Woodland Park’s 3-5 class begins each year in an official state of anarchy. Naturally, the adults adhere to the basic principles of safety, but otherwise there are no rules other than the internalized ones the children bring from home or from their prior years of preschool.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the need to arise, usually within the first couple weeks. When that day comes we sit down at Circle Time and I say something like, “I saw people taking things from each other today. I saw people hurting each other. I saw people scaring each other. What can we do about that?”
This is a moment to rely on our second year students to exercise Woodland Park’s institutional memory and suggest that we need some rules. And they always come through.
I post a large sheet of butcher paper on the wall, ask, “What rules should we have?” then start calling on hands. After each suggestion we take a moment for discussion (e.g., “Does anyone like to get hit?” “Does anyone want to be pushed?”). Upon reaching “consensus” (i.e., no one insists that they want to get hit) I say, “Then that’s a rule,” and add it to the list.
This first session of rule making usually covers the important ground:
No taking things from other people
No biting . . . etc.
The rules we make on this first day of rule-making tend to be the ones that would sound good to anyone, anywhere, throughout time, much like the original Articles of the US Constitution or The Ten Commandments.
But unlike these more formal founding documents, ours haven’t been handed down to us by the Founding Fathers or The Almighty. Our rules are of our own creation and that’s a very powerful thing. I don’t want our classroom to be mine. We don’t want it to belong to the parents either. We want the children to know that the classroom belongs to them and making their own rules is one of the most powerful ways to do it. And lest you worry about turning over legislative powers to preschoolers, let me assure you that their own rules are far more restrictive and detailed than anything I myself would make. If anything, one of my main functions in the process is talking them out of some of the more draconian proposals (e.g., “No breathing on someone else’s painting,” or “No pushing air.”)
Ultimately, however, the rules become a tool for learning about being a member of a democratic community. When an adult notices a rule being broken, we no longer have to be the heavy hand of the law. We can simply point to the list of rules and say, “I want to remind you that you and your friends made a rule that says no running inside.” In other words, It’s not me who is telling you what to do, it’s you and your friends. I’m just here to remind you about your agreement. Even after nine years of doing this, I’m still delighted by how these pre-reading children will gaze at the scrawl of letters on the wall as if checking to make sure that the rule in question is indeed there. And even when they themselves are reminding their friends about rules they tend to point at them and there's a moment when everyone in the conflict takes a moment to commune with the rules they made together.
I know that many of our families have instituted this rule-making procedure in their own homes.
Of course, like both the Constitution and the book of Exodus, we start with a fairly broad “document” detailing principles we hold in common, and then append it with a more detailed and ever-growing set of additional rules that reflect the fact that we continue to learn. That’s why rule-making at Woodland Park remains a regular and popular Circle Time activity throughout the year. In fact, rarely does a Circle Time go by without at least one child declaring, “I have a rule!”
As our list grows over the school year, our founding principles remain sound, while many of our “amendments” wind up striking us as ridiculously situational, no matter how vital they seemed when enacted. Rules like, “No kicking people with bubble gum,” and “No stepping on hangnails,” are destined to be repealed (like prohibition) by future generations. With imagination one might be able to conceive of a time when these rules made sense, in much the way one can with all of those anachronistic rules in Leviticus about sacrificing goats.
But whether universal or silly, each rule represents a step in the process of our children learning to live together in a community of their own creation.