Into the Winter

At least for this week winter has arrived at school, and I’ve enjoyed the shift in our days that the drop in temperature has provided.  Here are a few of my observations of winter change from his week.

It seems to be the time of year for the children to naturally gravitate towards  the warmth and calm of indoors handwork like origami, braiding, writing, or doll play, blocks or working with puzzles.    And I feel an enjoyable closeness in the group as we are all sharing a smaller space more of the time, rather than ranging the large outdoor space for hours and hours.


Since we have begun eating morning snack and lunch inside there has been a natural move to work on cleaning up after ourselves.  Outside lunches meant that crumbs could fall to the ground for ants to enjoy, but in our all-carpet classroom we work together on crumbing the table and checking the floor.  It feels good to work with kiddos on these community-help skills now, when it matters to our group, rather than as a rote routine.

The kids liked sitting all together to eat outside at the big picnic table or on a blanket.  Our inside tables are smaller, so I witnessed an inspiring collective problem solving moment as a group of 7 children worked together to rearrange furniture so that there was room for everyone.  They decided who would move what pieces, counted chairs and kids to make sure there was enough and then enjoyed the group lunch they desired.

winter1And outdoors, too, has changed and prompted new interests in old areas.  Ice was discovered, examined, chiseled, and collected around the mud kitchen and rain barrel.  The sandbox, which had been slightly damp before the freezing temperatures, was icy too, making play in the sand a new adventure.



We had such an amazingly mild and warm fall, with so many days of playing and working together outside almost all day long, that I was a little apprehensive of our first winter at Roots.   I feel grateful to have let that apprehension pass on through, because now that winter is here I am feeling so grateful at noticing how the transition in nature is creating wonderful little changes for us at school.

The Girl Who Loves Science (Or Reading): Some Thinking On Identity, Play and Learning

When my child, Luke, was almost six years old there was a period of less than two weeks when he learned to pump himself on the swing, ride his bike without training wheels and climb to a previously unattainable branch of a favorite tree. Many parents have noticed this kind learning and growth explosion in our kiddos, when things just seem to click and come together all of a sudden.

I have enjoyed seeing this kind of learning explosion happen with many children over the years in terms of literacy learning, too.  Sure, kids can and often do learn various skills and pieces of knowledge over time, but there are also these wonderful moments or bursts when all of a sudden things just come together and the child begins to jive with a different kind of literacy, maybe sounding out words on her own in writing, maybe blending sounds together to decode text, or suddenly picking up a ton of “sight words.”   When this happens I see kids gobble up lots of skills and knowledge bits so quickly and easily in a burst of “getting it” in a new way.

It’s really exciting to be part of, but more than that it points out something interesting about the way learning happens. Learning doesn’t have to be a painful accumulation of skills and facts over time, on a timetable or timed for speed. Without some of the structures that force this obsession with time, I have noticed that people, yep that includes kids, can learn a lot in a short period of time, making big ole jumps in what we have traditionally called development, with great joy and ease.

So as adults one thing we can do is be patient and observant, but what else? And for that matter what are kids doing in the meantime, if they are not drudging through workbooks or direct instruction? One possibility is that kids are building up habits of mind or playing with taking on various identities. To me these do happen more over time, slow cooked into our bones, and they aren’t things you can sit down and learn in a lesson or be tested on at all.   How do kids come to think of themselves as readers, writers or scientists (not that these academic-y identities are the only ones kids come to know!)? It’s complicated for sure, but part of it is by being surrounded with models and then having lots of space and time to play with the possibilities.

So here are a few examples of what I mean from this week at Roots. I posted to Facebook earlier this week the little anecdote below about a seven year old who named herself in a pretend play scene as “the girl who loves science.” This is much more than cute to me. This is one of the really valuable things that is happening as children play: they get to name and rename themselves as the play changes.   It’s powerful to name yourself in this way and to know that you can name yourself again and again in lots of different ways! What if kids knew that it is really themselves who get to say who they are. In terms of reading, that their own ideas are more valid than what a grade, test or level system might say about them. In creating and recreating their dramatic play worlds, they come to know their own power to revise themselves and their world.

