Every child in Sideways School gets their own clipboard to decorate and then bring with them every class. I supply the paper and a variety of writing and drawing utensils. These aren’t for assignments, however, but for practical use during play: It doesn’t take much modeling before children are asking for paper to draw or write down their ideas, the tools they need, the steps for a project, or a recap of an exciting adventure. In the service of extending group play, pen and paper become critical tools for effective collaboration:
They have different ideas for building a nest that can be raised and lowered. Whose idea will they go with? Once the ideas are on paper, however, they can more easily be compared and combined, and they don’t need me to tell them: “We can mix our ideas together!” a child exclaims.
The climbing logs are a rocket ship. One draws a model, labeling the different parts, then refers to the plan as he directs the “pilot” to the cockpit and the “repairer” to the broken engine.
They carve out roads in the dirt and decide to name their streets, then identify them with street signs, both scribbling together, then figuring out how to attach the strips of paper branches.
They jointly dictate the story of the day’s play scenario, creating narrative and preserving it. A kindergartener asks for my clipboard, excited to use what he's learning in school to "sound out" the words himself.
In addition to deepening their shared experiences, writing helps kids develop key skills such as organizing ideas, planning and execution, and preserving memory. When children write or draw, they're strengthening their hand muscles and working on fine motor skills, and using principles of early literacy. Putting their thoughts on paper makes their ideas visible, makes them important, makes them matter—even, and especially, when they're "just playing." The confidence in writing that can grow from these roots bears fruit in the classroom: Children who feel good about writing for themselves often feel better about writing in school.
Playing outside is hard work! Children are actively moving and thinking, linking body and brain as they build new understandings of their world and how to get along with the other people in it. Nervous and sensory sytems can get overloaded and need time to rest and reset. Did you know that, given the space and time, children will take their own time-outs?
In the expanse of the natural setting, with unstructured time, I’ve watched children spontaneously pause and step away from the action. They find in some element of the landscape and its living things an invitation to stillness, to mindfulness, to focus:
· A child settles on branches angled just so to support him to rest head on hands in silence.
· As she marvels at a dragonfly that found her leg to be a resting place, a child stills and her attention sharpens.
· Boulders bordering a pond call a child to scamper from one to the next, requiring deep concentration to balance his body and thus focus his mind.
· In the curve of a tree base, a child finds a nook that cradles her body and gives solace to help her recover from a slight.
In these moments, children center and calm themselves, tune out distractions, and turn their minds inward. This is emotional self-regulation, and children are learning how to do it just by listening to themselves and taking advantage of what nature offers. With practice, children may be able to recall and recover these moments in other settings, when things get to be “too much.” I’ve seen it happen! The more opportuntities children get to play in nature, the more chances they get to find their peace.