Cohort Two: A One-Day School

On Monday 4th November at The Happy Startup School in central Brighton, a freedom-centred micro-school for 5-9 year-olds began and ended. 

The project was an experiment in alternative education and self-directed learning.

I wanted to test my hypothesis that by giving young children freedom over how, where and when they spend their time over a school day, they will not only learn, they'll enjoy it more than the traditional, autocratic approach, and they'll manage it well with little adult intervention.

There is a body of work that says self-directed, play-based, collaborative learning where adults are as facilitators or coaches (not there to tell or teach), supports children to grow into their most natural selves, accepting of self and others, curious about the world and keen to contribute.

Schools such as Sudbury Valley in the US, Summerhill and Sands in the UK, and many others around the world have been practicing this for years with older children. 

Working with Gabrielle Minkley, Kate St John, Jenni Lloyd (on collaging), Liz St John (on Improv teaching), we created our own school in Brighton.

This is a long piece, split into two sections. Immediately below is 'How it worked' and toward the bottom of the page is 'What we noticed and learned.'  

How it worked 

The parents were either friends, or friends of friends through social media. I gave them a broad outline of the project, and told them I was CRB checked and had first aid training, to make sure they felt comfortable.

There were nine children, aged between five and nine. 

Ahead of the day I sent an email to all parents outlining the purpose and structure of our time, what the children needed to bring and a few simple agreements to read through with their children (around kindness, respect and working together).

I felt it was important to set out a basic contract for the children and give them a chance to say 'no' if they wanted to. Consent feels like a critical component of giving responsibility.

At the beginning of the day, the children arrived in ones and twos. Immediately they gravitated towards each other and activities we'd left out (lego, drawing). They started talking to each other and playing together, with no introduction. I have a feeling we could have left them there for the day and they would have been happy.

Our co-created timetable - including child-led and facilitated activities.

At 9.30 we all sat together in a circle. I asked everyone to introduce themselves by name, age and anything they wanted to share. Most were happy to take part, but some were not ready to talk, and we didn't make them.

We then talked about kindness, respect and working together. I asked them to tell me what each word meant for them. This was to build a contract between us about what we expected from each other. I was clear that we were aiming for these things, and no one would be punished for forgetting.

On the wall, I'd drawn an empty timetable. It had breaks and lunch marked out, but the three session times (10:00, 11:30 and 14:00) were blank.

We had planned out a few activities that the children could opt for, if they liked, but I held these back to begin with. 

Instead, I started by asking them if there was anything they'd brought to share, or anything they wanted to learn about today. One child had brought soldiers, another a card game and another some tools and wood to use to teach how to craft a special peg board. One decided spontaneously that they'd like to learn how to make certificates.

I gave each child who'd offered an activity to choose a time slot and they asked who else would like to play. Only one child didn't have any takers, and one of the adult helpers asked if they could learn.

I then gave the children the other options we'd arranged - games in the park, learning improv comedy, face-painting and collaging. The children opted for various activities and we chose when/where they would take place. We made it clear anyone could opt-in or out at any time.

Seamus with his poster for 'Camptitude', which he'd created himself.

We then kicked everything off. Most children got stuck in straight away and when their energy for one thing had run out, they simply floated around to other activities or found their own things to do with other children. No one came to me or the other adults because they were bored or feeling anxious.

Seamus, 8, asked to use a computer. I pressed him on what for, keen to get him thinking about a purpose for his screen time, but it was very clear that he had a project in mind. With very little assistance, he used Google Docs to produce a poster for 'Camptitude' - his business idea. He used Google image search to find suitable pictures, thought about what he wanted people to do as a result of seeing his poster, and wrote copy. 

One child had brought instruments, and after we'd left the morning conversation, asked if he could offer a music session.

We put his post-it up on the wall, but no one needed to go and see it - all was needed was for him to start banging a drum and suddenly a load of the others swarmed in to join him. With me on guitar, they chose roles, wrote lyrics, made up a band name and created a song (about school).

Playing 'Heads down, thumbs up' in the park.

At the park, the children chose the games. Two of the girls taught the rest of us 'Chicken, Hero, Turkey' and we played for about 30 minutes. Two of the younger boys didn't want to play and chose to go on a wildlife walk instead. We also played a few rounds of 'Heads down, thumbs up'.

It was at the park we had the closest we came to an argument, when three children couldn't agree whose turn it was to be an 'Itter'. I had the urge to step in and fix, but kept myself in check and stayed out.

