Observing a pair of California Scrub Jays through binoculars with students and parents in the quiet early hour before school begins…

Witnessing the Pavilion transform into the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia of 1905…

Discovering the studio of Leonardo Da Vinci surrounded by student-crafted renditions of Mona Lisa and Self Portrait in the medium of candy (yes, candy!)…

Learning the process of sketching out a mural from concept to fruition, which is inspired by a group of high school students’ open-hearted immigration ideals…

All this happened this past week, and all were initiated and/or implemented by our parents. As Krishnamurti said the day before the school opened for the first time, “It would be right that the parents as well as the teachers and the students work together as a family unit.”

We ask parents to communicate directly with the teachers and staff, to attend parent education meetings, to actively read school and classroom updates, and to volunteer for projects and activities already established within the school. When parents move beyond this base-level of engagement and are energized by an idea for which the school can provide scaffolding for its implementation, we are able to provide something that might not otherwise be possible. When parents and staff can partner to bring form to a new idea, we are able to broaden our resources and capacity as a school, as a community, and as a family unit. Being a small school with a skeletal staff and a modest tuition, we might be limited by internal resources. But limited we are not! We have parents with an incredible wealth of knowledge, talents, and energies who choose to share those with our community. We rely on our parents to complete the circle so we can, together, operate a school “where one learns about the totality, the wholeness of life.”

Both our 1st-4th grade and 5th-8th grade spring concerts have been a blast in the past two weeks. On Friday, May 17, we will host our High School Spring Showcase. The philosophy guiding our music program is consistent with our general approach to teaching.

The elementary through 8th grade program is required and based on Orff Schulwerk. Orff Schulwerk is an approach to music education established in the 1960s by German composer Carl Orff and his colleague, Gunild. The program employs elemental techniques such as imitation, echo, and ostinato. The objective is to build musicianship in every learner through the integration of music, movement, speech, and drama.

Effort and skill-building are what we emphasize here. Our music program is both experiential and inclusive: everyone participates. All students, regardless of age, interest, or ability have the opportunity to explore music and to perform.  

Early elementary students learn songs through movement, dance, and voice. As they develop skills with notation, ear training, and fine motor movement, they begin to incorporate more sophisticated instruments into their work. Third graders learn to use recorders and 4th grade ukuleles.         

By 5th grade, students choose a specific chromatic instrument like piano or guitar. By 7th grade, students are supported in specializing in an instrument, should they choose to do that, and the curriculum is focused more on forming musical bands. Singing is a fundamental practice for students in all grades. Music provides us with the opportunity to discover our feelings, to explore cooperative process, and to develop neural pathways that connect both hemispheres of the brain.  

In High School, music is no longer mandatory but continues to be an option for students in electives. HS students have four electives each year, and this year can choose from music, ceramics, woodshop, journalism, French, digital design, studio art, film studies, film making, theater, and dance.

At Oak Grove, students don’t audition or take required prerequisites to participate in band, art, and sports. Regardless of skill or experience, students are stretched beyond their natural inclination and given the opportunity to participate in all art forms as well as sports. Our teachers are highly skilled in differentiation and able to challenge some forward while simultaneously providing additional scaffolding to others.

At the upcoming HS Showcase, you will witness musicians, many playing a particular instrument for the first time this year, perform complicated songs like Free Falling, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Unchained Melody, as well as Mack the Knife; along with some uncomplicated melodic songs like Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby, Stand By Me, and Don’t Let Me Down.

The High School Spring Showcase will also include a dance performance and a student art exhibit including woodworking, ceramics, photography, and fine art. The artists, using many media, will showcase Hatch/Hanson/Rosulek-inspired delicate ceramics, abstracted landscape photography, and large-scale paintings. Woodworkers, having just learned how to use power and hand tools, will display wooden tables, spoons, and a lamp; journalists, some with English as a second language, have filled an eight-page newspaper with deeply personal reflections and relevant investigative reporting.

Music begins at Oak Grove in the Early Childhood Program with weekly singalongs and daily integration of informal singing and music-making. Our preschool and kindergarten students have opportunities to bring their singing to community events like Open House, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Earth Day celebrations.

