Approach and policies
All children will be ready to transition without a parent in their own time according to their own needs. The best transition we can hope for is one that the parent is present at our programming until the child indicates their readiness. Not every parent can offer this kind of transition. A large part of making this transition is building trust. To build this trust, children need to be able to express their feelings to facilitators freely and easily, and see that facilitators respectfully accept their entire range of feelings. Facilitators become the safe space in the absence of parents.
At sign-up, parents will indicate if they would like to create transition plans. Parents will be involved in creating transition plans and if possible, the child will have a say also.
Facilitators are encouraged to make connections with all the children in the first couple weeks of each new session and identify kids who may need more support. Connection with these kids will help facilitators to lean on that foundation of trust when the child is feeling big feelings. If a parent indicates their wish to try to transition their child to be at our program with less parental involvement, the facilitator with a stronger connection to that child will need to be the one to “fill in the gap” and be more available to the child.
One successful strategy we have used in terms of the actual process of transitioning is to encourage the parent to truly be less available by bringing work or making a phone call in another space. The parent can sit within eyesight or some other place that is easily accessible but allows the facilitator to have a chance to be the primary caregiver for the child. As the child handles these small amounts of separation with success, eventually this distance will stretch until the parent is ready to leave. If the child cries at the separation and is not settled when the facilitator provides warmth, comfort, and acknowledgement of their feelings, the child is probably not ready for this type of transition. We are open to calling the parent to let them know that their child wishes them to return or pick them up. This may seem like a set-back, but it is in fact, another opportunity to build trust between the parent, child, and facilitator. This is part of the separation dance.
Ideally kids can come and go in and out of their parent’s care to a facilitator without judgement or pressure. A natural process looks more like extending and retracting a child’s trust boundaries according to their needs. While our society is fairly understanding of these needs in babies, we are less accepting of this natural process when it comes to children. Parents who want to promote a successful transition are encouraged to have their child attend regularly, attend for the entire session, and avoid pressuring their child. Children who are not feeling well, have had busy lives (making it difficult to connect with their primary care givers), or who have not felt safe or respected, will have harder times transitioning.
Rough play includes stick play, wrestling, and any other “horse-play”. We believe that rough play is a natural part of learning limits, building empathy, and strengthening bonds between children.
Adults who have not engaged in rough play themselves as children or with their own children may not be familiar with natural techniques adults can use to ensure all participants feel safe. If children do not appear to be having fun, facilitators can “check in” with the kids to ask if everyone is having fun and wishes the play to continue.
If it is clear that someone is not having fun the facilitator may point out the verbal and non-verbal cues that show lack of enthusiastic consent. The facilitator may ask the kids if they would like to continue playing or take a break.
Inclusion & exclusion
Adults can feel a strong reaction when they witness a child struggling to join in play. As young children move from parallel play to playing with peers, they often mimic the child they want to play with or try to get the other child’s attention in some way. Facilitators are encouraged to refrain from trying to navigate the situation or tell children how to interact. If someone is really struggling, facilitators may sportscast, repeat something that a child said and was overlooked, or ask questions to elicit a different line of thinking. If someone is REALLY struggling, the facilitator may give an opinion. “I think it is OK to say ‘no, I’m not ready to share this tool yet.’”
As children mature, they develop skills to play with peers. One step along the way that can be tricky for some children to navigate is how to engage in play that is already established. Facilitators aim to respect established play and not interject. Saying “everyone has to get along” or “everyone has to play together” is not respectful of the established play.
However, coaching a child about how to approach an established game is fine if they would like that help. Showing the newcomer how to observe the play and brainstorm ideas for ways they could ask to be included are strategies we use. If the group is especially reluctant to have someone join, asking the group questions to understand why they are reluctant may reveal a solution or reveal a need that should be respected (“I just want to play with my best friend right now” is a response that is not intended to hurt a newcomer, is related to a need, and should be respected.)
Facilitators try to help the children navigate situations in ways that are respectful of all the needs and feelings of the children involved as we believe that all children are working to develop their social skills.
Respecting the shared environment
Children need opportunities to explore their space and connect to their environment in ways that are meaningful to them. A little wear and tear to a shared environment is fine but if a child is causing permanent damage to something or destroying items that are not in abundance that are valued by the larger group or creatures in the natural environment, facilitators may request the child to stop and consider the impact their actions are having. Ideally the facilitator would also be able to help the child understand their needs and find another outlet to tap meet those needs.