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In two other moments this week I saw this kind of habit of mind around reading. On Friday at ImaginOn Children’s Library, we spent about thirty minutes hanging out in a play area with toys surrounded by shelves of books and comfy chairs. Two children decided to spend their time playing at reading chapter books. They each selected ones they wanted from a shelf and sat down to read. They occasionally would turn and chat with each other about what their books were about. In some settings these books would be seen as “above their reading level” and what they were doing wouldn’t be called reading at all.  I don’t care one iota myself about reading levels or classic notions of what it means to read (seeing reading as only the ability to decode). I am much more curious about the story of literacy the two kids created. This story included several things that are very important to me as a literacy researcher. In their play world I gathered that self-selection of books, talking about books and feeling inspired by the environment were all important parts of what it means to read. Well, you would think they had been schooled by Harvey Daniels or one of the other great reading teacher gurus! These are exactly the ideas about literacy that progressive literacy educators have been trying to get into literacy instruction for years. I guess we have a lot to learn from the play of young children, huh?!


On another afternoon this week as kids were deep in fantasy play I saw someone borrow one of my books for teachers and families. I looked up and saw that actually almost everyone had one of these thick books in hand. I heard a six year old say to another child, “oh, I just love to read all day!” To me the value of this kind of moment is again much more than cute. It is totally equal in my mind with kids sitting for 30 minutes of phonics instruction on diagraphs. I know that these kiddos will have multiple bursts of literacy learning in their lives in which they eat up lots of bits of knowledge and skills. And I think part of coming to these moments of learning explosion is connected to the slower more complicated journey toward knowing oneself as a reader.   The play’s the thing that does that, baby! So what can we , adults, do?  Let the children play.


Clinkity, clink, clink: Extended Inquiry into Marble Mazes

Last year I came to school one day to see a giant marble maze created with blocks by two older boys.  It made the most pleasant sound as the marble got to the bottom: clinkity, clink, clink!  There are these kinds of pivotal learning moments that stick in the minds of the kids even this year.   The other day I heard a younger student, who started this fall and hasn’t met the older kiddos very often, referencing “the day Tino made the awesome  marble maze.”14 - 1Marble mazes have become part of the culture of our group.  This year the oldest kiddo in our crew began making marble mazes early in the school year.  With lots of time trying this out at the block center another kiddo latched into this idea quickly.  For at least two months there were marble mazes built every day.  They were built inside with unit blocks, with miniature unit blocks inside and and outside and outside with hollow blocks.IMG_3918

Following this interest Carla, our Discovery Place partner, and I brought in more materials that might extend the interest.  We made marble paintings, tried a premade marble maze kit, made our own felt balls and used cardboard and straws to create labyrinth style marble mazes.IMG_2905

It’s been exciting to see all that has happened just around this one concept.  It really has become a collaborative extended inquiry.  Here are some of the things I noticed along the way!IMG_2658

Lots of physics is involved in block play and building generally.  As kids manipulated blocks, cardboard or pre-made pieces they had to think about how the materials worked together, what would create sturdy pathways and walls.  They decided which kinds of blocks or other materials would work for specific purposes.  As they played more and more with the marbles, they developed understandings of force, movement, and incline.  They tried different kinds of balls, too: felt balls, beads and wooden balls.  They had discussions about the weight of the balls, the size and the smoothness of the surfaces and how this changed the way the mazes worked.  They explored symmetry as they created two sides of the maze or two tracks side by side.  They explored length and measurement as they tried to see and describe to others how far certain inclines would allow balls to roll and as they found ways to articulate to each other how long a certain part of the maze or even a certain block needed to be (i.e. “Hand me the long one.  No, the one that is like two of these.”)IMG_3068

And there were overarching learning ideas in constant play, too, particularly this inquiry made space for iteration, revision and mentoring from one another.  They revised the mazes in the moment as they went.  Usually a child would begin building and at some point would stop to try rolling the marble to see how things were going.  Then back to building to make changes.  Eventually they would declare the maze as ready or done and often get someone to come over to see how the marble rolled.  Sometimes this sharing process would lead to more changes.  Sometimes something unexpected happened during the share and kids went back to the drawing board.  Sometimes another child coming to see would have an idea for improvement or just something different and they would try this out together.  Very often multiple kids worked in the area on various mazes.  They watch what others are doing and try the ideas out themselves.14 - 4