At Oak Grove, every student has the opportunity to be a musician, an athlete, an artist, a scholar, while not being limited by any or all of these narrow concepts of identity. At Oak Grove, music practice along with the arts are crucial processes in the development of the “whole” child.

Camping Trips

Our spring trips have officially begun! Last week, the freshman and sophomore classes backpacked the Gene Marshall trail, beginning at Reyes Creek Campground in Lockwood Valley and ending at Rose Valley. They arrived safely home on Friday to warm showers and reports of ice cream and large amounts of pasta.

Our juniors are currently on day 7 of a 10-day expedition through the southwest—river rafting the Kern River near Sequoia National Forest, trekking through Death Valley, hiking up a portion of the Mt. Whitney Trail and traversing up to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park.

This past Thursday night, kindergarten students and their families camped on our athletic field. Together, they enjoyed bonfire stories, a sing-along, and roasted marshmallows in the darkness. This practice of spending the night at “school,” is where our students begin to develop camping skills (pitching a tent, sleeping outside, fire safety) while in a familiar and safe place with their family.

In the next few weeks, our students in 1st through 8th grades will travel progressively further away on increasingly more challenging trips. Immersive outdoor trips enhance learning through direct experiences. In early elementary, the camp-out moves away to Carpinteria, first with parents, then the following year, without parents. The students practice being with teachers and peers away from home, but geographically close.

In upper elementary, the focus moves to places further away with more physically challenging activities: group bike rides, longer hikes, and bouldering. Then they are off to our local forest carrying their own packs, swimming in water holes, and out of cell phone range. Our 7th and 8th graders travel by plane to other states to sleep in teepees, to river raft, and to study glacier science. In a couple of weeks, this group will head to the Canyonlands Field Institute in Moab, Utah. While there, they will participate in white water expeditions through ancient canyons and engage in active, meaningful, transformative, hands-on, outdoor curriculum that integrates science, history, literature, and art.

These trips are developmentally appropriate, with each building on the one before. Students practice essential life skills, gain a sense of agency and grit, and also deepen their relationship with the natural world.

For our parents, these trips offer an opportunity to practice trusting other adults to care for our children away from home. As I have shared here before, from the moment of birth our children begin growing away from us. Each moment brings new opportunities for children to gain confidence in their ability to be separate, for parents to trust that the child is capable of separating, and for both to trust that this separation is natural and safe. These trips allow the child and parent an ever-increasing practice in separating. There are things that cannot be learned conceptually—digging a hole in the wilderness to go to the bathroom, overcoming a fear of water or heights, pushing ourselves physically beyond what our mind believes is possible (just one more step), and, perhaps the most difficult of them all, letting a child grow away from us.

March 31, 2019

by Christina Sbarra

Self-Discovery: Making Space for What Really Counts

The recent college admissions scandal, dubbed Varsity Blues, hit the news just a few days before the release of Turning the Tide II, the second installment of a report on the college admissions process from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project.  As if part of a well-choreographed but tragic dance, a large portion of the report, entitled Ethical Parenting in the College Admissions Process, unabashedly calls out parents for “failing to prepare young people to be caring, ethical community members and citizens.”  According to students surveyed for the report, most parents place far more emphasis on their children getting into good colleges than on them being good people.  “In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.”

The report goes on to provide recommendations for parents guiding their teens through the college admissions process. Their first recommendation, ‘Keep the focus on your teen,’ centers around supporting the teen’s authenticity.   In order to be authentic, teens first need to know themselves.  In fact, identity formation is a primary facet of adolescence.  But when in the frantic years of clamoring to accumulate outstanding grades, AP credits, athletic awards, participation in clubs and leadership credentials, do these teens have time to get to know themselves?

Parents are not the only culprits here.  At risk of stating the obvious, Harvard itself is a major culprit.  In fact, Harvard is ironically leading the pack on both sides of this dilemma: as arguably the most elite university of them all (with a record low 4.5% acceptance rate this year) and also as head of a movement to re-write college admissions criteria.  Kudos to them for at least trying to be part of the solution.

