Should we re-design playgrounds for the iPad era?
Before we tackle that question, just imagine how sad the world would be without playgrounds. For almost all of history, there were none. It wasn’t until 1887 that the first one in North America was constructed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The rapid growth of cities at the end of the Nineteenth Century obliged the construction of urban play spaces. As families left farming communities for city life, children found themselves without trees to climb, rocks to hop, or hills to scramble. Change was needed, and in 1907 Teddy Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to advocate for city playgrounds in Washington.
Now, 100 years later, technological change requires us once again to rethink our outdoor play. Richard Louv points out in his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, children today are disconnected from the natural world. Louv, horrified, relates the story of child who told him, “I like to play indoors better ´cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.” Louv documents the emotional and existential distress caused by too little exposure to the natural, physical world. Air conditioning, iPhones, and the internet have made it harder for all of us to have intimate encounters with rain drops, earthworms and dandelions. Yet our souls need these encounters to center and balance us.
These days, playgrounds must do more than provide a place for safe, physical play. They must also expose children to natural elements—such as rocks, logs, water and other features that stimulate the senses. As Maria Montessori understood, we learn directly from our senses—thus sensual experiences are the foundation for learning. Most modern, industrial playgrounds are constructed of painted steel frames careful constructed more for their Consumer Product Safety Rating score than their organic, natural elements. Even the New York Times asked “Can a Playground be Too Safe” ( NYT, 7/19/2011) .
Fortunately, there are many educational leaders who understand the needs of children to experience the natural world. Last week, Lesley Romanoff, the director of the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School showed me her school’s fantastic play space; it has a squirrel bridge, tea house, canoe and creek bed. She directed me to Springzaad, an online network of teachers, nature educators, public servants, landscape architects, and horticulturists who are promoting natural space for children to play. Springzaad advocates elements such as herb gardens, shelters, rafts and more.
At the one year anniversary of the Evergreen School Rain Garden, I find deeper appreciation for the wisdom of our play space design. Even more wonderful than seeing Evergreen students floating wood chips down our creek, planting in the vegetable garden, hopping on logs, stepping stones and hiding among our native grasses—it is awesome to see children’s connection to nature deepened, even in our suburban patch of Wheaton/Silver Spring.
There are some things you just can’t do on an iPad.
You can see more pictures of our Rain Garden on our Pintrest page.
Few things are more wonderful than a class mural– especially this one from Mrs. John and Mrs. Conn’s class.
Can Montessori serve as a model for education reform in China? Earlier this week, Evergreen welcomed Steven Qian, a consultant from The Guidepost Educational Development Company in China. He is working with Beijing officials to open a premier learning center there. Mr. Qian seemed earnest in his desire to create a new model for education in China. He was open minded about Montessori ideas. Looking into Mr. Bingcang’s room, he was fascinated to see our students concentrating deeply, working independently and talking joyfully about their school day. And he was surprised to see the Elementary students sitting on the floor listening to Ms. Hatziyannis reading a C.S. Lewis novel aloud. He had a keen interest in the Montessori materials and learning where they can be purchased.
The longer he visited, the more I understood what a daunting task lays ahead for him: at its core, the purpose of education in China is fundamentally different than ours at Evergreen.
In each classroom, I proudly pointed out how independently our children were working. Mr. Qian saw Emily and Ruby moving around the classroom as the set up the Bank Game without Ms. Liotta’s interventions or corrections. He saw Krishna working on a painting and Alex with the Movable Alphabet. And he saw Tara mastering the Hundred Board as Abe watched.
“Are the students always working so hard?” he asked. I explained that our emphasis on internal motivation, not external teacher control keep students engaged longer. They know that they can switch gears or choose new work when they have exhausted their attention spans. This respect for the child is the foundation for how we organize the classroom and school day. We believe that children are naturally motivated learners who can make good decisions, without coercive discipline, about their class activities.
Mr. Qian explained that it may be nearly impossible in China to make teachers understand that they must first respect the child. He said that in the Chinese system, the primary goal is to teach children to respect authority. There, education is designed to teach compliance, not independence; obedience not entrepreneurship. Desks are bolted to the floor.
When I told him that the Montessori community brags that it produced some of the world’s greatest innovators, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and Sean Combs he responded, “Maybe one day China will too. We know it starts with education.”
I applaud Mr. Qian’s efforts. I offered to host his school’s principals and have them observe here. Will they be as open to reform as Mr. Qian? Let’s hope so.
This stunningly beautiful stained glass adorns the balcony of the Hughes Church. We are fortunate to have Evergreen School housed in such a lovely building.
Why is it so much fun for Evergreen children to come back to school after spring break? The thrill of seeing old friends is as strong for three year olds as it for adults. Happiness is directly tied to our relationships in life. There is nothing like being surrounded by loved ones, as we saw on Esteemed Elders’ Day.
In her best-selling book, Raising Happiness, Christine Carter writes about raising joyful children and creating happy adults. Her book has been cited by experts as an authoritative guide to parenting. Carter writes, “What is the key to happiness? …our relationships with other people matter more than anything else. Very happy people have stronger social relationships than less happy people…. Truly, our happiness and our relationships are so closely linked that they can practically be equated.”
We all recognize that it can be hard to raise children in the culture of affluence in Montgomery County. That’s why my favorite section of the book is about gratitude vs. entitlement. It takes concentrated effort and strategic planning to get children into the habit of practicing gratitude—especially when you consider that the average American child receives seventy toys per year! (p.68)
In addition, Carter’s book covers all the topics that are useful to parents: entitlement vs. gratitude, how to give praise, handling conflict, teaching optimism, the roots of materialism in children, and more. In addition to her book, Carter even offers classes to parents and helps to organize discussion groups. You can learn more on her website. http://www.raisinghappiness.com/
Our custom-designed pergola was installed over spring break by Marcus Sims and a team of volunteers from the school. It was hand-build from a locally salvaged log. Could the sky be bluer?
Would you like to spend your summer in a classroom? Probably not. So why are children so happy to attend the Montessori Summer Program at Evergreen School?
Here is why: When learning is doing, a classroom is just a playground for the mind.
A Montessori classroom is unlike what most people associate with school. In programs like ours, children get to make decisions about the work they choose. Their interests and independence are honored. A child may so involved with building words that he or she spends all morning putting letters together. Another child may be busy manipulating numbers. Another child is building a model or identifying parts of a frog. Everything is hands-on and active.
Children are natural learners with absorbent minds. In the right environment, the distinction between concepts like “work” and “play” has no meaning. There is only discovering, doing and mastering. Likewise, the distinction between “summer vacation” and “school” has no meaning.
Around the country, parents and educators are reacting to the crisis in education by experimenting with the traditional school calendar. Year-round school is gaining popularity. Yet if the classroom structure does not change, more time in school may not lead to more learning. Longer hours or more months in teacher-driven classrooms may only erode students’ already flagging enthusiasm for learning.
What will improve education? More classrooms modeled on Montessori principles.
Last year, before I saw the Montessori Summer Program at Evergreen in action, I mistakenly thought that a summer in a classroom was cruel punishment. After seeing the joy of learning continue around the calendar, I realize that no one wants a nine-week vacation from doing the things they love.