Updated: Jun 22

We want our children to grow up to find their own way through life, but it's hard to let them go first on busy city streets! In the woods, though, we can invite children to choose their own path; we let them lead the way. Here, they get much-needed practice being agents of their destinies. When adults lag behind children get ahead, learning leadership and so much else!

They debate and decide together which way to go, especially when paths diverge—sometimes discovering that different paths can lead to the same end.

They test boundaries: Do you tread where others have gone, or do you make your own way? They navigate obstacles in the way, respecting others' right to share the space.

Walking ahead, they communicate with each other in animated engagement—building relationships and sharing joy! Children who struggle with conversation join in too, maybe finding it easier to share their thoughts when all eyes are facing forward.

When a peer is slow, or scared, natural empathy kicks in: They walk alongside, or they take a hand and show another where to step.

Most children thrill at the chance to get out in front and leave the adults trailing behind! The pride that comes from getting where you wanted to go, the surprise of discovering someplace new, even the regret over the path not chosen . . . Children need to experience all of these to learn how to lead with confidence, and, no less important, to learn how to follow with grace.

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Updated: Jun 1

Each child in Sideways School gets their own clipboard to decorate and then bring with them to 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 steps for a project, a list of the items they need, or a recap of an exciting adventure. In the service of extending group play, pen and paper become critical tools for successful social interaction:

They have competing ideas for building a nest that can be raised and lowered. Stopping to put ideas on paper redirects from the impulse to argue to the effort to show their ideas, and then compare and combine. “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 runs back to get the drawing, referring 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 make street signs, working together to figure out how to attach the strips of paper to small sticks.

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 the deepening of shared experience that collaborating with pen and paper can offer, writing and drawing help children develop key skills such as impulse control, organizing ideas, planning and execution, and sequencing narrative. They're strengthening their hand muscles and working on fine motor skills, and using principles of early literacy. Putting children's thoughts on paper makes their ideas visible, makes them important, makes them matter—even, and especially, when they're "just playing." And the confidence in writing that can grow from these roots bears fruit in the classroom: Children who feel good about writing for themselves feel better about writing in school.

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Updated: May 17

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.

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