All of the adults stewarding children through childhood play a role in this crisis and have the opportunity to be part of “turning the tide.”  In my mind, the best way for both parents and educators to support young people in the essential process of self-discovery and increasing independence is to get out of the way, to back-off, humbly taking our well-thought out agendas and our best intentions with us.  Schools can build in time in the regular schedule for pursuit of personal interests, for social interaction, and for quiet reflection. Parents can seek out and support these schools, eschewing questions about test scores, rankings, and college acceptances in favor of deep consideration of the culture of the school, the quality of the relationships, and the opportunities for self-discovery.  Together parents and teachers can build supportive communities committed to creating the space teens need to come to know themselves.

There are many elementary and high schools that intentionally provide opportunities for self-discovery.   Here are just a few inspiring examples from my own personal research this past year.

Oak Grove School in Ojai, California incorporates both time and space for a variety of contemplative practices into the regular weekly schedule and into the campus. These include meditation, council circles, quiet time communing with nature, and the 7th grade rocking chair circle pictured above.
www.oakgroveschool.org

Skorpeskolen Private School in Helsingor, Denmark offers Personal Time to students in the early grades and Talent Time to students in the upper grades.  These weekly periods provide opportunities to follow a curiosity, to pursue a personal passion, and to develop the capacity for sustained, deep focus on a self-directed project for an extended amount of time.  Open in Google Chrome for a translation of the website.
www.skorpeskolen.dk

The Green School in Bali, Indonesia identifies sustainability as one its primary values.  They believe that the practice of sustainability starts at the individual level.   For that reason, teachers are free to set aside all academic demands whenever an individual child needs extra social-emotional support.
www.greenschool.org/about/

You can access the full report from Harvard here.
Harvard’s class of 2023 acceptance rate reported in The Crimson.

You can view Christina Sbarra’s original post here.

Tobi Jo Greene of The Empowerment Workshop joined some Oak Grove parents a few weeks ago for a discussion on how to have healthy and productive conversations with children and adolescents about sex and sexuality. Here are a few of the key points from the discussion:

How do I start conversations about sex and relationships with my kids?

  • Everyday life provides plenty of moments for talking about sex and relationships. Here are some common “teachable moments”:
    • When you see an advertisement for tampons, condoms, or birth control.
    • When puberty, dating, LGBTQ issues, love, or sex comes up on a TV show, in a movie, or in a song on the radio
    • When someone you know announces that they’re pregnant.
    • When you see a portrayal of an unrealistic or oversexualized stereotype.
    • News stories that talk about sex.
  • When a “teachable moment” arises, make sure to ask open-ended questions like:
    • “What do you know about how pregnancy happens?”
    • “Would you want to date someone who acted like that?”
    • “Do you think s/he looks like that in real life?”

What if you feel awkward about bringing up sex with your children?

  • Leave books around the house for them to find and let them explore them on their own.
  • Find a trusted surrogate to talk about these issues with your child.
  • Admit your discomfort as a first step in the conversation. The more you talk about it with your child, the more the conversation will be normalized.

What if you can’t find the right time to have “the talk” or your child refuses to engage with you?

  • Use car rides and other times when your child might be more receptive to a conversation. While riding in the car, eye contact is naturally indirect and uncomfortable topics can feel easier.
  • Speaking in generalities and talking about other peers might be more comfortable than personal questions. For example, ask “At what age do you think it’s ok for kids to start having sex?” as opposed to “So, are you having sex?”

Foster closeness with your child

  • Research shows that adolescents who have better relationships with their parents tend to have a lower likelihood of “early sexual intercourse initiation.” On the other hand, the same study showed that lower relationship quality and less parental monitoring increased the odds that a teen would initiate sex. More importantly, adolescents who are educated with comprehensive sex education are better equipped to make strong, positive decisions regarding their bodies and their sexuality, therefore, when they do engage in sexual activity, it is more likely safe, positive, and involved informative consent.

Don’t make assumptions and make sure to debunk myths

  • Kids are picking up information from peers and the internet that is frequently misinformed. The ubiquity and availability of pornography has led many adolescents to have an unrealistic and unhealthy image of what a sexual relationship looks like. In addition, a child might be very knowledgeable about one aspect of sex or sexuality but have large gaps when it comes to other aspects.