They also hold the old mazes they have seen in memory and try them again next time.  I guess this is the thing about the extended inquiry.  This interest continued over months.  So the kids were iterating all the time, trying the ideas again and agin.  They were able to build on their own attemps, on what they saw other kids do and even on the lore of last year 🙂 Overtime I saw marble mazes change from a long flat structure to ones with multiple pathways, two side by side tracks, high rise mazes, large scale mazes, mazes with obstacles.  Something like adding obstacles spread through the group, until this idea was common knowledge.IMG_3908

Ideas from the marble maze inquiry spread wings in new spin off projects, too.  The kids started making obstacle courses with large hollow blocks, chairs and boxes.  Carla and the kids even made a rat maze for the Discovery Place rat, Patsy (now renamed by the kids as “Petsy”). They used blocks to build a maze with multiple paths and areas for Patsy to find carrots.IMG_3914IMG_3570

The social goes hand in hand with all of this (of course!!!).  I saw how marble mazes worked to build relationships between children and among the whole group.  As the marble maze inquiry continued and was shared, every child was involved at some point andso the inquiry became a point of cultural connection that was important in our transformation into a gelled community from opening of school into the fall.  The reason the interest became an extended inquiry is because the kids felt connected to the ideas and the other people playing around with it.   It’s always back to the social-emotional 🙂IMG_3111

Blogging My Gratitude… Top Ten!

Lots of my thankfulness this week has been for our school.  So here we go… top 10 reasons I am grateful for Roots!

10.   I love that now as I read through my favorite natural play blogs                and books that I have this amazing group of children with whom            to go mess around with the ideas!


  1. I am grateful for taking the time either by myself or with children to stack blocks back on the shelf just so!  Really, I love cleaning up.   (I should write a blog post about our clean up process sometime!)


  1. I am grateful that becoming co-faciliator with Miguel has been full of ease and trust and that because of the larger ALC Mosaic network we are able to focus the majority of our time on children.


  1. I am grateful for kids pushing wooden trucks full of gnomes around the room! I love the opportunity to design, extend and document the use of open ended and beautiful playscapes.   Seeing when and how the kids choose to engage in these spaces is total joy.


  1. I am grateful for the families that make our little school a community. I love that we get to have siblings around now and then and parents often.  And in their wisdom I think that the kids pick up on the vibes of community and co-creation even when families are not here during the day. leaf
  1. I am grateful for playing records at circle time!   When I taught kindergarten years ago I dreamed of focusing totally on building community, social-emotional growth and honoring play.  Somehow the record player and the Raffi, Ella Jenkins and Mister Roger’s vinyl I have collected over the years represent this circling back to the best parts of progressive early childhood from the 70’s and early 80’s. My older teacher friends used to tell me that I seemed from another time. It’s pretty awesome now to take the wonderful traditions we have for early childhood education and match it with the social possibilities and resources available in 2014.


  1. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear about, support and document kid’s ideas unfolding. Their plans are sometimes pre-meditated: they come to school knowing what their plan is and what materials they may need or they meet with me and name an idea and we make a plan together. I like supporting the fruition of their intentions. More often they are very spontaneous and in sync with the moment. Their ideas, the planning and the engagement of them happen fast! They are doers! I am grateful for both kinds of intentionality and everything in between.


  1. This is my dream work. This is literally the work I envisioned for myself come alive around me this fall. I am grateful that I get to engage in the daily living of an early childhood natural, play based community.   Even as my wellness in the first trimmest of pregnancy has been a challenge the last two months, I have found such joy and ease in the school day. This is a peaceful place where I am happy! I love being busy all day with the kids.  And I love that there is space for motherhood here, too.  Spaceto sit and watch the play scenes while I rest. And this just becomes part of our natural rhythm, too. I noticed that I had alot more opportunities to sit and read with various kids in the last few weeks.  As I sat down to take a break, someone would often come over to join me with a book. I love that this work flows with life.


2.    I am grateful for children finding new delight in the sandbox after            the rain or digging trenches from the rain barrel. I love that                 .        elements of the natural world like rain and shade and shelter            .      shape our days and our play.


  1. I am grateful for seeing the children growing into a community that trusts and supports each other. I had some anxiety early in the year as I wondered how kids would integrate into a community. Now in November I feel a great trust in the children and in my ability to support them. I am grateful for all I have learned from them about being together in these first months of school. I see them weaving in and out of play groupings, engaging as a whole group often and workingthrough challenges. I am looking forward to how we will continue to grow and expand as we have a few more children join.


