove and others were elaborate configurations involving multiple tunnels, drops, canals and grooves for the marbles to travel to the end of the run. Sometimes the boys would save these constructions for later or even the next day. At one point when the weather dried up, they were provided cardboard and some tape, and these same boys, joined by a few more, used the cardboard to create a huge configuration of gutters and angles outside on a play structure and instead of marbles they used a handball.
During all of these activities, from trapeze to marble runs to cardboard constructions, these boys engaged intensely in play. They don’t realize it, but the conditions for all this to happen are carefully curated to allow kids to play. These kids, as well as the entire class, are provided with
1. Unstructured time and a flexible schedule.
2. The freedom to choose how to use that time both for teachers and students.
3. A robust activities program.
4. Teachers who understand the importance of #’s 1, 2, and 3.
Through this intentional curation of materials and circumstances, unstructured play naturally lays the foundation for developing a passion. People who regularly engage in activities linked to their passions refer to these activities as creative or play - scientists and mathematicians talk about how playful their work is; entrepreneurs who are successful refer the their work in terms of play and enjoyment; and artists think of their creative explorations as play.
Time, materials and freedom of choice begin in nursery and continue through the school all the way up to 8th grade in two important programs - Activities and Choice. Kids in Jessica’s K-1 up through 8th grade choose which activity they will be in for one hour each day. Their choices can be challenging - library, PE, art, ceramics, music, science, woodshop, weaving, and math are all enticing!
During activities, there is no curriculum. Students devise their own projects to work on during that hour and are supported by teachers. No adult forces them to choose a specific activity and while there is no schedule that dictates to them which activity they will to attend, they may not always get their choice every day due to availability of space. But they will have a choice.
The Activities program changes a bit in the upper school, because kids can now choose to go to an activity or they can choose not to and rather play basketball, work on a class project, play music, or just hang out with a teacher. Some choose to do homework.
In the Upper School, in addition to Activities, the Choice program involves general interest classes created and run by teachers, specialists and teaching assistants. There are 5 cycles of choice, 1 hour per day for 2-3 weeks each session. Examples are: History of the World Through Tea, Sunlight Prints, Blacksmithing, Hip Hop Culture, Sushi Making, and Kinetic Sculptures. A wide variety of Choice classes are offered and students sign up for their top choices.
When provided with this very carefully created program, those boys in K and all students don’t realize that they were laying the neural foundations that are essential to being lifelong learners.
So, the next time you are on campus and see some kids on a swing, or your child comes home excited about a “potion” they made in science activity, or if you are presented with a kinetic sculpture from a Choice class, I hope you’ll appreciate all of the careful curation that went into helping your child find and develop their passion.