We may also check in with the children to make sure that they understand the bigger picture impact their actions are having. With younger children, they may not be aware that an insect will die if its wings are injured for example. There are often multiple strategies to meet needs and multiple needs at play. Teasing out a new strategy can be tricky but we believe it is possible for everyone’s needs to be met. Facilitators do their best to not force their adult power but instead to share power, encourage understanding, and create space for everyone to make choices freely.
The trickiest part about facilitating or parenting is often dealing with our own triggered feelings. Navigating our own feelings with awareness and without self-judgement will help us when children are expressing their feelings. We need to feel safe and comfortable with our own feelings first. When we practice authenticity within ourselves, we are better able to speak honestly with others, thereby making more meaningful connections with those around us. Difficult feelings are trying to tell us something important and those feelings tend to feel resolved when we think about the needs behind those difficult feelings and honor that. When we have a lot of practice in how to handle our own powerful feelings, we become better at communicating to others in honest and direct ways. That open and honest communication style is at the center of creating healthy connection.
With this in mind, we strive to create an environment for children to express their feelings in safe ways. That means that sadness, anger, fear, and frustration are just as welcome as happiness, curiosity, and joy. Children may need help identifying their feelings and the simple act of naming their feelings might be enough to bring them peace. It feels really good to be understood by those that care about you.
When children are being hurtful to themselves or others (either physically or emotionally), a facilitator may wish to set and maintain boundaries. “You can be angry at Child B, but I cannot let you call her stupid.” A facilitator may offer alternative wording or alternative physical outlets to encourage the expression of feelings. When children are arguing, as long as no one is being hurtful, facilitators try to observe and refrain from solving the problem on their behalf.
Sometimes a facilitator may reinforce ideas that are not being heard; “Child C said she felt angry that you took the sticks from her fort without asking. She said you knew that they belonged to her fort. I just wanted to check that assumption. Did you know that fort was in active use?” Facilitators give lots of time for thinking and do not force solutions or apologies. Children have their own unique ways of rectifying problems and the solutions can be subtle or come after several days of thinking.
Dealing with fight / flight / freeze reactions
When pushed to our limits, we reach a point where our more primitive brain takes over, leaving us with fight, flight, or freeze responses. If a child has entered a state of fight, flight, or freeze, as long as they are not hurting themselves or others physically, facilitators let them run the course of their response. While threats and manipulation can use a deeper fear to stop a child’s reaction in the short term, it is not a respectful response to someone who is already operating in a state of primal emotion.
We actually see this an opportunity to strengthen trust. If a child will let us, we will guide them to a quiet, calm place or if they cannot do that, a facilitator will follow them at a distance that brings them comfort. We do our best to listen and honor reasonable requests. Actually, even some unreasonable requests are fine in the short term, until the fight/flight/freeze response is done. Once the emotion of the reaction has passed, we follow the child’s cues for calm, then reflect if they wish. We embrace the restorative value of sitting in silence and just breathing.
Talking through the issue can only happen once the child is in a calm, safe state of mind and only if a deep sense of trust exists between the child and facilitator. We take extra care to choose respectful wording at this stage as the child might be feeling sensitive or embarrassed about their strong reaction.
A child is doing something unsafe
The term “Be Careful” is used a lot when speaking to children in our culture, but it’s usually done out of habit and it expresses our fear in a not very useful way. We wouldn’t very often say “Be Careful” to an adult about to embark on something unsafe. We would state our concern in a way that shows trust in them so they can still maintain responsibility for their actions. “The logs are often very slippery after the rain and falling from that height would really hurt. Do you feel safe up there?”
If a child has pushed their own limits to a point when they don’t feel safe, we do our best to find ways for them to take ownership in their own rescuing. Facilitators do not push children to continue doing something they when they feel unsafe or refuse to help in an effort to force them to problem solve. Instead, we look for small pockets of wiggle room where we can guide them to find safety with a minimal amount of intervention on our part. Sometimes that will be reaching a hand up to a child who is about to fall.
Other times it could be more involved: “OK, Child D, I see that you feel really unsafe on that log. I’ll help you. Can you crouch down to your hands and knees? (Response.) Can you get into a sitting position? (Response.) Can you move along the log in a sitting position by scooting yourself along? (Response.) No, that still doesn’t feel safe? How about if I come to you and walk beside you as you scoot along? (Response.) OK, I hear you, you are too scared and you want off now. If I were to help you down, how should we do it? (Response.) What if I put my hands under your armpits to steady you, do you think you could climb down on your own? (Response.)”
