I can be incredibly clumsy. Anyone who is around me long enough knows I’m bound to run into something, fall off something, trip over something, or drop something. I’ve learned to embrace this aspect of myself and brush off the dust and ignore the bumps. I recently fell off my bike (ok…I fell off twice) – and while neither fall was serious or even witnessed by many others….it was still horribly embarrassing. Getting back up on the bike still required a couple deep breaths and some inward self coaching. Other kinds of mistakes and failure (professional, relational, etc.) are no less comfortable, and they certainly aren’t welcome to the extent that I would willingly seek them out.
There are numerous articles citing abundant research about the growth mindset and the benefits gained when children make mistakes and experience failure. Research shows that when children are raised in reflective, supportive environments (at home and at school) they develop resilience and learn to view these challenges as learning opportunities. A recent article from Time called “Why Every Parent Should Suffer a Total Wipeout” goes a step farther by illuminating how little we may practice what we preach in a way that is transparent for children. Though the article is written with parents in mind, it’s not difficult to extend the message to teachers and any adults that interact with children in a nurturing capacity.
Do we recognize and appreciate the difficulty of what we are asking children to do when we urge them to persevere, try again, and keep their chin up? Do we empathize with how emotionally and physically exhausting it is to keep picking yourself up (literally or metaphorically) and throwing yourself into something again? Even if that thing is something you desperately love and want to improve at? How often do we truly try something that we have no idea how to do as adults? The author’s own experience of trying something new and finding it extremely difficult, watching others (even her own children) succeed more quickly around her, and needing to push through challenging emotions was a powerful opportunity for her to grow empathy for what we ask children to experience on a daily basis. Most, if not all, of their days involve encountering something completely new (a new math skill, book, idea, friend, game, conflict resolution skill, sport, and more). We ask them to try….and try again! We ask them to trust us that with trying and with time they will grow. We know this to be true…..but what if we also SHOWED them how it’s true for us as well?
When we’ve learned so much and spent so much of our lives trying, failing forward, and developing our skills, talents, and passions….it’s easier to stick to what we’re already good at and comfortable with than it is to try something completely new. But what is lost if our children and students never have a confident, articulate model to show them the healthy way through failure and challenge? What is the cost if we leave them with the false idea that perseverance is something only children need and failure when trying something new is only something kids encounter?
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
“Hi, honey! How was your day at school?”
“What did you do today?”
“Played with my friends!”
“What did you play?”
“We used blocks and builded a giant building for our city and played superheroes and made capes out of blankets!”
“Did you have math today?”
“No, we just played.”
This is quite possibly a conversation you’ve had with your child (especially if they are 4-6 years old) on the way home from school. A conversation that, quite naturally, might result in the fear that your child is missing out on learning crucial skills to prepare them for their future. Where are the worksheets? Why did they not have reading or math? If school doesn’t look like I remember it, how will my child get what they need?
These are very reasonable concerns, and at Hillbrook we’re excited to address them by shining a light into the incredible power of play and the fullness of a child’s extraordinary educational experience here. We are excited to share with you that it is possible for teachers to create such engaging and playful learning environments that children don’t yet realize they are in the math, reading, or writing component of their day. They are simply and deeply immersed in the experience of making meaning through play.
The growing body of research (I invite you to also explore the resources below) demonstrates that play is the most effective avenue through which young, developing children learn and practice skills for life and learning. Their brains are wired to practice these skills through building, exploring their environment, imaginative play, and more. As children practice skills through play, they are rewarded with joy. In playing together children practice making decisions, feeling emotions, controlling impulses, understanding the perspectives of others, negotiating differences, making friends, and maintaining or repairing relationships.
Some adults see “play” in an educational context as tantamount to the experience that, albeit a delightful one, keeps children from formal learning, wasting valuable time in their formative years. Research tells us that this is simply not the case. Play is a dynamic learning moment during which children are involved in actively creating ideas and exploring environments through interest-driven choices and formal instruction opportunities in familiar content areas.Teachers organize learning experiences that are both deeply playful and purposeful. When you step into classrooms at Hillbrook you will see flexible environments organized by caring teachers who are responsive to children’s passions and needs. Shelves are stocked with inviting materials, encouraging children to explore and take initiative to test, create, and learn collaboratively with one another. Teaching core academic skills and teaching students to be caring, playful, responsible human beings do not stand in contrast to one another. Expert educators do not need to choose between these two perspectives. Reading is not sacrificed to teach sharing or allow for dramatic play, instead there are formal moments of direct reading instruction AND reading is learned through dramatic storytelling. The practice of math skills is not relinquished to allow for block building, instead there are formal math lessons and centers AND key mathematical skills are introduced and refined in the context of construction.
Junior-Kindergarten students have their own writing notebooks where they record their ideas, practice letter formation, and exercise their voice as budding writers and storytellers. These skills come alive and are made playfully relevant to children and their learning in the video displaying the fruits of many days of planning a culminating project (a JK Car Wash!) that was driven by the interests of the group. As JK teacher Ms. Okano says,
“When facilitating play/project-work, I start by listening for joy. Often I hear it as a “buzzing” problem that could be solved with “group think” and the right alchemy of opportunity meeting the time to explore the problem with REAL (not toy) materials from an adult to tackle it creatively.”
This project involved brainstorming, list making, and planning. It introduced key research skills (watching a video taken by Ms. Dowty of a car going through a real car wash, asking questions, identifying names and types of materials, etc.) that the children used to make their vision a reality.
