Monday, January 09, 2017

For Which We Are Designed



Last week, a parent arrived at school with a stack of V-shaped plastic signs marked with numbers, the kind that pizza parlors give you to put on your table so they know where to bring your order. She found them while cleaning out the garage amidst her husband's childhood keepsakes. Apparently, as a middle schooler, he and his buddies had thought it an hilarious joke to steal them, one by one, from a local restaurant. Having been an adolescent boy, I can imagine how funny it was. The signs then retired to a box where they've been for a couple decades.


She asked, "Can you use these?"

I replied, "Let's see," and left them out for the kids, who, sure enough, could use them.

I thumb through those fancy school supply catalogs like everyone else, often envying some of the materials, but we rarely purchase them, opting instead to take one last crack at junk like these table top numbers, giving it one last life before sending to the landfill. In fact, these numbers, already garbage, will likely become a regular part of our rotation of indoor materials for a time. We will find more and better things to do with them. Then, as they begin to break and become otherwise less "pretty," some will become incorporated into art or science projects, while others will find their way outdoors where we'll play with them until they're simply "gone" (e.g., buried in the sand, broken into tiny bits, lost under the shed). A few of them, years from now, might even wind up in the dumpster, but not until they are completely used up.


One of our guiding principles at Woodland Park is that educating young children need not be expensive. We count on parents and other members of our community periodically purging their attics, garages, and basements. That's where we get most of our best stuff. Indeed, I would assert that, generally speaking, the quality of an early years education is inversely related to how much is spent on "stuff": the more expensive the curriculum and curriculum supplies, the worse it gets.

Look at what's happening in our public schools, for example, where we spend billions every year on poorly constructed, high stakes standardized tests that measure nothing meaningful about our children, teachers, or schools, but are rather there to guarantee that most kids fail, which can only be "remedied" by purchasing curricula, text books, computer programs, and worksheets produced by the very same companies that create those crappy tests. What a magnificent scam they have going: get paid to create a problem, then get paid to "solve" it. These tests, the expensive out-of-the-box curricula, and the attendant "stuff" they sell to schools are simply the company store shovels and pickaxes with which we equip our kids for their days laboring in these test score coal mines, turning a profit for giant "education" corporations like  Pearson Education, who then turn out even more crappy tests in a vicious cycle that may look like school, but without, you know, the actual education.


Our goal at Woodland Park is children who love to learn because they are asking and answering their own questions through their play. We can do that because there are no stockholders involved demanding a profit, but rather parents who want their children to have an actual childhood.

As I watched the kids play with the pizza parlor numbers, attempting, for instance, to build with them, I thought of all those off-the-shelf building sets that click together perfectly, where this part fits that part just so. Usually, there are instructions in the box that show kids what they can build. In fact, many building sets can only be used to build the thing that's pictured on the outside of the box. As these pizza number constructions toppled and fell, the children started again and again, saying to one another, "Look what I did," with each temporary success. With no picture on the box to follow, with no building "system" to obey, with no end-product in mind, there were also no failures, but rather only experiments that made the children laugh and scream and want to try it again.

This is the childhood learning for which we are designed.



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