One way we describe ourselves at Children First is “individualized, not institutional.” Our seeing and listening, our documenting and planning, and our hopes and dreams focus not so much on the group of 12 children, but on the astonishing and dear individuals — One Micah, One Zora, One Susanna, One Ian, One Joseph, One Annabelle — who make up that group. We aspire to be a program that belongs to the particular children and adults who inhabit it, so that it looks different every year, and even every day as children grow and change.
At Children First, children choose a sign (a picture symbol, like a moon or bell or tulip or bone or drum or carrot or, yes, a cockroach!) that will be one of the ways, along with their name, that they are represented at school. Kids’ signs identify their individual mailboxes, coat hooks, snack cups, and meeting spots; they use them as signatures on their art work and on the mail they make for friends and family; they are featured on our annual sweatshirts and t-shirts. When children graduate, their signs are retired; and remain up on our walls with their names and the graduation tiles they have painted; no one but Ayla will ever be a tulip, and no one but Sadie will ever be a cockroach.
Our curriculum is individualized because it is driven, first and foremost, by the individual goals that teachers and parents identify together for each child, and because it is informed on a daily basis by the passion and curiosity of the kids themselves.
Our schedule is individualized. Children eat snack when they are hungry, not when the clock says that everybody needs to eat. On a given day, Susanna might eat for an hour, and Zora, after a big breakfast, not at all. Elliot may spend much of his day outdoors and wait for snack until it comes outside at 11:00; Emi may not venture out until just before meeting, and eat early. Ian is done with lunch in five minutes, ready to head back to the sandbox; Ayla and Audrey linger over their food and conversation for half an hour.
You will hear Children First teachers speaking often to individual children, and seldom to the group as a whole. Likewise, not all our rules and routines are one size fits all; we think children are diminished by the sort of consistency that assumes fairness is doing the same thing for everybody, and thrive on practices based consistently on the principle, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
No child was meant to be ordinary and you can see it in them and know it too. Then the times get to them and they wear out their brains learning what folks expect and then spend their strength trying to rise over those same folks.