Don’t be afraid to start discussing sex and sexuality at an early age:

  • Always use the proper terms for anatomy and teach your children to use them too. Use these terms from the very beginning — so that children are as comfortable naming their genitals as they are their elbows and ankles.
  • Lessons about respecting personal space and asking for permission easily transfer into lessons about consent and personal boundaries.

Focus on do’s instead of do not’s

  • Teaching your child to have a healthy and positive outlook on sex will help them throughout their lifetime. Teach them that it is normal to have sexual urges, to masturbate, and to desire intimacy. Learn about sex positivity and move from that direction, rather than from fear. The idea of our children being sexually active can be scary for most parents, but the alternative, not discussing these topics, can have a negative impact on their sexual health and well being.
  • Most parents naturally trend toward discussing what not to do and often forget to place emphasis on what to do when it comes to sexuality and personal safety. If your child learns how to react when stuck in a dangerous or uncomfortable circumstance, they will be much more likely to remember it in the heat of the moment.
  • When teaching assertiveness, be very clear, that speaking up about what you DO like or want, is also very healthy.
  • When people feel that they are in charge of their own bodies and their sexuality, they are more likely to communicate with sexual partners about protection, testing for STIs, and safety. They are also more likely to feel comfortable talking with a doctor about their bodies or a trusted adult when something in their relationship doesn’t feel right.

Learn with your child

  • Don’t assume that you know everything about the topic. If you don’t know the answer to something, you can look it up on your own or together. You can say, “I’m glad you asked that question. I’m not sure how to explain it/what the answer is. Let’s look it up!”
  • Be honest with yourself about areas of sexuality you find offensive, don’t agree with, or make you uncomfortable, and educate the ignorance out of yourself. You can do real damage to a human being that you love with your spoken or unspoken messages about something they may be personally dealing with.

Links to resources that discuss sex, sexuality and healthy relationships.

For parents and kids seeking reliable information:

Specifically for teens:

 

 

Thank you to those of you who were able to attend our Parent Education workshop on implementing Growth Mindset practices in your household. It was wonderful to see such a dedicated group of parents working together to discuss what actions and language will best help their children to embrace a culture of effort and perseverance.

“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

– Carol S. Dweck

For those of you who missed it, or are interested in further research, here are a few recommendations:

For the verbal linguistic learner:

Longer reads:

For the visual learner:

For the auditory learner:

For the musical learner:

 

Watch video of the speech below. 

Travelling has always been something that I really enjoy. Exploring different places, seeing different people, experiencing different cultures. You can really see how colorful this world is and how amazing our globe is. I have long yearned to visit India. In fact, the Senior India trip was one of the many factors that led me to choose to attend Oak Grove over other schools. So finally here I am, after almost four years at Oak Grove, reflecting on my India trip experience.

So, the India trip was indeed quite different from any other trip I have been on. Instead of simply touring around and visiting attractions, this trip was a very immersive experience. It shows India in a different perspective from regular tourism, a perspective that is based on human connection, the essence of being a person.

I had a great time talking to students at the three schools that we visited and enjoyed making new friends in a completely different and alien territory. However, the hospitality I experienced and witnessed triggered me to think, to reflect on myself, my country, and my own culture.

Despite my personal interest in India, as a student coming from China, India has a different, or I would say a distorted image pre-installed in my brain, and in most other Chinese’s brains as well. The way the Chinese perceive India is full of prejudices and biases. When I told my friends in China about my plan to go to India, they frequently questioned my decision. They think of India as an inferior country, a place they would never want to visit. And this impression has greatly influenced people’s view of Indian people as a whole. But I don’t believe in accepting what others think. This added my desire to go to India. I wanted to see India with my own eyes, to prove that they were wrong. Like Krishnamurti said, we must look most intimately and discover for ourselves; then it is our own, not somebody else’s, not something that we have been told.

A history teacher at Pathshala reminded me of the very origin of this problem with my culture. There was one day at lunch when he joined my table and started a conversation. As our conversation progressed, he brought up a fact that I have almost forgotten. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Chinese people stopped calling everyone else “barbarians.” That is less than 200 years ago. And I hate to admit (but sadly it is true) that even now, many people in China still see themselves as superior to other ethnicities. And they have many different and negative biases and prejudices towards different racial groups.

