The Treehouse

The treehouse was at first an idea preposed by a friend of my son’s. One of several boys who spent many days of summer with me. They started building it on our anniversary. By building I mean they put a bunch of random pieces of wood up on our mulberry tree. I told them upfront that we were having a vow renewal under the tree that evening, and I would be taking down the wood and they would need to rebuild their fort at a later date. They were agreeable to that. Yet, in the days after they didn’t get back to the idea idea and the tree sat empty.

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July 21, 2017

But Mark has not let go of this idea for a tree house. He’s been talking about it regularly and has created plans. He told me very clearly that this was a project only for kids to work on. “No one who is 15 or older is allowed to help!”

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Mark’s tree house plans. At the top is a picture of a hammer, a nail with 14 next to it to indicate he will need 14 nails, a tool box and a diagram showing where the major elements will go. 

Recently Mark (nearly 7) and Vincent (8) began work on the treehouse again with occasional help from Isaac (4).

Mark has his own set of real tools he is allowed to use whenever he wants, he can use my tools with explicit permission and supervision. He’s used his own tools enough I don’t feel the need to closely supervise him. I trust he will be mostly safe. We’ve had a lot of lessons, including a time he cut himself with his own saw and learned why we are careful with the saw.

I respected his request for no adult help as long as he followed a few rules.

  1. Be smart with your tools, especially the saw.
  2. Don’t leave tools or nails or screws laying on the ground.
  3. I’m allowed to veto any design that I believe is unsafe for people or the tree.

Mark agreed to these terms and set to work. Its been very slow going, but he and his cousin are very persistent. A six and an eight year old attempting to put screws and nails though solid wood into other prices of sold wood with only a screwdriver and a small hammer is a slow process. They have sawed a few of the steps for the ladder and halfway attached one.

 

This is self directed education in action. These kids had no adult say to them “Hey how about you go build a tree house!” This was entirely their idea, their plan and their effort. How sweet will finishing that tree house be when they know they did it with own hands? What might they learn if they don’t finish? What will they learn if they do eventually ask for adult help?

All of these possibilities are fantastic life lessons. Right now I’m glad they are becoming more confident using tools, learning what works and what doesn’t work. I see them experimenting with how to set up the wood to saw it, how to get a screw started though a peice of wood. I see them working together (one day even with a four year old helper.) one person holding the first run of the ladder while another attempts to drive a nail in. They have already spent at least 8 solid hours in the yard over the course of three days working on this, retiring to the swimming pool when the afternoons get unbearably hot. But the next opportunity they are out there again working hard.

Give kids the tools they need and the freedom to use them and they will do great things all on their own.

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Sure, My Kid is Starting First Grade This Year.

Its summer and it always seems that by the time we really get into the swing of summer everybody is already talking about the school year starting up again. They are already setting up the “Back to School” displays at the stores and I’m already getting asked “What grade will Mark be in this year?”

More often then not I straight up lie to this question, because I realize its not about the question. People really don’t care what grade your kid is in, unless they are going to the same school as their child. This question is the same as “What are you doing for Christmas?” It is a polite seasonal conversation maker. More than anything they are trying to relate to my child’s age.

There are times that I am close enough to someone to give them the long full version. It usually starts with, “There are no grade levels at my child’s school.” Then maybe I’ll explain how children are grouped based roughly on age into three “rooms” and how my son will probably stick with room A this year, but that will be up to him and his teachers.

Democratic schools do not arbitrarily divide students up based on birth year. We know from experience and studies that dividing children up this way isn’t even the best way to educate children and people really struggle grasp how radically different a democratic school is from any public school. Its harder to explain than unschooling most of the time. Its easy to tell you what there isn’t. Its much harder to communicate what there is and how magical the environment can be.

In a democratic school there are no grade levels, there are no grades. There are no tests. There are no report cards. There are no traditional classrooms. There is no age segregation. There is no ability segregation. The only times the kids are divided up is for a short morning meeting, and then for classes they choose to sign up for. There are no punishments or requirements.

In a democratic school there is community, and freedom, and respect in a way that just isn’t possible when teachers must coerce children to comply to state standards of learning and testing. At Village Free School there is extremely little the children must do and values that are held highest are taking care of yourself, taking care of others, and taking care of the school, and when it comes down to it there is always a community surrounding you ready to help you do those things so you are never alone in it.

One of the biggest daily challenges is getting the kids to eat (which falls under ‘take care of yourself’). With the youngest kids (room A) they put lunch on the whiteboard with the plans for the day (none of which are required, unless its an all-school trip). They talk about lunch and then give the kids reminders when 12:30 rolls around that they should maybe take some time to eat. I often check my son’s lunch box when I pick him to find it mostly full. No one makes him sit in a lunch room for 30 minutes, so he’s still learning to find the discipline to listen to his body and feed himself. Luckily the car ride home is a great time to catch up on some eating.

My son spends his days playing with people of literally all ages. There aren’t a ton of babies and toddlers around (becuase the school starts at age 5) but they are there. Younger siblings and teacher’s kids are welcome and there are at least two toddlers that are regulars and the kids adore them. The teachers are often right in the thick of things playing with the kids or are nearby for when the kids need help, usually when a conflict arises.Thats when things get really radical.

If there is a curriculum it is human relationships and learning how to be decent person though listening to others and solving problems together. Much of the day is spent solving conflicts or working out things in groups. What to play, where to play it, what will the rules be, will we let this late comer join in, how to we keep it fair for smaller kids? The kids spend a lot of time working though these questions. Justice and fairness is a high priority for most of the kids, and they will become very passionate when there is a real or perceived injustice towards themselves or one of their friends. This is where the amazing adults can step in and guide them though “challenges” using various peaceful techniques to solve the problem to the best of everyones ability and satisfaction.

That doesn’t mean that everyone is always happy. Sometimes kids walk away from challenges feeling like they didn’t get the outcome they wanted, sometimes kids cry or get angry, sometimes the adults don’t know exactly what to do. But the focus on respecting each other and letting everyone feel heard and cared for goes a long way all on its own. The lack of hard structure to the day allows lots of time to work though challenges with no rush and this is key. Real conflicts don’t get solved in five minutes and kids have real conflicts.

My son is not starting first grade this year. He is beginning his second year at the Village Free School. Where he will spend his days playing and learning though play. He will have time to read books and be read to, he will engage in art whenever he chooses and to whatever extent he choses, he will be surrounded by capable loving adults who are available to help him explore any questions he has. He will have the opportunity to participate  in “offerings” taught by teachers, fellow students, and outside instructors. Last year he choose no to sign up for any, and that was perfectly acceptable. He still occasionally jumped in and participated when he saw something fun going on as an offering. He will be part of a community that accepts him for who he is today and has no expectations or timelines for his growth. They understand that children grow all on their own when given the fertile environment to do so. Some flowers grow faster than others, some grow tall slowly, but they all are beautiful flowers deserving of sunshine, water, and fertilizer.

But sure, yeah, my kid is starting first grade this year.

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Village Free School!