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Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Over time, children who meet each other regularly to play in the woods develop deep connections to each other. Of course, joyful immersion in a shared play scenario fully imagined, using only what they find in nature, creates memories that last. But enduring repeated shared trials and successes deepen the relationships. When they confront the challenges of play in the elements and adults decline to intervene, children learn how to help each other, validate each other’s achievements, and communicate with each other about the things that matter to them.

A child becomes frustrated while dragging a heavy log; the others step up to lift it together.

A child stretches out her hand to pull another up a slippery trunk to reach her. One below directs the child where to put her feet and reassures her, “You can do it!”

On a cold day, a child puts the glove on another's left hand. On a rainy day, children work together to hang a tarp on a branch for shelter (whether or not they're successful isn't the point!).

A child slips and falls, about to cry at the shock of it, when another stops to check her scrape and help her up.

"Hey, come look! I forgot that dogs can actually swim!" A child puts his arm around another to physically share the excitement.

Over time, children’s sense of accountability to and responsibility for others grows. When adults don't do so much for them, children do for each other! Learning how to identify and respond to another’s needs when things get tough (in academic terms, practicing other-oriented, prosocial behaviors) strengthens the social bonds that create a community of care.

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Updated: Mar 15, 2023

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: Mar 15, 2023

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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