I couldn’t stop thinking and imagining how Indian students would be treated if they had a chance to visit a school in China for a week. Because as I said, I am well aware of how prejudiced Chinese people are. This little mind test always turns out with unfavorable results. And I cringe when I compare it to my experience at the schools.

So, on one bus ride out to Bangalore city, I had a chance to talk to Elsie, a faculty member at The Valley School. I asked her, “How do people in India view Chinese people? What kind of attitude do Indians have towards China?” Her answer was not surprising, but did make me feel bad. She said that Indian people have no hostility against the Chinese people. Though there is political conflict, it has no relevance to what the people think.

She was right. China and India have been neighbors forever. The two civilizations have coexisted for thousands of years. But neighbors don’t like each other all the time. Territorial conflicts have been a huge obstacle that has kept China and India from being better friends. Diplomatic relationships involving Pakistan and the US have simply added more flames to the already fiery relation.

But the two countries, India and China, took very different approaches on this matter. In China, isolationism never disappeared. In addition, the modern day Chinese government has put strict controls on the media, both social and journalistic. A highly censored social media and government-controlled news industry have led to a biased public opinion on many things. Chinese media purposely patronizes India and portrays India as an inferior country. India, on the contrary, according to Elsie, has a much more open media. Though there are conflicts on the government level, there is no propaganda against China, nor is the social media patronizing to China as an inferior power. People can really see a different reality through an open media.

This difference made me realize how important an uncensored media source is. A highly controlled and censored media would only cause misapprehension and manipulate people’s minds. With a worldwide trend of isolationists rising to power again, we must be aware of the possibility of the world moving towards closed and censored media. Even in America, there is a trend towards that. Net neutrality is a perfect indication of possible media censoring. And we need to be aware of it, to stand up to it, and to fight against it.

By the end of the trip, I came to the conclusion that things need to change back home in China. I realized that my perspective of my own country has changed, being outside of it. There are too many misconceptions in China. Krishnamurti once said that we are very defensive, and therefore we are aggressive, when we hold on to a particular belief, dogma, or when we worship our particular nationality. We need to be more receptive towards other cultures.

When we were at Pathshala, we had a few discussion sessions with the local students. In one part, they specifically addressed a few questions to me, about agriculture and rice production in China. In our conversation, I brought up the idea of a joint research force on rice production between China and India. Because, imagine the two countries with the world’s largest populations, making up one third of the world population, both having rice as their main dietary consumption, working together to increase the quality and quantity of rice production. It would be a blessing to our world. So when I brought up this Idea, I saw accord and eagerness in their eyes. That’s when I realized, it’s we Chinese that need to make a change, to open up our minds and to be more receptive to new possibilities.

I feel more than ever that it’s our responsibility, it’s our generation’s responsibility, to bring unity to the world, to become global citizens no matter how messed up our world is today. Sometimes it’s inevitable that we have a few setbacks along the way towards world integration. But it doesn’t matter, because the future is in our hands, and I have confidence that together, we can make the world a better place.

A school is a place for learning, and not just for our students. It includes an active learning environment for the adults, too. In addition to an emphasis on inquiry and self-reflection, which in and of itself supports a culture of learning, we also set aside time in our regular schedule for professional development, shared inquiry, and parent education, as well as targeted individual training and development for faculty and staff.

On most Wednesday afternoons, the faculty and staff meet to learn together. Two Wednesdays ago, the entire staff participated in an in-service around Peer Conflict. This past Wednesday, the faculty inquired together around the Intent of the School. On Friday, three of our Early Childhood Program teachers attended a workshop in Santa Monica on Materials and the 100 Languages of Children in the context of learning. Also recently, our K-8th grade teachers attended a Responsive Classroom training. Last month, a group of teachers and high school students attended the first annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Youth Summit at Thacher on Courage, Conscience, and Coalitions.

