by Sarah Felstiner, Education Director, Hilltop Children’s Center
An exercise that we often do together at Hilltop – with new educators, and with families – is to reflect on a treasured memory from our own childhood, and then draw a picture of that memory. We then share those memories with each other, and talk about the fundamental elements that made those memories so precious and powerful.
While the stories that people tell are unique to their own history – the drawings included here, created by parents at Hilltop, exemplify that diversity – we find that many of the same core components arise from these conversations. Characteristics of these stories that show up frequently include:
- long stretches of time, timelessness
- unsupervised play, hiding
- open-ended materials
- the chance to get messy
- exploration, adventure, the unknown
- taking risks, independence
- safety, security, not worrying
- connecting with loved ones, friends
- nature, playing outdoors
It’s usually pretty easy to get agreement that this list represents what we’d consider an authentic childhood. But then the question becomes: how can we create classrooms and schools that offer this same kind of childhood to the children who are spending their days with us? Below are a few examples of common practices in our Hilltop classrooms that have grown directly from this commitment to authentic childhood.
- We carve out long stretches of uninterrupted playtime each day, often as much as two hours, so that children can dive deeply into a game, or explore many different games. And we help to establish predictable daily routines that still offer children the flexibility – and the responsibility – to make choices about their play.
- We offer open-ended materials that can be anything children need for their games (rocks, scarves, logs, fabric, and other found items), and are delighted when they “invent” their own toys. A basket of smooth glass jewels might serve as pirate treasure one day, cat food the next, and soup the day after that…
- We know that leaving children “unsupervised” doesn’t mean educators are absent or uninvolved – of course we keep children in sight and sound at all times! But we aim to create a supportive structure and ensure safety from behind the scenes, offering possibilities for exploration and then stepping back, and occasionally acting as a facilitator to help children sustain the play they’ve begun.
- We look for all kinds of ways that children can take risks: with new art media, with new reading skills, solving problems with their friends, or in active play. We partner with the children to keep them safe, while encouraging them to take that next risky step.
- We know that relationships are at the heart of our program: among children, educators, and families. Through close relationships the community thrives, and the children’s learning is expanded. These children are social learners, and they use each other to build knowledge about themselves and about the world.
- Outdoor play was a staple of many of our own childhoods, but in some ways it’s missing from what children experience today. On our play yard, and even inside the building, as well as on walks and field trips, we hope to help children make connections with the natural world, experience the wildness of our Pacific Northwest setting, develop their own ecological identity, and become stewards of our planet.
In an era of scheduled playdates, structured enrichment classes, hand sanitizer, and molded plastic playgrounds…this is the kind of authentic childhood that we’re committed to protecting. The children in our care only live their childhood once, and they’re spending a big piece of that childhood here at Hilltop. We are humbled by that responsibility, and we have an obligation to think of ourselves as guardians of childhood.
So we keep this commitment to childhood in mind, as we plan for our classroom environments and program activities. What are we doing – each day, each week, each year – to honor the childhoods that are being lived at our school? One resource we recommend, for those interested in reading more stories of Childhood-focused education, is the new edition of Reflecting Children’s Lives by Margie Carter and Deb Curtis.
Back on September 28th, 2016, the Hilltop Educator Institute hosted one of the most awesome Guardians of Childhood we know: Tom Hobson at our Discussion Series. Many of you may be familiar with his work at Woodland Park Cooperative School, and his widely read “Teacher Tom” blog. We hope you find his blog insightful!