Dana and Mike from the Papoose Preschool & Infant Care in Truckee, CA recently visited Woodland Park while our Pre-3 class was in session. And while I enjoy getting out and visiting other schools, you often learn more about your own program by just staying home and entertaining visitors, especially if your guests are passionate early childhood educators who take you out for pizza, beer, and discussion afterwards (in our defense, it was a Friday).
One of the things Mike pointed out that I tend to take for granted after 12 years in cooperative classrooms, is how much we get done in a morning with all those extra adult bodies in the room. Cooperatives have very low tuitions (most of our families pay right around $100 per month) made possible by the commitment of those families to work in and for the school. On the day Mike visited, there were 21 kids and 11 adults, which allows us to simultaneously run 8 or more stations with adults to spare, ranging from art and drama, to block and sensory play, while the children freely chose what they're going to do.
As the "working parents" arrive, my first job is to get them some basic instructions, tips, and cautions, but when I'm really doing my job, the most important thing I do is to step out of the way and let them make it their own, because, after all, these parents are students too. Each of them is enrolled at North Seattle Community College, which in turn provides us with a parent educator who is in the classroom once a week and who leads a monthly evening parent ed session, not to mention being available by phone or email. I love nothing more than when a parent starts with my basic concept for a station, then injects it with his or her own perspective, interests and personality, making it into something that will never again be recreated.
Some days that takes the form of a dad taking a dull session of building with cardboard blocks and transforming it into a wild game of prison escape or hot lava monster. And that's fantastic, but more often the magic happens when one of these incredible parent-teachers takes advantage of the children's interest and helps them stretch.
On Friday, Charlotte's mom Amanda was in charge of the station we call "Table Toys," and while there were several other things going on in her station, I asked her to focus on managing the cooperative board game Cariboo, a terrific game for 3-5 year olds, but this was a class of 2-3 year olds. I knew some of them are right on the edge of being able to handle turn-taking board games, but I honestly didn't expect them to actually play the game. There are lots of cool doors to open, attributes to identify (shapes, colors, numbers), holes to drop balls into, and a treasure chest with a pink jewel in it. My expectation was that Amanda would mostly be there to help them explore the mechanics of the game and make sure pieces didn't get lost.
But that's not what happened. Instead, from the very start she patiently guided these very young children through the intricacies of taking turns, playing by the rules, and managing the emotions that are always a part of board games. This is particularly impressive given that she was dealing with an ever-changing cast of game-players, many of whom are still in the grab-first-ask-no-questions stage of their development. Typically, by about the 30 minute point parent-teachers in charge of Cariboo start to go a little bonkers with all the repetition and petty conflicts that normally attend playing board games with young children, but when I checked in with her, thinking she might need a break, Amanda answered, "I'm good. I'm on a roll."
It was really a miracle to watch. Playing that game in that way with that much focus is simply something that I do not have the patience or skills to do. This is what makes the cooperative model great. No one teacher can offer everything every child needs or wants, but all of us together can.
On our best days it's a place where everyone in the room is learning something new about themselves and the other humans. I know those Cariboo-playing kids were stretched as far as they could go on Friday morning. I'll bet there were a lot of solid afternoon naps. And I have no doubt that Amanda is now the world's leading authority on playing Cariboo with 2-3 year olds.
And I learned to not take for granted the true source of the magic of Woodland Park.