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Updated: Jan 19

Children are often so excited to tell adults their accomplishments: "I cut my bagel all by myself!" "Look how high I am!" "Let me tell you all the volcanoes I went to when I went to Iceland!" We will, of course, have them tell us more about what they did and how they did it, and listen patiently to what they know—congratulating them and reinforcing the pride they should feel in themselves. In Sideways School, though, we direct the child to turn to their friends instead, and something different happens:

M.: "I cut my bagel all by myself!"

L.: "Well yesterday I cut all the strawberries all by myself!"

They get to know themselves not only as the superstars we see them as, but as part of a cohort, all learning and achieving and discovering new abilities.

C.: "Look how high I am!"

R.: "Great job!"

Children learn and can use the language of praise, if we let them! And how much more validating might it be for a child to hear this from a peer than from a grownup?

Q.: "Let me tell you the all the volcanoes I went to when I went to Iceland."

K.: "No thanks." [Walks away.]

K. has a totally age-appropriate response, and we'll deal with that later. But now Q. has no one with whom to share his knowledge, and hurt feelings. This is a great moment for grownup to take off their invisibility cloak and step in with a suggestion—one that the child might take to heart for the next time: "What about drawing the volcanoes?" Q. gets to express what he knows in a different way—and it turns out that showing rather than telling achieves real interest from a peer, and an even more satisfying reaction. And because the children have time to play, the volcano map gets woven into game: the explorers find themselves on an underwater volcano and need a map to navigate a path to safety before it blows!

When children share their exciting news and knowledge with each other, they get so much more than they might from grownups. They get meaningful interaction that, in turn, can lead to deep learning about themselves, as well as deeper connections with the peers who are learning, living, and growing alongside them.

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Here, a parent shares her perspective on the Sideways School experience:

Just posting in support of Serena and Sideways School! Sideways School is truly great. I cannot say enough good things about my daughter's participation. She gets unstructured, spontaneous, child-led time in nature, which as a city kid, and especially now that she is spending so many hours in school, she needs sooooo much. The play is so imaginative!

And even more importantly, she also gets the opportunity to explore all aspects of relationships and social interactions with support. What happens when the kids have different ideas of what area of the park to go to, or what game to play? Instead of an adult deciding or directing them how to play, Serena supports them to figure out what they want to do, and where to go, how to play the game and in the process they learn how to listen to each other, share ideas, compromise, deal with disappointment, respond with empathy or excitement, regulate and express their emotions and resolve conflicts. It is such crucial learning!! Serena treats the kids as capable, and as such they respond capably.

My daughter has blossomed and matured in Serena’s care. She throws less tantrums, offers more ideas for solutions to problems at home, and she makes transitions to new or less familiar caregivers much easier. She is more confident in herself and it shows. And she bosses her friends around less, which is a huge change ;)

Serena also shares photos and insights from each week, moments where the kids struggle and how they cope, moments where they are kind to each other, moments of delight in nature. It is a really special experience.

I have no affiliation with Serena except from appreciating this important space she provides for kids.

—Amy (Mum to S, 5.5, and I, almost 2 and still too young for Sideways School).

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Updated: May 10, 2023

“Put the stick down!” “Be careful with that stick!” We give these warnings to our kids all the time. What would happen if we didn't?

In her picture book Not a Stick, Antoinette Porter makes us keenly aware of our words, pointing out (see what I did there?!) that sticks are conduits by which kids develop their capacity for creativity and imagination. “It’s not a stick!” the pig responds; it’s a fishing pole, a horse, a magic wand, a sword for fighting dragons. The pig is pictured alone, though. Kids using sticks as swords to fight each other—that’s a different story!

When kids pretend their sticks are weapons, they risk hurting each other, there’s no way around it, and the risk goes up the more aggressive the play. But the spatial awareness this teaches is invaluable: How close can I get without hurting my friend? How close is too uncomfortable for me? And the social skills needed for safe stick play are learned by doing: practicing saying "stop!" when it's too much, and stopping when they’re asked to. These are important early lessons in consent! If adults intervene, we're keeping children from learning for themselves.

Children also turn sticks into tools to investigate the natural world. They use them to measure the depth of a puddle, balance on a log, dig a river. Stick play brings out children’s inner scientists: children form questions and hypotheses and test them—Can I get this stick to stand up on its own? Can this stick reach that branch? Do I need a longer stick? A shorter one? A thicker or thinner one? They change variables and repeat trials and store the results in memory. When kids do these experiments in pairs or in a group, their neurons fire more brightly (they'll get "lab partners" later in school for the same reason).

Yet here, too, and especially with those longer branches, they run the risk of injury to others, and accidents happen. Young children’s black-and-white thinking makes it hard for them to recover: the one hurt gets upset and accusatory, the one who caused it (if there was only one, sometimes it's both!) feels victimized. To learn to brush off accidents the way adults can, children need to experience them, and then work through the ambiguity of no one being at fault. Of course, the first order of business has to be attending to a severe injury—but still, we can wait to step in. Children often have outsize reactions to smaller hurts, especially in the presence of an adult. And by waiting you might just see another child doing the investigating and showing compassion.

What if it's not just other kids in the path of danger? That’s when it's really hard not to say something! One day in the park heading over to the meadow, I watched the kids swinging their sticks as they walked down the stairs—where someone was sitting in the way. I held my tongue, held my breath. . . . The kids, animatedly chatting, brought the sticks closer to their bodies. All on their own, they judged what space they had and did what they needed to keep everyone safe, without one word of warning!

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