Teaching vs. facilitating
Sometimes learners will want to do something or learn something that facilitators have some experience in. We celebrate our ability to meet their needs to learn. We teach learners as much as they wish to know in the direction they wish to learn. We do our best to respect their pace of learning and any direct and indirect communication to stop. They are more likely to return to us with questions if they feel we are approachable and respectful of their limits. Direct teaching can be a great tool to those who request it but we also don’t want to get so caught up in the joy of sharing our knowledge that we miss our cues to stop!
There is a big temptation to force or manipulate children to tidy up. Because children have often been threatened or manipulated into cleaning up in other contexts, sometimes we come up against a lot of resistance. We establish rhythms so that children recognize what activities are acceptable to the group during tidy up time and what activities are not. During tidy up time, we help children to preserve their work or play (which is also work) so that they can continue it for next time.
If a child is looking lost we might say “We’re tidying up now. Would you like a job so that you can help too?” Or “I’d like to put the book away but the bin is heavy. Would anyone like to help me?” As children get used to the rhythm of tidying up and where things go, recognize that their work will be respected and is not threatened by tidying up, and that they will not be forced to tidy, they can begin to choose to tidy up.
Younger children may find tidy up time to be especially tricky because they might have a mix of emotions and needs that they are suddenly trying to express. The energy can rise during tidy up time because everyone is suddenly busy and there is a sense of urgency because our time together is ending, so some kids may suddenly be acting out some unresolved needs to play, to be heard, sadness about leaving, etc. We try to leave lots of time and space for the expression of these needs by having a slow and leisurely tidy up time.
We Learn Naturally is a technology neutral organization. We are reading the research that has gone through the rigors of the scientific method, keeping in mind that anything we read is subject to change because research on digital use is in its infancy. We enjoy technology as adults, yet we also know that technology can be manipulative. Technology is sometimes demonized in the popular media which makes it really challenging to navigate heated discussions. As adults, some of our fears surface around the topic of kids and technology use.
Generally we do not impose limitations on technology in our programs because through observation and conversation, we understand children’s reasons for using it. If we feel a need to impose limits on a child’s use of technology, it would be a very rare occurrence. There are a lot of benefits that can come from using technology and social media. Conversations that can recognize the benefits and the drawbacks are often felt as respectful to children who really love exploring the world through technology and social media.
Boundaries and permissiveness
Some adults struggle with this style of education because they mistake sharing decision making power and non-coercion as being permissive. We would like to make it clear that boundaries are important and, in fact, vital to creating the kind of world where all people are respected.
Some children come from a place where they have not had much freedom and being in an environment where they are given that freedom can lead to some exploration of where the boundaries are. Other children are naturally more dominant or submissive and may need help to recognize their boundaries and the boundaries of others. This can be exhausting for facilitators and other kids but it is part of the process of learning about boundaries, consent, and self-awareness. Helping kids to understand their own limits and the limits of others is an important part of our work.
Sometimes it is a challenge for us as adults to tease apart our own needs from our power to exert control and create rules. As facilitators, if a child wants to do something and we feel an urge to stop it, we often explore the idea internally first, then with another facilitator if possible. Why are we wishing it would stop? Facilitators may bring it up with the child and see if there is another strategy that can be used so that everyone’s needs can be met.
Respecting learners where they are at
We believe that children will learn when their needs are met and they are developmentally ready. It takes a long time for kids to feel safe in a physical space and with new people. Children arrive with a variety of needs and if they have not had opportunities to meet those needs in the past or those needs are strong, they may choose to meet those strong needs for much of their time with us. This is healthy and normal. The need to play in children is strong and they often do not get chances to play freely for long periods of uninterrupted time. It is not unusual for kids to wish to play as a way to connect with others, connect to a new space, connect with themselves, explore ideas that they see in the world, and pursue their learning.
Our programs focus on Self-Directed Education, so unless requested, we do not directly teach concepts of math or literacy or any other subject. As children explore the world and encounter concepts and terms, they discover what interests them and absorb what they are ready to absorb. As facilitators, we like to use observational statements as opposed to labels when it comes to respecting learners where they are at. (e.g. “He is not reading words yet” vs “He is a non-reader”)
As adults who live in a society that values traditional school timelines, it can be challenging to create space for kids to learn at their own pace. We do our best to explore our own hang-ups about when a child “should” read or write. We look for ways to notice what learners can do in math or where their curiosity has lead them in the sciences. We are learning all the time, all of us. The challenge is to value all types of learning and to celebrate learning outside of a prescribed timeline.