Starting a new school #4: Month 1 - Self Directed School

Rushabh Mehta
7 min readJul 19, 2019

The kids definitely seem bored. The shoulders have fallen, someone is lying on the floor, a few are aimlessly doodling. “Let’s build a new jungle gym” said one of them. Suddenly everyone takes notice, heads go up and within moments, they are screaming in unison, “Jungle Gym, Jungle Gym, Jungle Gym”.

The old jungle gym!

The old jungle gym was taken away a few days ago, and it was their favorite activity at the Sadhana Learning Center, the new learning center (school) we started since last month. In this learning center, (we can’t officially call it a school for reasons that follow), there are no classes or curriculum. Kids can learn what they want, when they want, and how they want. There are no teachers, but facilitators, whose goal is to assist learning not teach. In this case we have two fantastic facilitators in Poorva and Rajitha (checkout their blogs!), partly supported by Ranjan, a 17 year old from the neighborhood who likes to volunteer at the center. This kind of a learning is often called as learner led education or democratic learning. Checkout our website to learn more.

We had visited multiple schools and talked to many people about what really happens in such a school, where there is little or no structure. But nothing can prepare you for the day of reckoning. Here are some observations from the first few weeks.

Play

There are three zones in the learning center.

  • The Play Zone
  • The Activity (Art / Science) Zone
  • The Quiet Zone

As you may have guessed, the kids spend a lot of time in the Play Zone. For the first few days, the kids were so exhausted that they just went to sleep when they came home. In all their years at school, this had never happened. It seems that the amount of play totally wears them out. The neighboring decorator had some spare scaffolding that was lying around, and we used that to setup a make-shift jungle gym. This is where the kids really had a great time.

Their favorite game is a role play called Oxy Foxy. The scene is a pet shop. One kid is the pet shop owner and the rest are dogs or cats or foxes or more exotic animals like gorillas (that is role they designated the writer of this article). This gives the license to all of them to act like animals, jump, scream, shout. And they use the opportunity to its fullest. One time when the play got really aggressive, the younger ones were found kneeling by the door. When asked, what are role were they playing? They meekly answered, “We are stray dogs”.

Oxy Foxy probably gives the children the opportunity to express their inner animal / tribal instincts. The pet shop owner tries to assert authority. The dogs are all aggressive. The cats are meek. The strong attack the meek. The strong protect the meek. There is a lot of learning going on.

Signage at the play zone

Talk

The day usually starts with a newspaper reading session. This becomes a starting point for a lot of discussions. The newspaper has news snippets about the city, state, country, world, science, sport and such. When talking about an item, the place is located on the map. What is this place? Is it a city or a state or a country? Where is this located? Has anyone been there or near it? What is special about this place?

Both our facilitators are strong environmentalists so news about natural disasters and climate get a lot of focus. Kids are also animal fans, so news about animals and wildlife get a lot of interest. Sometimes these discussions get into “teaching zone” too. Ultimately passing on knowledge is also a natural human instinct of our facilitators. Sometimes, some of the kids start zoning out when the teaching starts.

Talk time also highlights the moods and interests of the children. Some children are extremely hard to engage, some are really curious and passionate. Some children are attention seeking and they are always eager to share their story. Such children can be distracting and it can be exhausting listening to them every time they interrupt a conversation. The younger kids don’t have the stamina to concentrate beyond a point and they can’t read much either, so they are usually listening, or slip out into the Play Zone.

Fight

When kids play a lot, they naturally have conflicts. Sometimes it is physical, like pushing, snatching, hitting. Some kids are more expressive, and their expressions of affection can be annoying to other kids. Some activities are restricted by the resource, for example playing on the keyboard or using the computer. Then there are housekeeping activities, like cleaning up the room after meals or crafts.

All these conflicts form the basis of rule making and enforcement. The kids have created a “Complaint Box” where any child can send a written complaint against someone. During a “Judiciary Meeting”, the complaint box is opened and the complaint is discussed in detail. This gives time to children to reflect on their behavior and they are handed out consequences of their actions.

Housekeeping and other responsibilities are also shared during the judiciary meeting. Children learn why rules are needed in the first place, and why it is important to follow them (so that everyone benefits and there are fewer conflicts). This is also a great way to reflect on the actions that we do and how they affect others. Even a free school needs rules!

Even after forming rules, children are not always prone to following them or protest when a consequence is handed out during the judiciary meeting. Some kids are openly rebellious and find more and more ways not to follow the rules. Conflict resolution is the stuff societies and orders are built on, and the reason why structure is useful.

Boredom

A lot of times children are just bored. There is a lot of research that shows that boredom is essential to creativity, and in our modern life, we don’t get bored enough. From the article in the Wired.

The problem, the psychologists worry, is that these days we don’t wrestle with these slow moments. We eliminate them. “We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices,” Mann says. This might relieve us temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from staring down the doldrums. Noodling on your phone is “like eating junk food,” she says.

All of us believe that this boredom needs to be encouraged and nurtured. I remember spending a lot of time as a child being bored and brooding in thoughts and daydreaming. In the depths of such boredom is probably where I discovered myself. The format of the Learning Center gives children a lot of time. Since this is still early days, children try and fill it up with play, but after a while play too gets repetitive. They will soon discover what lies on the other side of boredom!

Playing or Bored?

Activities

While most of the time is free-time, there are a few sessions too. The sessions are taken by the facilitators or the parents or the children themselves. These sessions are not mandatory, and children can allow themselves to not attend if they so wish. I have done a couple of sessions / workshops on sketching, talking about how to observe the object and measure its proportions. While I am not a good artist by any measure, it does spark some thinking and feedback.

In the first few weeks, there have been a few visitors too. Visitors are a great as they bring in new ideas and it is also a great way for us to spread the message of this kind of an education. We have had volunteers teach dance, origami and drawing. Riddhi is a volunteer who spends sometime doing dance workshops. My father spends sometime doing science experiments. I take the kids out to the neighborhood fort / park.

In the midst of all this, there was also a story telling session, a seed bomb making session, a trip to the national park and a trip to a Ganapati idol creation workshop at Parel.

Visit to Ganpati Workshop

Conclusion

It has been an exciting and fun first month at the school. Things are yet very raw and we have not yet settled down into some rhythm and structure. Either ways, the purpose of the model is to discover rather than follow a prescribed path.

The old jungle gym has been torn down. We have no idea what the new one will look like!

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Rushabh Mehta

founder, frappe | the best code is the one that is not written