There is a significant amount of engagement, sharing, and learning with staff from other schools, too. I talk regularly with the Heads of Schools at many schools in Ojai and several in Santa Barbara; our admissions team talks with other admissions departments, communications with other communications staff, teachers with teachers, and so on. Several of our teachers have made recent visits to observe maths, science, and learning labs at local schools. I spent four days this past week visiting the Waverly School in Pasadena, serving on their accreditation team as part of my HOS duties as a dually accredited independent school. Although the intent is to closely examine the school in all its practices, culture, and governance, to recommend a term for accreditation, it is also an opportunity to take a deep look into how another school operates. Next month, three staff and two students will visit our sister schools outside of London — Brockwood Park School and the Inwoods School for Small Children.

Last Tuesday, parents of our Junior High students met with our High School teachers for a coffee mixer, as a way to get to know one another and to discuss questions about the High School. On Thursday, parents and teachers from Preschool-3rd grade met by the fire in Main House to discuss emergent questions around early childhood development. Upcoming all-school parent education topics include growth mindset, stress, and college.

Krishnamurti was clear about the teacher also being the learner, just as the student is the teacher. He intentionally added the parents into this purpose when founding Oak Grove School. On February 11, 1974, the day the school was officially announced, Krishnamurti said:

“And this school here, we have been discussing with the teachers, with the parents, and with the architects for the last two years. This school is entirely different from the other schools in India and England. Here the parents are involved in it, which is a new kind of experiment because if the children are going to be different then parents must also be different, otherwise there is a contradiction between the child and the parents, and there will be conflict between them. So to avoid all that we thought it would be right that the parents as well as the teachers and the students work together as a family unit.”

» You can also read this article in context: 2017-18 Annual Report

 

One of my most memorable experiences growing up in India was that my twin sister and I would travel to Chennai during the warm days and cool nights in December. It was something we waited for eagerly, as we would get to stay at the beautiful 250-acre land of the Theosophical Society in Adyar wherein my family would attend the international convention that happens every year. Each year the convention has a theme where theosophists and avid learners of various disciplines would converge to hear lectures and have wonderful discussions. For us as children, we would be in this wonderful environment of learning but mostly focused on play and I had no idea that it was subconsciously having a great impact on my inner child. A theme from the convention has stayed with me over the years, “where YOU are, love is not” and I didn’t understand the impact it would have on me in my adult life.

When we came to Oak Grove to explore the school and community, Surya (my son, 11 at that time) and I were resistant as we did not want to leave our lovely home, community, friends in the Bay Area. My husband convinced us to explore the school and then to decide if we wanted to uproot our lives from the known and jump headlong into the unknown. We met with Andy, who embodies many wonderful things of the Oak Grove teacher culture and were very taken in by the honesty and simplicity of this Krishnamurti school. I remember sitting with Surya by the Pavilion and asking him about his thoughts/ feelings going through his mind. After voicing some of the positives and fears of moving to a new school, he said, “My heart says to stay in the Bay Area (because of my friends) but my gut says to come to this school”! I was stunned at the depth of his observation in himself and that he was able to articulate it so succinctly. I told my husband about this and we both knew at that time that this would be the right choice for him/us and applied to the school. Suffice to say, when Surya got accepted, we moved our lives, left all that was familiar and safe to us, and moved to Ojai.

They say (I don’t know who) that nothing good in life comes easy. We went through our struggles of moving, change of jobs, finding a home in Ojai, saying goodbyes to friends and I can say a year later that it has been completely worth it. Surya was welcomed, embraced by the class, teachers and school alike, and made connections with kids that I know will last a lifetime. The growth of the mind, the ease of the heart and the happiness of learning in a relaxed environment is reflected on Surya on most days after school. One day, in the middle of the year, he said, “I did not realize I was so stressed at Independent (his previous school) until I realized I wasn’t feeling the stress anymore.” When asked how he would describe the stress, he said that he felt the class energy was less about strict rules and more focused on learning and creativity. Every child goes through their own struggles (education, social relationship dynamics and peer pressure) in school irrespective of the greatness of the school but to hear that he was not stressed, my husband and I thought this was absolutely worth all the sacrifices we made as a family.