Revising My Stick Play Story

Sticks make awesome toys!  They are abundant- you can always replace a broken one or a find one to share with a friend.  They provide the ultimate open-ended play experience as they transform from a walking cane into a wand and very often, yes, into a sword.  It’s the sword part that has sometimes given me trouble.  It’s the sword part that I think I worked at revising a little further this week.

It was Thursday that I experienced a magical stick-as-sword moment at school.  Six boys, ages 3 through 8, were playing in the field each with a stick and almost all with a play silk turned cape.   I had been observing their stick game from a distance and was happy to witness the way this particular game with stick swords seemed safe and inclusive.  I saw the movement of the boys to go into the woods and made my way to follow their transition.  Before I could catch up at all, what I saw was this running rainbow up our hill down the path at the edge of the woods and back out into the field again.  With the fallen-leaf-trees and the bright silks flowing behind the boys, I could see their movement and safe return to the field.  I was rather transfixed by this image of beauty, peace and positive energy of boys with sticks!

I can remember another moment a couple of years ago in our unschool co-op, when I was watching another group of boys play with sticks in a beautiful wooded park.  My energy was very different.  I was on edge every moment, worried that these sticks that seemed malevolent were going to hurt someone.  Probably they did, too.   I remember being full of question and concern at the time, wanting limits, but unsure how or which ones to put in place.

We have had a little share of stick challenge at Roots this year, too, but I am grateful for the opportunity to really process and find limits that feel natural and supportive of stick play.  One of the simple shifts has just been around space.  Stick-as-sword play happens out in the field where their is room for everyone.    Also, the kids find, make or alter stick-swords to suit their size and the purpose of playing- sticks the length of their arm and rounded rather than pointy.

It’s really the shift in myself, though, that makes the stick play feel different.  I try really hard not to linger on fear of someone getting hurt.   If I can keep my head and heart in this trusting place, most of the shift is already happening around me just in my change in perspective.   Then when something isn’t feeling right or safe, I follow my intuition on supporting kids with a limit that creates maximum freedom and care for all of us.

The great thing I am noticing is that this gets easier and easier!  As I replace my mind’s stick-worry story with images like the one of the boys’ running rainbow of stick play through the woods, I reset my narrative around stick play.  This is really why I like to write for myself or for you! these little stories from my school experience.  I think that the stories I tell myself, that we tell ourselves, about children, ourselves, play, sticks, safety are part of how we create our world.

I think that as I revise the stories I live by I revise my life.   Katherine Bomer says it well in Writing a Life, “Revision is hope… Revision is a second, third, fourth even a twentieth chance.  We can revise our life… We can revise the way we operate in the world.  Think about revision in the largest sense, of imagining things as they could be otherwise, as Maxine Greene says, Revision is forgiveness.”


The Lizard Agreements

For the last few weeks lizards have been on the mind and hands at Roots.


Discovering where lizards live. Searching for lizards. Catching lizards. Feeding lizards. Measuring lizards. Composing lizard songs. Comparing lizards. Making lizard habitats. Drawing lizards. Reading about lizards. All things lizard.

lizardss   lizard

This included having some big feelings about lizards and friends.   Kids had a variety of ways of going about caring for lizards. Some of them practiced their ideas about lizard care as they caught and observed lizards with great compassion. Some voiced concerns about lizards to others, “No more catching lizards!” “Let the lizards go!” And others just enjoyed the interactions with the lizards.  From talking with and listening to kids I gathered that there were a range of feelings from passionate to worried to relaxed all in connection to the lizard experiences.

In our circle meeting on Friday we used a talking stick to give everyone opportunity to share what she thought or felt about catching lizards at school.   Kids shared a range of ideas from saying that they really like catching lizards, that they catch lizards at home with their families, that in other contexts there had been rules about not catching lizards and that they had seen a hurt or dead lizard at school.

I shared a little about my observations and said that caring for the lizards and enjoying the lizards seem important to a lot of people. Then we passed the stick again so that everyone could share their ideas on how we can be care for and enjoy the lizards.