In half a second they'd resolved it amicably, when one of them decided that they didn't really care and let the others get on.

The Rocking Roarers composing their song.

After that, back to the space to eat lunch together. I'd asked parents to help the children bring food to share (and if possible, for the children to be involved in the preparation). They all happily sat together, sharing the food and chatting. 

Their energy seemed to carry on into the afternoon, one boy taught the others how to make his kit, with a slightly hairy moment where two five year-olds were using hammers for the first time (with an adult watching) and the rest of the group tended towards free play.

We ended the day back together, in a circle. The 'Rocking Roarers' performed their song, the child who wanted to make certificates had made one for every child and gave them out. 

I asked them to draw or write on the walls their favourite part of the day, then we heard from each person what they thought they'd learned that day. It was a funny, insightful and touching end to the session.

They told us they'd learned:

  • working can still be fun.
  • that we can help each other.
  • how to play new games and make new things.
  • how to use tools - a hammer and nails.
  • how to play music and songs together.
  • that you can be kind to yourself as well as other people.

What we noticed and learned

At the beginning of the day, we'd set out a few 'learning arcs' I wanted us (the adults) to focus on. These helped focus our attention over the day, adding notes to them as things popped up, and going through in more detail when everyone else had gone home.

If you want to do something like this yourself, some of this might be useful. I'm happy to chat about any of it.

Space (how they used the space and how it shaped their activity)

Think about zones. It's great to have different 'zones' for different kind of activities (I'd imagined a 'quiet zone' for children who wanted to be alone would be needed, but it wasn't), but the children eventually gravitated towards each other at the end of each session.

Have a noisy, physical room. It turned out that a 'Noisy room' was more useful, where things like the Improv could happen, where shouting, jumping and bouncing on lots of bean bags could happen, without disturbing the rest of the group/space. Big soft carpets, plenty of light, all help.

Working with other tenants. We shared the space with some of the regular users of The Happy Startup School co-working space (who'd kindly let us set up there for the day) - it worked, and there are probably some lovely opportunities for interaction, but it is a conflict with noisy chaos vs focused work.

Acoustics and noise. Acoustics are important! Nine lively children in a square space with few soft furnishings will make for a lot of general noise and make it hard for people in activities in corners of the room to be heard. I found it hard to listen to and understand what some of the children were saying towards the end of the day as my energy flagged.

Group interaction (how they communicated and collaborated)

They've been 'schooled' already. So much 'school behaviour' is already baked in, even at five. I didn't ask anyone to put hands up, and encouraged them to simply respect each other's time to talk, but no one would speak without raising their hand and waiting for me to tell them it was ok to speak. They've definitely learned that adults at the front are in charge - to be obeyed and respected above all others.

Unavoidable comparisons. Although we made it very clear anyone could do anything they liked or opt-out of things at any time, some children did say it 'wasn't fair' that two of the group had chosen to go on a wildlife walk instead of joining the group games. There was something potentially unavoidable about comparing what you're doing to what someone else did, even if you enjoyed your activity very much.

They can resolve conflict. It's such a strong urge to step in when they disagree with each other, but as I explained above - the potentially serious argument that broke out was resolved within seconds by the children involved. If I had stepped in, as I usually would as a 'supervising adult', I might have had the same impact, but they'd learn they can't resolve it themselves, or that conflict is something to be scared of.

Some need to see first. A few of the children were very quiet to begin with. They didn't opt for many of the activities at sign-up and weren't keen on engaging in conversation with adults or children. But, the moment activities started, they joined in and found energy. They needed to see what was happening to understand it and feel comfortable, so patience was key to supporting them.

They choose what/who to engage with. Leading on - one child in particular just didn't want to engage in conversation, particularly with adults. They weren't trying to get a reaction, and there wasn't anything particularly 'wrong'. It seemed they simply didn't feel they were ready to engage, or that the conversation being offered was of interest. They too found their own way in later on.

No signs of 'unkind' behaviour. Maybe it was something to do with our principles (kindness, respect, working together), but there was nothing said or done that I would have described as deliberately unkind behaviour. Yes, there was a little controlling and taking of things, but nothing worse than that. Left to their own devices, it seems that children are generally, naturally kind.

Mixed age groups is a special thing. We're so used to single age classes but the age range in this group created a lovely energy and connection in the group. The older children held hands with the younger, who were very enamoured with the biggers. There was plenty of playing games between the different ages, and lots of helping.  