I realized after I moved to Ojai that the convention theme of many years ago, “where YOU are, love is not” would circle back as a theme of being more present and aware of one’s own self in the world of relationships. And that we as a family would get an opportunity to be in an environment to explore that self and be able to reflect and grow.

Oak Grove embraced us, reminded me that there are schools in this world that breed a culture of integrity, kindness, honesty, authenticity and most of all genuine empathy towards fellow human beings. My family and I are grateful for this wonderful experience of the Oak Grove school/community and look forward to the exciting years ahead in Surya’s experiences at the school.

Warmly,

Deepa Pulipati

In early childhood, children are developing skills at school to help build a strong foundation for cooperative social play. During early childhood, kids actively seek ways to assert their own identities and to find ways to be powerful. Unfortunately, because of their developmental level, young children often don’t know how to make themselves feel more powerful without it being at the expense of another. They often look for “advantages”—who runs faster, who’s currently using the pink scissors, who has the biggest muffin in their snack box. For young children, as strange as this may seem, this is the work of finding their place in the world.

As kids begin to feel safe at school and want to play with other kids, they bring their naturally spontaneous and playful nature to these interactions. However, these same social impulses can be unpredictable and hurtful. As they play, stethoscopes get snatched and friends get elbowed out. As young children learn how to enter and sustain play, how to be friends and to bounce back from rejection, their social skills grow. Young children often disagree intensely, which can be distressing to adults, but which is part of learning who they are.

Young children naturally move from parallel play (alone or next to other kids, with separate ideas) to cooperative play, in which children share a common idea or theme, working together to negotiate rules and roles of the moment. In new situations like beginning at a new school, we may see children return to a less mature kind of play until they feel relaxed enough to jump into their more sophisticated ways of playing.

Some Preschool and Kindergarten friendships are serene and calm, but many are turbulent and variable. On the way to learning to cooperate and compromise, we adults may wince at hearing their words: “I had it first! You’re not my friend.” “No, my idea is more cool. You can’t play here.” “Only girls can climb up here—no boys allowed!”

All of us want our children to be generous and friendly and well-liked. As parents and teachers, how do we support this? Some of the ways we do this at Oak Grove include:

Observing without judgment. We keep in mind the age level of individual children and the social dynamics that come with that. We know that children have their individual temperament—some prefer playing with friends to everything else and play with a wide variety of children. Others take time to warm up and prefer playing with one or two special friends in familiar, small groups. Some prefer to lead play and others to follow; we encourage opportunities for kids to fulfill the opposite role in play.

Respecting their friendship choices. We respect children’s right to choose (sometimes two children are discovering a special connection) while making sure that feelings aren’t hurt and that there is space for a third child to connect and belong elsewhere.

Facilitating their learning to resolve conflicts independently and peacefully. When arguments erupt, we guide children in expressing their feelings and needs, in listening, and in coming to mutual solutions.

Active listening. We listen actively to children—to understand their feelings and goals at a specific moment and to reflect them back. Instead of stepping in (ordering them to let kids play), we strive to remain attentive to children without imparting our own feelings, values, or judgments. Our focus is on reflecting back the heart of children’s thoughts or feelings, which helps us to focus on understanding the child, instead of trying to explain, fix, or solve their dilemmas.

When children come to us with a hurt or complaint, we listen closely and restate a condensed version of what we hear. We “check-in” to help make sure we’ve correctly understood the child’s basic message. “It sounds like you were worried your play would be interrupted,” or “Today, she only wanted to play with him, and you’re feeling sad. Are you wondering whether she is still your friend?”

Active listening connects us with children but also models reflecting on their own words and feelings. Over time, we hope they’ll begin to see other perspectives: “How do you think she felt when you said to go away?” Young children are still learning self-regulation and empathy, and trying on another’s feelings can be a startling idea for them.

We may gently push them to own their own choices. Instead of offering a solution, we might ask, “What do you think your next step could be?” The child won’t immediately see the situation from another point of view, but the simple act of seeing that there are lots of possible solutions to a seemingly impossible problem is empowering. By responding with empathy, adults give children the opportunity to pause and move forward when they’re ready to.

