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.