Children First is our children’s first experience of what will be years of schooling, and we feel a profound responsibility to make it positive. We’re probably most successful with helping kids love school when we strike a balance between honoring each individual and making the group a cohesive and dynamic entity itself, a whole to which each individual belongs, and which is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. We want the kids to feel that school is an awesome place to be, and that each of them is a uniquely awesome part of that place.
So, at Children First, we ask the children to “find a way that all can play.” We draw inspiration from Vivian Paley, the early childhood teacher who won a McArthur “Genius Grant” for her lifetime of study and writing about children’s pretend play and stories. When she set out to study the issue of childhood cruelty and exclusion, she learned from the children themselves that they long for adults to provide an unyielding expectation for kindness and safety, and a supportive structure that guarantees inclusion in their classrooms. She documents this moving process in her book, “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.”
At Children First, if two children are pretending in the loft room, and a third child walks in and says, “Whatcha doing?” they know to answer, “We’re playing Mommy and baby. Who do you want to be?” If three people are building together with blocks, and a fourth approaches, they learn to say, “We’re making a big hotel. Be careful not to knock it down. You can add some more rooms on this part if you want.” If a teacher is helping Elliot put together a puzzle he’s chosen, and Joe comes over to help, the teacher will ask, “Elliot, do you want to do this by yourself, or would you like me and Joe to help?” If Elliot wants to work alone, that’s fine — the teacher will step back and help Joe find another puzzle to do. But she won’t continue working with Elliot and exclude Joe from their partnership. On any given day, you will hear children remind each other in strong, confident voices, “Find a way that all can play! I can be Wonder Woman if I want to. We’ll have two Wonder Womans in our game.”
It's very easy to get friends here. Because people like you the minute you walk in. Even if they don't really, really like you, once you're really in there, they still do like you. And you don't even need to be nice to them. They just say, "Hi." I remember that it was easy to get into the school.