Story 1: The Happiest Kids on Dirt
My kid’s doctor takes a whole person approach to medical care. She asks about what he eats and listens to his heart and checks his eyes. She also chats with him about how he is feeling in his life, how he feels at school and at home, what his days are like emotionally, where his thoughts go. He trusts her and shares openly with her.
I’m so grateful to be a bystander in these chats, because my heart fills hearing him describe his life. This spring, his entire list of complaints was “one of the kids at my school keeps taking my stuff without asking” and “I don’t like that my mom gets mad when I won’t go to bed and she has to work early”. The rest of his responses painted a picture of adventure, joy, support, free choice, community, sun, wind, rain, restorative justice, and exploration.
At one point she commented on how incredibly dirty his pants were and asked how that happened. He said he wasn’t sure, that maybe it was from when he was climbing a tree or maybe it was from digging a crab cage at the rocky beach or maybe it was from playing soccer. She laughed and said it sounded like he had an awesome day. He agreed and went on to tell her all the other awesome things he did at school that day.
After their chat, he left the room to go get a vaccine from the nurse and the doctor turned to me and said “he is the happiest kid I have had in here in as long as I can remember. So many kids his age are just not happy in their lives, and they really need to be, more than they need hours and hours of academics. And I love that you brought him straight here in his school clothes. It’s so good to see proof of kids being kids. ”
She wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know but coming from someone who works with 20+ kids everyday from all walks of life, her words struck me in a new way. She reminded me that what we are giving our WoW children is a rare gift. To have a childhood that is not lived on the fringes of time afterschool and on the weekends — after their homework is done. WoW kids are spending their childhoods living their own lives. They are figuring out what makes them happy, what doesn’t, and what they need to do and be in order to feel fulfilled in life. Because they have this space and support from their community, they are indeed the happiest group of kids I’ve ever known.
They are also often some of the dirtiest kids I have ever known — but just requires that we remember to keep a change of clothes (and shoes and a washcloth) in the car.
Story 2: Letting Go of the Trappings of Traditional Schools
WoW is about as unlike traditional American schooling as it gets. Our children spend their days playing sports and make believe. They read under the shade of old trees. They create art and music and invent new games. They eat when, where, and for as long as they want. They move when they want to move. They rest and recenter whenever they need it.
At WoW, children live their lives with as much self-direction as being part of a connected community allows for. But one thing that has been fairly traditional is the WoW schedule. WoW has had a typical school year schedule, running from early September through June and being closed for the summer.
This traditional school schedule has never really made perfect sense for WoW. The summer weather is ideal for our outdoor school. It gives us more opportunities to visit beaches and attend community festivals. Plus many of our children don’t want WoW to close for the summer. Closing in summer also meant many families were looking for camps or alternate childcare.
For all these reasons, for the past couple years, a few WoW parents would end up putting in the effort of organizing a WoW summer camp, which was basically just an extension of the WoW school year program with the addition of welcoming WoW alumni families who had moved on to other schools.
In the Spring of 2023, many of us realized that a traditional school year schedule just wasn’t serving our community needs, so we had a group discussion and decided to make some changes.
First, we decided to welcome WoW alumni families to join us in “regular WoW” as soon as their schools let out in June, rather than waiting for our summer session to start. The WoW kids have been so grateful to see their old friends sooner, and we spent June enjoying them and the new activities and experiences that they and their parents brought to the community.
Second, we decided to shift to a year-round schedule. WoW is now only closed in the summer for the first two weeks of July. Families will still take vacations and WoW will miss them while they are away, but WoW will remain open, providing a steady community for our children and families throughout the summer.
This story is so typical of WoW life. WoW children lean-in, and WoW families lean-in. Our children speak up when they imagine things could be different. When our kids express that they need something, some WoW family will step up and make it happen. We organize offerings that our kids express interest in doing, and we bring others that might peak their interests in new things. We organize tons of field trips where our children explore, learn to navigate, and see possibilities in our world. We find indoor locations for poor air quality and severe storm days. We come together and make changes to our program in response to our community’s needs.
There are many parts of WoW that won’t be changing. We let the children lead, we make decisions as a community, even when things feel urgent, and we continue to let go of the trappings and expectations of traditional schools when they don’t serve us.
Story 3: Talent Shows
In elementary school, I was required to participate in a talent show. I was given a list of talents that I could choose from to demonstrate. Act after act got on stage and did their thing. Most were miserable, but a few absolutely loved being up there. Some of the time the audience politely clapped, as we were instructed to do. I dreaded it every year.
It’s not that I think talent shows are inherently bad, but the way my school handled them was all sorts of bad. Talent shows are supposed to be about giving people an opportunity to share what brings them joy with their community. For talent shows to work, people need to know what brings them joy and have time to develop their skills. They also need to be part of a community that truly finds joy in seeing each other’s effort, growth, and success.
What brought me joy wasn’t on the list provided by the school that I could choose from, and between school, homework, and taking a very long bus ride to and from school, I never felt like I had enough time to do the things that I truly loved as a child anyway. Plus while most of us had groups that we’d call friends, we weren’t a community who were invested in our individual and collective success.
So one day while participating at WoW, the children told me that we were going to have a talent show, and I inwardly cringed as I remembered everything about the years of horrible talent shows at my elementary school. But I just smiled and said “Awesome! Let me know if you need any help.” and went back to working a word puzzle with a pair of WoW kids.
The talent show initiator traveled around to every kid and explained what they were planning, that it was at 3:00, and if they wanted to perform, to let them know so they could put their name in the showbill. Some kids declined and continued doing whatever they were doing. Other kids (and the other participating adult that day) spent the next few hours joyously practicing their acts, asking for suggestions, and getting more and more excited.
Even before 3:00, every child at WoW had gathered for the show, all cheering for it to start. I started recording on my phone, because the children wanted me to post it on Slack so the whole WoW community could watch that evening.
We had a kid MC who used plenty of humor to get the acts on and off. The audience clapped, laughed, and howled with joy and excitement as people danced, double juggled tennis balls, tossed around devil sticks, told jokes, flipped through gymnastics routines, and mimed funny stories.
It was everything that a talent show should be. People sharing what they are truly passionate about (and good at because they have time in their lives to practice!) and an audience who was overjoyed by seeing the people they care about shining up on our picnic table stage.
Once again by participating at WoW, I keep reflecting and coming to better understand what feeds us and what doesn’t, and how we can do this whole living thing even better.