Behaviour is contextual. Some children are quiet in a large group, but explode with energy in a smaller setting. Some don't want to speak up when asked a question about learning, but throw their whole body and spirit into an Improv exercise. They can't be pigeon-holed as black-and-white 'types'.

Self-direction (how they chose and self-organised their activity)

Personalities rule. It might be stating the obvious but the stronger personalities dominate some of the process. When we're together, in a group, the more confident children steer what happens - they are more likely to influence what ends up on the wall. But this is an inevitable part of group dynamics, not a 'problem' to be solved, I believe. In reality, the quieter children find their way to do what they want, so the formal structures aren't all that matters. They're a small part of the picture.

Self-organising works, takes time. I'm used to working with adults and getting them to self-organise (which isn't always easy). I didn't know how much autonomy and space I could give the children to make it up for themselves. In the end I was fairly directive in my facilitation when it came to creating the timetable. It felt like they needed fairly firm structure and guidance to make this kind of new approach work for them. I imagine that over time, even the youngest of the group would be able to shape and create their day.

Relaxing into a structure. Again, as with adults the key seems to be to provide just enough structure for the children to relax, and to know how to channel their energy and ideas. Too much structure or direction and they're just doing what you tell them, too little and the whole thing will grind to a halt as they'll feel confused and overwhelmed.

Finding our own roles: As with the learning around personalities and things taking time, it was obvious that everyone finds their own place in self-organising structures in their own way. The fact that some children are more vocal than others isn't a problem, they naturally find their own place in creating the supportive structure that allows everyone to move forward over the day. The quieter children become more willing to sign up and get involved, seeing the bolder children step up. 

Learning (how their activity translated into real learning)

Improv games and freedom from the script. As one child said with surprise during the Improv games: "We can just use our imagination!" This concept of just working with what's coming up - making it up as we go along - is very familiar to children in the playground, but seemed unfamiliar to them in a 'classroom' setting. The freedom and confidence to use their minds, bodies and voices in any way they wanted, with a few simple rules, seemed to be a real moment of realisation for them.

Purposeful creativity: One child, Artemis, spontaneously asked to create certificates in the timetable co-creation/stand-up activity at the beginning of the day. As she started doing it, we talked about why - and she decided to make one for every child who attended. The thought and creative process was interesting in itself, but as a learning process, she clearly learned about designing and making certificates (what they looked like, how they needed to function) by finding a purpose for her activity.

Kindness to self: The learning that touched me the most was a quote from Seamus, said three times over the day as it had clearly been a big moment of realisation. During the initial group talk, we explored what being kind meant. We talked about the idea of being kind to oneself as well as others - not giving ourselves a hard time when things don't go how we expected. This is something that I see many adults struggling to comprehend but is the key to resilience, so it feels like a hugely valuable learning outcome.    

Writing music: From Ivor's offer of a music session, we had Dylan come up with a band name, Coco fielding and writing down all the lyrics that the other children came up with, and me giving them some sense of what a typical song structure might be. We still had lots of freestyle noisy fun, with no structure or boundaries, but everyone also learned about collaboration, self-organisation and making music.

Us (how we experience being an adult with a 'non-interventionist' role)

Parental instincts are strong: I personally found it hard to control my urge to 'step in', particularly when children seemed like they might be disagreeing. My usual behaviour with my children, and others, is to mediate any disagreements. What I realised is that this is deeply unhelpful and unnecessary. All potential arguments were solved by the children themselves, and they will have learned something in the process. It's my job to work on my ability to stay out and allow them to do it.

Presence of parents - help or not: Both myself and Gabrielle had children in the group. Gabrielle's question for herself was whether her son would have been more free and open to trying new activities if she wasn't present. It's natural for our children to behave differently when their parents are around, but if we're thinking of setting up and running co-schooling projects, we might have many parents involved. This is an open question.

I have little control: Eliza found that during the Improv sessions she had very little control (which is the idea) of the situation, as the children got into it so quickly and with such passion. She found she needed to give them a few very clear 'editing rules' for how to hold some basic structure, or she would have felt it was going too far into chaos. This line between chaos and order (the Chaordic Path) is a hard one for any person to tread intuitively but a critical skill in these situations.

What next? 

So, we had a successful and fun day, we learned a lot. Now what? 

The plan is to take these learnings into a fledgling project about creating an alternative school, with the question of how we make this kind of education accessible and available to everyone, and how to use schools to foster a healthy human ecosystem around them. 

This is an early stage inquiry into possibilities led by Yvonne Biggins (of Young Happy Minds) and myself.