Thursday, August 10, 2017

You Can't Hang A Label On That

We call what we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School a "play-based curriculum." We also call it "progressive," "emergent," "child-directed," "project-based," "crunchy granola," and just about anything else that sounds descriptive in the moment. We often compare what we do to Reggio Emilia or Montessori or Waldorf or RIE or democratic free schools, although we're not purists about any of it. Luckily we don't struggle with enrollment, because if we did I'm afraid we'd have to become more precise in our description for marketing purposes. I imagine it might be frustrating for people who are shopping around for preschools to not be able to put us in a box for comparison purposes, but if we did that, if we could be labeled or standardized or plotted on a grid, then we simply would cease to be the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool.

People often say they want their school to be more like ours or that they're starting a new school and they want to base it on what we do. They ask for advice, but I don't think I'm much help because to me the most important, foundational principle of our school is that we are a cooperative, owned and operated, equally, by the families who chose to enroll their children. And being a cooperative doesn't dictate any particular curriculum: it's an organizing principle that could just as easily be home to a hardcore academic program as it is our play-based one, depending largely on what sort of teacher the parents choose to hire. In other words, our curriculum starts with the community of families who have, for the past 16 years, chosen to re-hire me. I am a guy who only knows one way to do preschool and that's to make it possible for kids to freely play with the other people they find when they walk through our gates.

I suppose, at bottom, what we're really all about is playing with one another, day after day, month after month. Friends are found and friends are lost. We play in large groups and we play alone. Our feelings and bodies get hurt, then we heal. We find that some people can do, or know, interesting, exciting things, and also that we do too. We discover that we don't like some of the other people, but that we absolutely love others, and whatever the case we have to figure out a way to live with all of them, and in that process we often learn that we don't really dislike or love them as much as we originally thought. We are learning to live together: what we're doing is building community.

And that's why you can't hang a label on us: it's our community and no one else's is like it. We're not the only school with a play-based curriculum, but we are the only community like ours, inside and out, top to bottom, a truth that reaches into every facet of what we adults do as well. We have bylaws and policies, of course, but not a year goes by that we don't change them, often significantly. Just as the children do as they play, we bicker and laugh, make mistakes and enjoy great successes. We strive for equity and fairness, while knowing the goal is never for everyone to be the same -- indeed, as cliched as it is, it's our differences that make us strong. This is how vital communities are built, everywhere, all the time.

The skills, habits, and knowledge required to be an engaged member of a community are precisely the skills required for citizenship in a democracy, and acquiring those traits of self-governance is, after all, the real purpose of education in our society. That these are also the skills, habits, and knowledge required to thrive in the workplace or at church or in the theater or on a sports team or anywhere one finds other people, is not an accident: it's life itself.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my role in this ever-evolving community in which I spend so much of my time. I know the children and their parents do too. We think about the things we like and the things we'd like to change and we know that whatever the case, it's up to us.

No two play-based schools are the same: each one is a community of its own creation. You can't hang a label on that. Play together, day after day, month after month, and you'll create something that has never before been seen on this earth -- something to call ours.

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