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Fun and Learning at the Dome

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Friday afternoon I stood out at the Dome (the massive play structure near the barn) with three of the Kindergarten teachers, watching the children play: on the Dome’s various elements, in the woods, on the swings the K Foxes and Frogs romped. Meanwhile, Nicole shared how much the students had enjoyed a recent outdoor bit of learning, an exploration of how various kinds of creatures are getting ready for winter, for instance, by eating and building up fat, preparing to hibernate or ‘go dormant,’ or storing food. She reported how the children mimed and investigated the winter preparations of some local creatures, with her students gathering acorns and peeking under logs and rocks…a great example of learning using our incredible campus.

As we spoke, a band of kindergartners began to play a ball game around us, beneath and around the Dome, in the boundaries of the mulched area. Something of a blend of soccer, team keep away, and Aussie Rules football? It wasn’t clear. But the game involved chasing after and kicking and sometimes picking up the ball. Every now and then the person with or nearest the ball came to a sudden stop and a sort of slow motion dog pile ensued. Not too rough, and the kids laughed and got up and began playing again. Some would cry out what the rules ought to be. “No touching the ball with your hands!” called one while she dangled from a position on the Dome. The chasing and fun continued. Occasionally a child would stop to protest, or ask a teacher whether a particular sequence or move was fair. Response: “Have you made rules? It’s up to the players in the game.” At one point to no one in particular I called out, “Maybe you guys want to stop and decide rules?” The game and laughter continued.

A minute or two later, Ava stopped before me, smiling: “Jeff, can't you see we need your help?! [pause] The girls are LOSING!"

Until that moment I’d observed nothing to suggest there were teams, much less gender teams; perhaps the boys and girls were feeling otherwise. And, as I reflected after, what was clear was this: Ava did not need my intervention. Even more remarkably, I think we both knew she was not really even asking for it. She was being playful, perhaps even inviting me to play, tempting me to become her teammate and ally. But more, she was celebrating her own and the game’s autonomy, her potentially changing or bending the game in some fun way or in her or the girls’ favor. Neither she nor any of the kids—in this instance—really wanted or needed an adult to order or referee their play.

I smiled and let them keep playing. And the game continued.

What’s the significance? There’s learning happening! The same skills the kids are using to navigate the game, the collaboration and negotiation skills, the deciding when and how to offer leadership or demand help, or when to take a stand or go with the flow, will be required over and over in later years: in a third grade science lab, on the sports team, in Burgundy on Broadway, with the group humanities project, in college and graduate school projects, and ultimately in professional project development discussions, in the prosecution strategy making, the R/D roundtable, the dinner time parenting dilemma. The list goes on.

These are life skills developing before us, and they are developed with an artful blend of adult hands-off and hands-on—but, meaningfully, often with our ability to observe, and even coach from the side a little, but restrain our impulse to take over.

Burgundy’s calling card is that we are a process school—a school that provides a series of learning opportunities across a period of years in a way that nurtures the spirits, wellness, and love of learning, self, and nature. The results are measured in the type and variety of high schools, colleges, and careers chosen by our graduates but most especially in the fact that our graduates are self-confident and self-realized, happy and thriving. Soft skills are hard skills. Lessons from the playground and unstructured play as much as from structured learning activities will last a lifetime.