As young children grow, they often explore feeling powerful through language, discovering (to our dismay) name-calling and excluding.

Exclusionary play—when friendship hurts:
Excluding is a natural impulse for young children. As two children or a small group solidify their friendship, they may exclude other children from their play. When a child orders another away from her play, she may be thinking, “He and I are in the middle of our pretend play and if another friend joins us now, it will ruin our story.” That thought is often verbalized as, “Go away!” This is because children generally aren’t sure what holds their play together and may fear that the pleasure of their play will be lost if they let another child join in. Exclusionary play can bond two children together: “We are friends if we agree with each other, and right now we both say ‘no’ to playing with you.”

When engaged in cooperative play, a question keeps coming up for kids: Who’s making the decisions about our play? A lot of negotiating goes on as children experiment with ways to have control over their firefighter or mommy play. This includes threatening: “You have to be the baby brother puppy or you can’t play with us” or “Give me the silver bucket or you can’t come to my birthday party.”

Children also exclude to investigate the role of power in affecting other children’s feelings: “If I say you can’t play here, will it make you cry?”

Kids often don’t understand the boundaries of friendship—if they are playing with someone, then they’re “friends,” and if they’re not playing with someone, they’re “not friends.” This means they might say, “You’re not my friend any more,” rather than “You can’t play with us right now.”

Excluding other children also springs from the cognitive developmental stage in which children begin to categorize. People in their family are different from people not in their family. Realizing that some people are like them and others are different, they often use those categories to exclude other children: “Only boys can play!” “We don’t want anyone here who has short hair!”

Teachers make sure that no child is excluded based on an attribute or affinity with which they are born, like gender, race, ethnicity, or ability, or a social category like family differences.

We include children in problem-solving. A powerful way to approach exclusionary play is to acknowledge the play that is going on. Because kids worry about a loss of control of their play, this reassures them. “It looks like you’re building a strong dam for the pond.” Once kids hear their play acknowledged, they have more confidence that it won’t be overridden and less resistance to having someone else join in.

We also might invite children’s ideas about ways their play could be extended to make room for others: “Do you need someone to carry the doctor tools and the groceries?” This often helps children find a way to open their play to another.

Adults might need to find ways to help expand children’s play, so if there isn’t room for more passengers in the wagon, we wonder out loud about bigger ideas: “Do we need to set up a ‘wagon washing station’?” This way everyone who wants to can join in.

It’s important to make sure the child who’s being excluded has a voice. We don’t speak for children (which puts them in a passive role), but check in with them: “How do you feel about that idea?” or “How does it feel when kids say that?” Whether an excluded child gets into play isn’t as important as being heard when they express their feelings, so we make sure others listen to what she has to say.

We keep play areas open for all children: “The slide is for everyone.” We arrange the classroom to provide limits at times, like the “two-person table” for art projects.

We establish ground rules for safety: “Those are hurtful words. It’s not okay to use those kinds of names with kids. What’s another way to say what you’re trying to say?” or “I wonder if you’re trying to tell her, ‘I just want to play with him right now.’”

Fortunately, as children grow older (though sometimes much older), they are more capable of understanding multiple points of view, think through their choices, and predict natural consequences to events. They become better able to understand that yelling, “Go away!” is not a great way to keep a friend.

Children’s friendships will be developing and changing all through the year (and through the years). Relationships in Preschool and Kindergarten are based on the here-and-now, and supporting them is ongoing work for teachers and parents. As busy adults, it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing judge and jury for social collisions between children. We may say, “Play nice!” or “Time out!” or “I’m going to put that tool away!” none of which are helpful solutions. But as long as we continue to mediate and “resolve” their conflicts for them, we prevent children from practicing those crucial skills themselves. Instead, it’s helpful to think of ourselves as attentive observers and guides for children as they do the work of learning how to be a friend.

Over time, these responses help increase the level of trust between adults and children. Kids learn that we are there for them in this complex process of navigating friendships. With our support, over time, children begin to understand that what they say and do affects others. When they trust that adults respect their ideas and clarify safe limits, they’re more willing to work together toward mutually satisfying solutions, and the rocky road of friendship can be a little smoother.

— Adrienne Hoskins