Kindergartners experience formal math instruction in small groups where they practice math skills and solve problems with manipulatives and numbers. They use concrete objects to make groups of ten and practice one-to-one correspondence and adding and subtracting to solve meaningful mathematical problems. One of the exploration centers in Hillbrook’s Kindergarten classroom is the block area. When children build structures out of blocks the conceptual and concrete mathematical skills they have been practicing are put to use as they explore cause and effect, match objects in one-to-one correspondence, form data sets/groups by sorting and matching objects according to their attributes, experiment with gravity, stability, weight, and balance, and much more!
As students continue to grow, their ability to access reading, writing, and math skills continues to deepen. In first grade, a lesson on brainstorming, planning, collaborating, and constructing comes alive with a simple question: How might we create the tallest standing structure out of only paper and tape? Students employ their writing, mapping, planning, negotiating, compromising, and time management skills to accomplish impressive feats of engineering.
Better learning doesn’t just happen as a result of environments where children are free to play. Better learning happens WHILE they play. When we structure learning environments at Hillbrook we don’t ask “For this experience, will it be play or learning?” Instead we ask “For this experience, how will it be play AND learning?”
The morning message is a daily letter written from the teacher/s to students highlighting one or more elements of the day ahead. These messages are written before students arrive at school. As students enter the classroom, among the first things they do are to visit and read (or attempt to read) the morning message. In early grades, morning messages are read chorally aloud as students gain familiarity with words/phrases that show up often in the letters. In older grades, students read the morning message independently, and often respond in some way as well. Responses might involve writing a word or phrase in response to a question, solving a mathematical problem posed, or adding information to create a chart or graph of class data. Morning messages provide an anchor for each classroom community to generate excitement around learning for the day, kick-start morning routines, and practice critical learning skills across the curriculum. Teachers can use morning messages to assess where each student needs additional enrichment or support and build confidence of their learners prior to new and challenging skills and concepts that might lie ahead in the school day. Morning messages build community in developmentally appropriate ways at each grade level. Morning messages are a small component of each child’s day (approximately 5 minutes), yet with over 170 school days in the year they are a repeated opportunity for practicing critical learning and demonstrating quality growth.
Executive function is a set of processes your brain undergoes to help connect past experience with present action. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls the executive function portion of the brain its “air traffic control system”. Children and adults of all ages use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, choosing focus, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing self and environment.
Executive function includes the external management skills of time, materials, & space. Internally it includes the cognitive management skills of filing away information, retrieving it at the appropriate time, inhibiting impulses, selecting appropriate focus for attention, maintaining focus, and flexing that focus when needed.
Whether you are a student, educator, administrator, parent or a combination of the above, below are some articles that give some additional insight and perspective into cognition & executive function skills….unraveling some of the mystery behind how it is you do all that you do:
“Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive function, a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and revise plans as necessary. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and the opportunity to build further on these rudimentary capacities is critical to healthy development through middle childhood, adolescence, and into early adult life.”
“Think school success is mostly a matter of IQ? Think again. Worried that your child’s learning disability is a doomsday diagnosis? It doesn’t have to be. Think being an “average” kid will prevent your child from excelling in school? Not necessarily. Natural ability to learn is only part of the equation for academic success; motivation is another key. And neuroscience is shedding light on another group of mental capacities called executive functions — the self-governing, goal-directed skills that enable children to meet academic challenges and become independent learners.…Through patience, monitoring, guidance, and collaboration with teachers, parents can aid their children in developing their own executive strategies, move toward self-supervision, and soar.” – Aden A. Burka
“Our students are the center of what we do and what we want to accomplish. We do not simply teach a subject, we teach children. We teach them how to learn and also to value the process of learning whether it be the process of writing a book report, completing a project, or preparing for a test. Our students are incredibly unique and yearn for us to know and value their strengths as learners and their qualities as people. When we appreciate our students’ diversity as learners and promise to stretch their capabilities and minds, we ultimately prepare them for independence from us, which allows them to mature as individuals.” – Greensboro Day School Learning Resource Department
“Educators, collectively, have a strong sense of what works for students, and what schools can and should do for their charges. The challenge, in order to attract and justify the allocation of precious and limited resources, is to ground our vision in research that is both substantiated and inspirational. The visionary aspirations of a school should be anchored in the science of learning, and done in a way that unleashes creative organizational and curricular possibilities that reflect what it is emerging in this exciting field of neuro-education.” – Mike Walker
“Let’s remember that the most important thing we do as teachers is create a compassionate community for meaningful connection with students. It is our cultivated awareness, engagement, and authenticity that allow us to do this in our work with young people. Mr. Keating, and Mr. Williams, can live on in our classrooms.” – Sarah Ruddell Beach
At Tuxedo Park School we value a developmentally appropriate approach to summer work that balances enjoyment of the slower pace of summer with consistent exposure to topics covered and skills mastered. These resources are not assignments, but possibilities as families craft the summer schedules and routines that are right for their child.
In second grade students are engaging in reenactments, recreations, and hands-on construction projects to help make events of the American Revolution come alive in their 21st century classroom. Read about their adventures on the NAIS Inspiration Lab:
First graders at TPS are collaborating together to build a three-dimensional community in their classroom…and deepening their own classroom community in the process. Check out their brief story here on NAIS Inspiration Lab: http://inspirationlab.org/story/5324
Our society tolerates gross unfairness every day. It tolerates misogyny, racism and the callous indifference to those born without privilege.
I think that most of us are programmed to process the little stories, the emotional ones, things that touch people we can connect to. When it requires charts and graphs and multi-year studies, it’s too easy to ignore.
We don’t change markets, or populations, we change people. One person at a time, at a human level. And often, that change comes from small acts that move us, not from grand pronouncements.
Read this thoughtful blog post by educator & innovator Bo Adams who asks and begins to answer, “If school is supposed to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t school look more like real life?”