We came up with the following agreements to try out:

  • Let lizards go at the end of the school day. (And be sure to check the box very carefully.)
  • Try to find lizard food (long discussion here about the appropriateness of flies as lizard food) for any lizards being observed in our habitat.
  • If a lizard wants to sit on your hand that is good. (They decided not to hold a lizard for prolonged times by its belly and to not hold by tails at all.)
  • Let lizards go outside (as opposed to in the classroom).

Kids did lots of thinking and creating in their lizard explorations that align with various learning standards.  I am pretty excited about their self-selected lizard projects in measurement, writing non fiction texts,  understanding the needs of living creatures, ethics and plenty more.   What compels me to write this though, is the beauty of this time as such an integrated experience, where interest in and learning about science and more  is deeply connected to our minds and bodies as emotional, social and nature-connected beings.    All of this “academic” work is driven by and totally interconnected to the mind and body’s emotional experiences with our families, with peers, with facilitators, with the natural world and with ourselves.

A Week in (and out of) Rhythm

It’s Thursday at 1:15, story time in our little community of young children and facilitators.  I am trying to read aloud Skippy John Jones. A well loved book, but one some people wanted to hear and others did not. In fact, not everyone had been ready for joining story time at all today, but with a look at the clock I had called the group anyway wanting to offer order, consistency and ease by keeping to our usual routine. Now there are children scooching from place to place, arguing over a play silk or nudging somebody who is in their way of seeing the book.  I wonder if I should have chosen Kokopelli as the book today instead. I lay the book down and refrain from sighing. I tell the kids what I notice happening. I offer the reason for my valuing of group story time- though I do love stories as I know most of the kids do, it’s important to our day because of the ritual of coming together as a group. The kids offer their own thoughts about story time and what feels good (being able to hear the story, having space to sit and see, etc).  

I have been thinking about the opportunity of Thursday’s story time. It’s a reminder of what it is I value and a moment to reflect on what makes rhythm different from routine for me.

Rhythm to me feels natural. If I feel in tune with the day and the community of kids, I often feel the moment for transition. If I do, then it is as seamless as the change in direction in a flock of birds. How do they all know when to shift slightly east? If I can be really in the moment with the children, I can often feel the shift with them.

Everyone is playing at the edge of the wood in a water exploration. A few kids and an adult end up at the parking lot labyrinth just down the trail from the water explpeaceoration. I hear someone say somewhere behind me, “I’m hungry.” I catch the breeze of transition, “Everyone, let’s get our lunches and go down to the labyrinth to eat! “

Rhythm to me isn’t added on top of life. It doesn’t add order to our living. It tunes into the order that is already in our natural world, in our bodies and in communities of people. Routine sometimes ends up for the sake of routine, while rhythm is always tied to what is happening in our world and lives.

Usually our group has a community circle time after everyone has eaten lunch. This mostly winds up being between 11:30 and noon. As school was starting this year the progression was that kids wanted to come inside for some shelter from the sun at about this time, so we got into the flow of having our circle as we all came in from outdoors play. On Friday this week, though, the weather was so beautiful and mild. After lunch the kids jumped right back into outdoors play, and I also was caught up in a an outdoors project and didn’t think at all about circle until I notice it is 12:30. I look around and realize that if a transition moment had appeared after lunch, I had missed it. I think about ringing the chime for circle. It would be okay with me for us to miss one day of circle, but I also know that sometimes the rest of the day is thrown off if we miss a beat. I see that most kids are deep into various play activities that I would be interrupting. I name in my mind that what I really want in circle time is a moment for everyone together in a shared activity. I decide to be on the lookout for a natural move towards this in the midst of what is already happening. About three seconds later a few kids ask if I will join them on the hill in the woods. Walla! The wish fulfillment is what is already in motion with the children and here was the request for me to see it! I call out an invitation to everyone else. “Who would like to join us in the woods?” The magic transition moment is there and feet pound in our direction. “Right!” I announce, “And this will be our circle today. Going to the hill together!”

Of course, I don’t always catch or follow up on the little shifts. And when I don’t, there is always a lesson for growth, a little nudge to remember to let go of the clock, let go of worry about schedules, to trust my intuition and the children’s instincts. And just laugh at a particularly squirrely story times and nod at the reminder.

And so, one of my roles as a facilitator with young children is to BE with them in the moment, to notice the engagements and shifts, and sometimes to cast invitations to the group based on the guidance I receive from the children themselves. I’m not introducing rhythm into their lives. The rhythm is already there.